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Keerthy Suresh as Savitri in 'Mahanati'/'Nadigaiyar Thilagam'.
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When director Nag Ashwin approached Keerthy Suresh to play Savitri, she was quite skeptical about pulling it off. "I had a lot of doubts in mind. I wasn't sure if I could do justice to my role, but now, I feel both humbled and ecstatic. The film is running to packed theatres. It's definitely my most mature performance yet," she says. Excerpts from a conversation with the much-celebrated actor:
What does all this appreciation mean to you?
I am still searching for words to describe the feeling. It's hard to know how to react when people tell me they saw Savitri amma in me. I can't thank Nag Ashwin enough for the opportunity. He had so much faith in me and narrated the story for three hours. I was spellbound by the amount of research he had done. He met artistes, writers who worked with her... Pre-production went for almost a year. He decided to cast me after seeing my performance in Thodari.
You have so far stuck to playing conventional heroine roles. This was quite different.
Yes. I realised it was a huge responsibility; Savitri amma was a great actor. Many told me I was blessed to get to reprise her role. One can learn so much from the last few years of her life. I don't think I will land such a prestigious project again. When I saw my posters and banners promoting the film, I felt a sense of pride.
Were you moved by her life?
Absolutely. Savitri amma died young, and yet, she left behind a legacy. Her life was full of ups and downs, and we approached it with honesty. Mahanati is a celebration of her life as an actor. I enjoyed shooting for the first half because it was lively. I had great chemistry with Rajendra Prasad, who plays my paternal uncle in the film. There comes a turning point where my character loses her grip on reality and takes to alcohol. While those portions were being shot, I remember feeling heavy and depressed. I ate little. I couldn't stop thinking about how Savitri amma would have felt. I remember those lonely nights in the hotel room being very sad.
p>I talk a lot in general but was very quiet while shooting for this biopic. Till a few ADs pointed this out, I didn't realise it.
What did you like about Savitri?
Though she faced failures, she was a stubborn person. I liked that trait. She was bold, playful and humorous. I revisited her films including Mayabazar, and I think that famous scene in it was a really difficult one. Also, I realised Savitri amma and I have a few interests in common -- like swimming, car-racing and playing cricket. I used to scare kids by folding my eyebrows and I was told Savithri amma used to do that, too.
Later in her life, though she was addicted to alcohol, she was respected by everyone. She yearned for it.
There is also this unbelievable humane side to Savitri amma. She was extraordinarily giving. Even in the last stage of her career, she gave whatever money she had saved to the poor. Normally, I give silver coins to my crew after the shoot is over. For Mahanati, I gave gold coins.
How did you prepare for the biggest role of your career?
The biopic focuses on the off-screen side of Savitri amma. We were in touch with Savitri amma's daughter, Vijaya Chamundeswari. She dropped in by the sets many times to guide and encourage us. She told us many things including Savitri amma being left-handed and how she would wear her bindi.
My mother (actor Menaka) was also helpful in giving us inputs. A lot of her friends (from the 80s) knew Savitri amma. Besides, Nag Ashwin gave me a pen drive that had separate folders with much content from her films including emotional scenes and humourous scenes. I kept watching them. We also relied on newspapers, radio interviews, and letters she had written to others.
I heard you had to wear 120 costumes for the film.
That's the best thing about Mahanati. We did extensive work on the costumes. We explored a variety of prints, silks and handwoven saris. Also, I wore the same kind of antique jewellery that Savitri amma used to wear. We mainly drew references from her films -- Devadas, Pelli Chesi Choodu and Missamma.
Cinematographer Dani Sanchez-Lopez has done a fantastic job. Those black and white portions were shot on reel. He was patient enough to compose each frame with passion and love. Despite being from Spain, he put in effort to learn about our old films.
Before the release, there were questions over your ability to play Savitri.
I can never be Savitri amma, completely, and you can't satisfy everybody. Originally, I wasn't aware of the negative comments. Even I was confused when the trailer was released. I didn't think I looked like her. But I was content after my family and friends appreciated me.
More than the acting, I was worried about dubbing. It took 11 days for me to dub in Telugu. During the press meet in the city, Madhan Karky (lyricist) shared with me some comments he saw on Twitter. Only then did I realise there was so much hatred. Now that the film has been released, my Twitter page is exploding with positive feedback.
There were reports that you had put on weight for the role.
I was shocked to see them. And no, we just used prosthetics and pads. I actually shed a few kilos because I needed to look young. I used to have makeup on my face for four hours and shoot for eight hours. I couldn't laugh or eat. I was frozen in a sense.
Any chance you will do another biopic?
I think this is the first and the last. (smiles)