Mahanati Review: An emotional masterpiece
Director Nag Ashwin has pulled off a casting coup of sorts and given a film that will be remembered for years to come, much like the phenomenal actor whose life it is based on
The very idea of Savitri’s biopic is exciting for two reasons -- she was such a legend and never before has the story of a famed actor been told onscreen in southern cinema. For any biopic, it's important for the director to find actors who resemble the characters they play on screen. Director Nag Ashwin has pulled off a casting coup of sorts and given us a case study of the prolific actor.
Cast: Keerthy Suresh, Dulquer Salmaan, Samantha, Vijay Deverakonda
Direction: Nag Ashwin
An ambitious journalist Madhuravani (Samantha) and photographer Anthony (Vijay Deverakonda) are entrusted with the job of discovering the life of Savitri before she slipped into a coma, battling for life. After a press meet with Gemini Ganesan (Dulquer Salmaan), the duo observes one Keshava (Naresh Vijaya Krishna) holding a bunch of flowers, hesitant to enter the actor’s house. They believe that there's more to the story than what's being told and meet Keshava, who tells them that Savitri is a great actor and asserts that this will hold true for generations to come.
We then get introduced to childhood friends Savitri (Keerthy Suresh) and Susheela (Shalini Pandey) performing theatre productions in a hamlet near Vijayawada. She is driven to learn dance by her uncle KV Chowdary (Rajendra Prasad) who finds there’s a lot of money in it. Following a suggestion from a relative, Chowdary takes the 14-year-old Savitri to Madras, the then citadel of South India cinema, to try her luck in acting. We get a glimpse of 60s Madras comprising horse carts, trams and film studios filled with shifting lights, props, outfits, cameras, and huge sets, which authenticate the movie’s background.
Savitri starts making strides in acting, and find herself attracted to her co-star in the Tamil film Manampol Mangalyam, Gemini Ganesan. As she starts shooting for Akkineni Nageswara Rao’s Devadas, in real life, she finds herself discussing the film with Ganesan who makes a startling revelation about his marriage to Alimelu (Malavika Nair). "I am married to Alimelu due to some unforeseen circumstances and have two kids. But, I find love in you," confesses Ganesan, much to her astonishment. He adds, "Pelli aina vadu premalo padithe, adhi pelliki pareeksho...prema ki pareeksho." This conversation defines the relationship between the duo and is also the turning point of the film. It’s a credit to Ashwin’s screenplay that one can understand and empathise with her, although there are many reasons one might not easily comprehend why she has chosen this path when everything seems alright.
Mahanati presents the events from Savitri's life in chronological order. She has several facets to her personality like innocence, impulsiveness, stubbornness, generosity and explosiveness. Usually, we get to see biopics that were bloated, but here, the director is sensible enough to decide what works for the film, while staying loyal to the story. It's a difficult task to squeeze the story of a legendary actor into 157 minutes without it feeling like a slog. The makers have not been hesitant to depict the darker aspects of the tragic life of Savitri and most of the second hour is confined to showing her life spiral down due to betrayal, loneliness and financial crisis.
The director takes his own sweet time to reveal all the cards. Each time you think you've got it all figured out, another surprise hits you out of the blue. That's not to say you haven't guessed some of the events happened in Savitri's life in advance. The film’s pace is not an issue as you completely sink into the heart-wrenching narrative. The story whisks us through the life of Savitri, from her childhood to rise to fame and the tumultuous relationship conundrums to double-crosses. By the time you learn that nothing is what it seems, and nobody can be trusted, we see her tragic demise at the age of 46.
Of the cast, Keerthy Suresh is a revelation and stands out with her portrayal of the legendary actor. She's got the body language right and makes the character's emotions palpable. She makes you root for her as she accomplishes her goals with determination, refusing to give up, not bogged down by failures. It's a phenomenal performance and the key to keeping us invested in the story especially in the boring and predictable second hour. Dulquer Salmaan makes quite an impression with his amazing performance and brings believability to his Gemini Ganesan. The film also has a slew of striking cameos -- directors Srinivas Avasarala (LV Prasad), Krish (KV Reddy), Sandeep Reddy Vanga (Vedantam Raghavaiah) and Tharun Bhascker Dhassyam (Singeetam Srinivasa Rao), Mohan Babu (SV Ranga Rao), Prakash Raj (Chakrapani) and Naga Chaitanya (ANR). Rajendra Prasad makes his presence felt, and Vijay Deverakonda and Samantha provide wonderful support. Dani Sanchez-Lopez's cinematography is scintillating, while Mickey J Meyer’s songs and background score elevate the mood of the film.
This weekend, do yourself a favour and take this trip into the 60s to witness the sparkling performance of Keerthy Suresh and the able storytelling of Nag Ashwin. Like Savitri, Mahanati will be remembered for many years to come.