Ms. Representation: Citizen Savitri
Keerthy Suresh-starrer Mahanati is a masterclass in mythmaking that has the potential to create a formula for ‘mass moments’ and ‘mass stars’ out of our leading ladies…
In search of this film’s ‘Rosebud’Shankaraiyya, journalist Madhuravani (Samantha who’s rocking that 70s look through the film and delivers a sweet monologue in the end but really acts as our window into the mind of the director) ends up discovering more about one of Telugu and Tamil cinema’s biggest stars, Savitri. Savitri herself playeda Madhuravani in the 1955 movie adaptation of the play Kanyasulkam alongside NT Rama Rao, with Ghantasala’s music. I also thoroughly enjoyed the idea of one woman going in search of another’s story and in the process finding herself and her voice, while in Citizen Kane, to which this must be a tribute, is about two men.
The movie of course in its entirety belongs to Keerthy Suresh as Savitri andthen to Dulquer Salman in his career-best as Gemini Ganeshan. Dulquer plays serial faller-in-love-with-women, Gemini with a lot of dignity and is earnest in his portrayal of Gemini’s vacillations – his inability to handle marriage as well as Savitri’s success. The film alsoreminded me of that classic which comes to everyone’s mind when they hear of a husband who’sable to handle his wife’s success – Abhimaan.
So far as its mythmaking is concerned, Mahanti must, should and will join the league of films that made mega, super and ultimate stars out of male actors.It sets out to create an aura around its leading lady, and does so not in any new-age subversive cinematic way but earnestly. This is not a kitschy tribute. That’s what I enjoyed the most.Why should these indulgences be reserved exclusively for men? How many movies have I sat through watching the hero be lifted to extraordinary heights through carefully constructed devices? Nag Ashwin (the director) uses all of them to help us see the way he sees Savitri. Like a rockstar and in a format that is palatable to our audiences.
From the opening scenes, where you don’t see her face, but just parts of an unconscious Savitri – now a silhouette, now a hand outstretched, now the legs, and the chants of her name by a crowd that’s gathered outside the hospital as a Chief Minister runs in to see how she’s doing,to the build up by various people from her past who come to Madhuravani and talk her up, her flashback – showcasing the formative years,to that scene in which Gemini Ganesan brings her out to the terrace to see a crowd thronging her home as he lifts her arm up and the crowd goes berserk, various scenes in whichshe just generously throws her wealth to those who need it (in one scene not satisfied with cutting a cheque to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund, she takes out all the jewels just on her person but also on her daughter’s and then donates it all away, following which three officers salute her and she returns it in style),then later, when she is in need none she has helped wants to part with their wealth…The fact that we are dealing with someone we all know and recollect in this role, adds much weight to the narrative.
Also enjoyable was Keerthy as Savitri thumbing her nose at anyone telling her she wouldn’t, couldn’t do something – shed two tear drops exactly from one eye for a scene without glycerin, race a vintage car that she owns and win – a characteristicthat added a dash of the personal to the director-writer’sversion of Savitri breaking the glass ceiling andturning chauvinists into fans along the way. Everyone from that era of course remembers with part fondness and part awe just how fond she was of vintage cars.
Inthe scenes that deal with romance, both Keerthy and Dulquer shineeven as ThotaTharani’s elegant sets are aglow in a golden yellow as if Madras of yorehad been bathed in the warmth of Mediterranean sun, the colour of nostalgia in Nag’s mind perhaps. In the recreation of the song Aha Na Pellanta,Keerthy is at her absolute best in the film. In that song featuring Savitri in Mayabazaar was the beginning of a new type of heroine whose emotions changed nineteen to the dozen in a matter of a few seconds - the faux coy, playful, unabashed type. This was a fitting tribute. The audience that had on and off hooted or made appreciative noises every now and then until then decidedly gave Keerthy a hearty round of applause and I heard a lot of ‘yays’. It was thrilling to be a part of something that wonderful.
My favourite part of the movie however is when Savitri loses her cool upon seeing Gemini with another woman. It is a sort of hysterical outpouring – one that combines grief, anger and pride – that felt very familiar to me. One that I hadn’t seen women in our commercial cinema express in a long, long time. As Savitri slapped herself, drove in anger, snapped at Geminiusing a punch dialogue, and thenproceeded to break things at home… the hall went from stunned silence to hoots.Perhaps to break the ice (pun unintended) or perhaps to add an element of shock and awe, the first two times Savitri takes to drink are shown in a somewhat cinematic manner – she just swigs it all in. Whoosh. Slowing down the pace here would have truly driven home the idea of alcoholism better. To Nag’s credit he quickly picks up after that and shows her(Keerthy in a body suit representing weight gain which he hints at as being a part of her self-sabotage to earn less than Gemini), sitting in stupor, slowly but surely approaching the point of no return.
For its nostalgia in recreating some beloved scenes of South India’s most adored actress,for Keerthy Suresh’sreckoning as something really big, for how it builds up the woman in the centre, for finally giving us a female Devdas, one who walked amidst us… Mahanati is worth more than one watch.