Southern Lights: Great Actress, Middling Biopic

Thoughts about and around biopics and ‘Mahanati’, starring Keerthy Suresh and Dulquer Salmaan
Southern Lights: Great Actress, Middling Biopic

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' 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.

Mahanati features a few juicy scenes that take us directly into the psyche of its heroine – like the one where Savitri discovers Gemini Ganesan has been unfaithful to her

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."

Over the years, anecdotes get magnified and distorted and calcified into truth, and no one but the people who lived these lives know what really happened. For instance, maybe a producer saw Gemini Ganesan snap at Savitri in a studio, but that can only be used as the basis for one instance of Gemini Ganesan snapping at Savitri in that particular studio. It cannot be extrapolated into "Gemini Ganesan kept snapping at Savitri." Writing about stars – whether a book or a screenplay – is doubly difficult, because so much gets written about them, and after the decades roll on, as the principal players pass on, it's extraordinarily difficult to separate truth from fact, fact from gossip.

Some of the controversies surrounding Mahanati have been about the portrayal of Gemini Ganesan as the one responsible for almost everything to do with Savitri. He made her comfortable with Tamil dialogues. He gave her the first taste of liquor. He convinced her to marry him. He was responsible for her mood swings, because he couldn't bear that she was becoming more successful. This doesn't bother me much, because in my view, this is the way the director sees this story (it's his point of view), not necessarily the way it actually played out in real life – though it may not have helped that, in the opening credits of, say, Kaathirundha Kangal, the name that appears first is 'Nadigaiyar Thilagam' Savitri Ganesan, and only then do we get the card with Gemini Ganesan's name, without any kind of honorific. It helps to have in mind that this is "based on" a life, and not the actual life.

In The Indian Clerk (2007), the American writer David Leavitt viewed the relationship between GH Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan through the lens of Hardy's homosexuality. The New York Times review said something very interesting: "In the most common type of historical novel, invented characters inhabit a real place at a particular point in time… the author may decide which real events (if any) should touch their lives. The second type, rarer in so-called literary fiction, is a novel about people who really existed, recreated by an author who plays with the facts, and especially the intriguing lacunae, of their lives." Extending this line of thought, I don't go to a biopic for factual accuracy, but more for a sense of the life being depicted on screen. It doesn't bother me that the equivalents of MGR and Karunanidhi, in Iruvar, may not have met in a studio. But this makes the scene richly dramatic, and that is the film's primary responsibility, to be cinema first.

Mahanati features a few juicy scenes that take us directly into the psyche of its heroine – like the one where Savitri discovers Gemini Ganesan has been unfaithful to her. She doesn't collapse in a pitiful heap. What we glimpse is anger. Ever since I saw Punnagai Mannan, Gemini Ganesan has always reminded me of the Delhi Ganesh character, who just can't keep collecting wives. You wouldn't call him a womaniser – he doesn't use and throw. He just finds there's room in his heart for another woman… And another… And another… I find this strangely sweet, but Savitri was surely destroyed. She lashes out at the new woman, but she's really lashing out at herself, for placing her life in this man's hands.

But the scene would have been more powerful if we'd been given an incisive insight into the Savitri-Gemini Ganesan courtship, if we had felt their passion. The film, instead, opts to be a visual Wikipedia. It wants to cram in everything about Savitri's life – a childhood friend; turning to direction (which seems to take all of one second) – and none of these events linger enough to say anything significant, something that we couldn't find on…  Wikipedia. Biopics work best when you take one aspect of a life and zoom in real close. Lawrence of Arabia runs some three-and-a-half hours, and yet it only concentrates on the protagonist's involvement with Arabian tribes during World War I. The recent (and terrific) TV show, Feud, focuses only on the latter-day careers of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

Mahanati, despite its numerous failings, cannot be easily dismissed – because it remembers a forgotten era, whose clips are lovingly recreated via scratchy prints and computerised colour

There are many potential zoom-in points in Savitri's life, and her relationship with Gemini Ganesan is just one. Her Telugu career is another. Her Tamil career – and her coexistence with more glamorous stars like Saroja Devi and Jayalalitha – is a third. Each of these could be its own movie, but one movie cannot take us through all these phases satisfactorily. And the result, in Mahanati, is a lack of emotional connect, with everything appearing to happen at a distance. The one aspect that the film keeps stressing on is that Savitri was a good person, a kind and generous and trusting person. But mere goodness, beyond a point, is hard to take on screen. It's one-note. The only texture comes from Dani Sanchez-Lopez's cinematography. The early scenes, when Savitri falls into a coma, glow with a heavenly light, as though hinting that the end is near, and by the time Savitri's personal and professional lives take a downturn, the frames are filled with shadows. It's wonderful visual melodrama – and the staging, too, harks back to olden times. A turbulent seaside conversation between Gemini Ganesan and Savitri is punctuated by lashing waves; it's the kind of emotional underlining that was a fixture of films as late as the ones made by K Balachander.

And that may be the reason Mahanati, despite its numerous failings, cannot be easily dismissed – because it remembers a forgotten era, whose clips are lovingly recreated via scratchy prints and computerised colour. There is a ton of overemphasis. The doctor who treats Savitri, after her coma, asks, "Who is Savitri?" Madhuravani says Savitri is "just a coma patient." (Yes, yes, we get it. She's been forgotten!) And the names – Marcus Bartley, Nageswara Rao, Anjali Devi, Vijaya Vauhini studios – are dropped like ten-ton bricks. "My name is Ramaswamy Ganesan. But people call me Gemini Ganesan," goes a line of dialogue. When Savitri and her uncle land up at a studio, he asks someone the name of the movie being shot. "Shavukaru," comes the answer. He asks who the heroine is. "Janaki," comes the answer. By now you'd think everyone knows who the heroine is, but the uncle is then seen muttering to himself. "Shavukaru Janaki!"

Keerthy Suresh proves to be an excellent mimic – her best scenes are the ones where she replicates Savitri's performances

This level of idiot-proofing is laughable, but looked at another way, I was oddly touched by the filmmaker's fear that no one would get it unless he really drove the point home, with nails and a hammer. That is the audience that frequents theatres today, and to make a biopic – a heroine-centric one (as opposed to, say, one about NTR) – based in that era takes some kind of guts. And the endeavour clearly struck a chord, for many big names from Telugu cinema pop up in small parts. In Tamil cinema, you won't find stars like Samantha Akkineni and Vijay Deverakonda in such second-fiddle roles.

The biggest surprise of Mahanati is Keerthy Suresh. She overdoes the wide-eyed naiveté in the early portions, but she gradually settles into the role. And she proves to be an excellent mimic – her best scenes are the ones where she replicates Savitri's performances. And from certain angles, she really does look like Savitri. (I have seen her in many films, but have never noticed the resemblance.) Other instances of spot-on casting include Mohan Babu as SV Ranga Rao and Naga Chaitanya as Nageswara Rao. The latter may not be much of a stretch, but think of how unlike his father Nagarjuna looks, more conventionally studly, whereas Naga Chaitanya has the shy eyes and frail frame of his grandfather. And what about Dulquer Salmaan? He looks nothing like Gemini Ganesan – he's too hip, too contemporarily heroic. And – sacrilege ! – he's never seen in flapping pyjamas. But he nails the charm, and he shows you the essence of a man who loved women. He is what a biopic should be. It's not about exactness. It's the essence.

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