Great actress, middling biopic

Posted on May 31, 2018


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Thoughts about and around biopics and ‘Mahanati’, starring Keerthy Suresh and Dulquer Salmaan.

As a Tamilian – or at least, as someone more familiar with Savitri’s work in Tamil cinema – Nag Ashwin’s Mahanati (Great Actress) felt incomplete. (There is a Tamil version titled Nadigaiyar Thilagam, but I saw the film in Telugu.) From the actress’s films that were made in Tamil too, Mahanati shows bits of films like Missiamma and Paasamalar (though with a heavy dubbed-from-Telugu feel) and a poster of the ill-fated Praptham, and there’s a very brief stretch – around the time there was the demand for a separate Telugu state –that shows Savitri, who was born into a Telugu-speaking family, struggling with Tamil lines. But given that so many Telugu stars are referenced, there’s no Sivaji Ganesan on screen – and he was, in Tamil cinema, her male equivalent, Nadigar Thilagam. The two appeared in many memorable films like Ratha Thilagam and a series of Bhimsingh’s so-called ‘Pa’ films, whose names began with that letter. And then there were the mythological multi-starrers (Thiruvilaiyaadal, Thiruvarutchelvar, Saraswathi Sabadham). There’s no mention of MGR either, with whom Savitri starred in Vettaikaaran. And what about Savitri as the young Kamalahasan’s mother in Kalathur Kannamma?

At least career-wise, then, Mahanati is only half a biopic – and I admit the problem is less the movie’s than mine. With public figures, we form our associations through the work they do, and when almost all this work (that I know well) is missing, the figure on screen begins to feel like a stranger. You want to know what it was like for Savitri to come face-to-face with Sivaji Ganesan and MGR. Was there apprehension from her side? From their side? What was it like – in the shockingly-emaciated-character-artist phase of her career – to play an older woman with greyish morals, who nudges the heroine into a career as a cabaret dancer, in Vattathukkul Sathuram? It’s important to show the professional side along with the personal milestones – but it’s the director’s prerogative, and if he’s chosen to focus on the Telugu actress Savitri rather than the Tamil-Telugu actress Savitri, you have to go with it.

There are many ways to make a biopic, and Nag Ashwin chooses a rather charming framing device set in the 1980s, with Savitri’s story being researched by journalist Madhuravani (Samantha Akkineni) and photographer Vijay Anthony (Vijay Deverakonda; his Arjun Reddy co-star, Shalini Pandey, also has a role in this film). The culmination of this track, in a church, greatly warmed my rom-com-loving heart, and the actors are fun to watch. But there’s more. Even as this track provides much-needed relief from the heaviness of Savitri’s story, it keeps harking back to the actress. Her resilience gives Madhuravani confidence. And her film Missiamma, with its angle of a Christian woman (though she’s really a Hindu) and a Hindu man working together, is reflected in the Madhuravani- Vijay Anthony relationship.

But what really thrilled me was the scene where Madhuravani approaches someone to tell her something about Savitri, and he asks how she is qualified to write about the actress. Madhuravani wonders: “Why does one need to be qualified to write a story on a cine star?” It’s the general contempt that used to accompany “film journalism,” which wasn’t considered an area of specialisation then – and in many places, even now. It felt good to hear a movie about a big star make this point – though I wish the film itself had taken this lesson to heart. Writing a screenplay (this one’s credited to Siddhaarth Sivasamy) is a lot like writing a long-form article, or a biography. You do your research, collect the facts, and then, you write with a point of view – with the understanding that the “facts” aren’t necessarily the “truth.”

Continued at the link above.

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