To make a biopic on the acting legend Savitri is to scan the pages of South Indian film history, according to Telugu filmmaker Nag Ashwin. “It’s difficult to separate cinema, history and her,” Ashwin said about his film Mahanati, which stars Keerthy Suresh as the screen goddess and Dulquer Salmaan as her on-screen and off-screen partner, Gemini Ganesan. “You cannot talk about NT Rama Rao, KV Reddy, Akkineni Nageswara Rao or Sivaji Ganesan without talking about Savitri. There are so many people who are the founding pillars of our film industry – directors, producers, actors and actresses – who were very closely associated with her. Telling her story is, in a way, like exploring the origins of our cinema.”
Made in Telugu and in Tamil with the title Nadigaiyar Thilagam, Mahanati also stars Samantha, Mohan Babu and Prakash Raj. Produced by Vyjayanthi Movies, which is headed by Priyanka and Swapna, the biopic is scheduled to be released on May 9.
Ashwin has attempted a cradle-to grave account of the woman who was one of the biggest stars of South Indian cinema. Born on December 6, 1934, in Guntur district in Andhra Pradesh, Savitri acted in stage productions as a child. She made her debut in the Telugu movie Pelli Chesi Choodu in 1952, and notched up several hits in her mother tongue as well as in Tamil. Her list of critical and commercial hits is long, and includes Devadas (1953), Missamma (1955), Mayabazar (1957), Kalathur Kannama (1959), Pasamalar (1961), Karpagam (1963) and Thiruvilayadal (1967).
Savitri was also a producer, director, singer and race car driver. “There was so much material and so much drama in all of it,” Ashwin said. “It is really hard to turn the life story of a person into a film. If you see biopics made in America, they are more often than not focussed on a part of a person’s life. But I decided to make a film on Savitri’s entire life because this is possibly one of the only occasions anyone is going to make a film on her.”
His research involved referring to books, one in English and four in Telugu, listening to audio interviews of the actress and speaking to surviving peers and collaborators. “There are some veteran journalists too who gave me a lot of inputs,” he said. “The entire writing process took nine months – as I’d write, more people would give me suggestions about what I should write and who else I should meet.”
Mahanati will ultimately be about a “rock star” who holds lessons for the present generation, according to the director. “Phenomenally talented, she was extremely generous to a fault,” he said. “She was extremely loving too. A multi-tasker, she was a director, playback singer, producer. She was also a race car driver and there are trophies that she won. When you see those angles to her life story, you realise she deserves to be remembered today.”
Did Ashwin omit any portions from Savitri’s life that were controversial? She was Gemini Ganesan’s third wife, with whom she had a daughter and son. Her productions were not always successful, and she battled alcoholism, which led to her early death at the age of 47 on December 26, 1981.
“I don’t think there was any need simply because of the sheer duration of our story,” Ashwin said. Mahanati spans four decades. “I also think there was no fear of delving into any controversy because there is so much drama in her life as it is,” he added. “As an example, she literally jumped the wall from her house to go be with Gemini Ganesan – so that’s not even something filmy that you can think of. That’s what she did. She ran barefoot in the rain to be with him.”
Viewers who choose to be offended will be anyway, Ashwin added. “Or, they can choose to ignore some offensive things also quite easily, so you really don’t know which way it goes.”
Mahanati is a far more ambitious project than Ashwin’s debut film, the coming-of-age drama Yevvade Subrahmanyam (2015). Ashwin’s work experience as a casting director for Sekhar Kammula came in handy when he started scouting for actors for Mahanati. The challenge was not only in selecting the leads, but also the actors for the smaller roles. “The choice of Keerthy, Dulquer and others for the main roles was by and large instinctive, but it was the smaller cast that we needed to look for,” Ashwin said. “We auditioned people for months. We needed certain kinds of faces – what I call a period face. We’ve been greasing the period machine in terms of actors, costume, hair and make-up. If there is a crowd behind Savitri, all of them in that group have to be dressed as they would in the era being depicted. Their hair, the props, the pens in their pocket – everything needs to be from that time.”
The costume designer, Indrakshi Pattanaik, had to source clothes and accessories that spanned 40 years. “One day, we are shooting a scene from the 1950s and the next day, we’d move on to the 1980s,” Pattanaik said. “Ashwin was very clear about what he wanted right when he asked me to meet him. We created costume banks for each era. He is the first director who has said things like, let the material be crushed, let it look like she has worn this a hundred times.”
Pattanaik was not familiar with Savitri or her films when she joined the production. “Swapna, who is one of the producers of the film, showed me Savitri’s pictures and I remember being stunned by how beautiful she was,” Pattanaik said. “There is very little archival material related to the southern film industries. So I went about gathering material on the fashion of the 1940s to the ’80s by posting on Facebook and Twitter and asking people to send pictures of their family members and elders. People shared what their grandmothers and aunts wore and sent me passport-sized pictures. Soon, my inbox was flooded.”
The research was not limited to the outer garments. “To recreate the clothes as accurately as possible, I had to also understand, for instance, what kind of lingerie people wore,” Pattanaik revealed. “I ordered conical bras, for example. In the post-war independent era, people started experimenting with clothes – inner wear, sheer sarees.”
Pattanaik also referred to the dressing style of the stars of the era. Akkineni Nageswara Rao commonly wore a bow tie, for instance, while Ganesan wore fitted, high-waisted trousers, fitted shirts and t-shirts, Pattanaik said.
Savitri’s daughter, Vijaya Chamundeswari, helped Pattanaik recreate the costumes in their original colours. “She’d be on speed dial all the time and I’d call her for small things like the colour of the uniform that she wore in school,” Pattanaik explained. “She’d send me a picture of a leaf to point out the correct colour.”
Even minor details, such as the bindis Savitri wore, or the styling of her blouses, had to be kept in mind. “Savitri wore round bindis when she was at home, while her epic eye-drop bindi was for public appearances and press events, “Pattanaik said. “We also kept track of her weight gain and loss and worked with prosthetics to depict the fluctuations.”
To distinguish between the decades spanned by the story, the production crew designed four colour palettes. “Unlike now, we don’t have any behind the scenes footage from the film sets of the 1950s and the ’60s,” said Shivam Rao, the head of production design. “The beauty of this film is its switch between black and white and colour. Films were shot in black and white, but the sets are in colour. So, when we show a scene from the film, the footage will be in black and white and when we say cut, it will switch to colour. We would have discussions about what colour was given to a set to achieve greys or dark blacks in the films.”
Savitri’s early years in the film industry are tinged with shades of green, to symbolise the newness of her endeavour, Rao said. After she moved to Chennai and became a star, maroons, dark greens and a lot of gold enter her life, both in the costumes and in the furniture. “We’ve also used a lot of wide frames to signify the scale of things visually corresponding to her stardom,” Rao revealed. “When Savitri goes into a bad phase, we have used neutral colours, like greys and blues.”
The props were sourced by Rao and the head of the art department Avinash, from Hyderabad and Mumbai. “People are in for a visual treat in this film,” Rao said. “The grandness is there but within the grandness, there is a minimalist approach. You’ll see a combination of decorative art work and sets and real locations. People will be like, ah, this is how movies were shot back then. There’s a lot of drama happening at all times on the screen.”