TALKING FILMS

Mahanati’s problem isn’t Gemini Ganesan – it’s the film’s portrayal of Savitri as a victim of fate

By blaming Savitri’s tragic life on kismet, the movie fails to let her take responsibility for her actions.

A note of dissent has been raised against Mahanati, Nag Ashwin’s warmly received biopic of South Indian acting legend Savitri. The Telugu movie was released on May 9 alongside a Tamil version, Nadigaiyar Thilagam, as an acknowledgement of Savitri’s stardom in both languages. Mahanati revisits Savitri’s childhood, her screen dominance through the 1950s and ’60s, her marriage to the already married Gemini Ganesan, and her death in 1981.

Despite the enthusiastic reviews, Mahanati has angered Kamala Selvaraj, the second of Ganesan’s four daughters from his first wife Alamelu, for its depiction of Savitri’s relationship with Ganesan. In a recent interview with The New Indian Express, Selvaraj complained, “What has been shown on screen is a one-sided version that glorifies Savitri and bluntly ignores many other aspects of her life.”

Selvaraj was also angered that the film glossed over her mother’s feelings about Ganesan’s second wife. In addition, Selvaraj was upset that the movie did not dwell on Ganesan’s estimable movie career, which began around the same time as Savitri’s and outlasted hers.

However, the bigger problem with Mahanati, despite its many praiseworthy qualities, isn’t its portrayal of Ganesan, but its perspective on Savitri’s ability to take charge of her own narrative. If there is a villain in Mahanati¸ it is neither Ganesan nor the series of conscious, if ill-judged, choices made by Savitri. Mahanati blames Savitri’s plight on that vague thing called kismet. The reasons for her numerous problems are nearly always externalised and attributed to circumstances beyond her control. As per the movie’s telling, Savitri’s greatest tragedy was that misfortune shadowed her as surely as fame and money.

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Mahanati (2018).

Mahanati stars Keerthy Suresh as Savitri and Dulquer Salmaan as Ganesan. The 171-minute biopic covers Savitri’s early years as a folk theatre performer, her entry into the movie business as a teenager, her rise to fame, the Ganesan affair, the fast cars and jewellery, her philanthropic bent, the break-up with Ganesan, the descent into alcoholism, the income tax raids that bankrupted her, the genteel poverty, and the sorry end after a year of being in a coma.

Central to Savitri’s rise and fall in Mahanati is the tension between her ability to shape her destiny and be moulded by others. In the initial scenes, Savitri fits the stereotype of the ingenue. She is child-like, giggles a lot, and goes unwittingly in the direction into which she is pushed by her well-meaning uncle.

As Savitri’s popularity grows, she is shaped and undone by external forces – her manager uncle, her future husband, faceless income tax department officials, the demons of her past. There are only a few moments when Savitri demonstrates an independent streak. There is the potentially powerful scene in which she races cars against male drivers and wins, which wooshes by in the interests of moving onto the next milestone. There is her decision to direct a film produced entirely by women – a radical choice that draws no comment or further attention.

Keerthy Suresh in Mahanati. Vyjayanthi Films.
Keerthy Suresh in Mahanati. Vyjayanthi Films.

The movie is so keen on throwing a redemptive light on the gloomiest corners that it doesn’t allow Savitri to assume responsibility for her actions, however questionable. She drinks liquor for the first time during a spat with Ganesan. As the film progresses, she hits the bottle with a vengeance when alone and bereft, but the movie has made it clear that the decision wasn’t hers to begin with.

A real woman rarely emerges from the surface of the poster. In Mahanati’s telling, the matinee idol’s troubled life was buffeted by the same kind of storms that her screen characters were often confronted by. Savitri is cast here as a tragic heroine in the story of her life, and Mahanati is both a biographical project as well as a melodrama that mimics the tearjerkers and romances in which the actress starred over her career. Without intending to, Mahanati plays out like a meta­-movie, in which a dramatised perspective of Savitri’s life is nested within a biopic that draws from actual facts and events.

In the movie, as in real life, Ganesan was a production executive at Gemini Studios when Savitri first walked in looking for work. Mahanati does not explore Ganesan’s own career since the focus is on Savitri. (Considerable screen time is also devoted to the framing narrative, in which a stammering and shy journalist who is reporting on Savitri’s final moments gets inspired by the actress.)

Ganesan lived with Savitri for over a decade and had two children with her. After the marriage broke up, he had to address allegations that he had abandoned Savitri despite her ill-health and financial problems. But Mahanati addresses this charge of emotional cruelty only in a throwaway scene.

The biopic is careful to ensure that little of the blame for Savitri’s battles can be attributed to Ganesan. He is cloaked in an amber glow, affectionate until the end despite the chasm that has developed with the woman whom he affectionately calls “Ammadi” (Dearest). Although Dulquer Salmaan does not resemble Ganesan, he nails the actor’s dashing personality and irresistible quality. It takes one movie star to play another.

Dulquer Salmaan as Gemini Ganesan in Mahanati. Image credit: Vyjayanthi Movies.
Dulquer Salmaan as Gemini Ganesan in Mahanati. Image credit: Vyjayanthi Movies.

No complaints about Mahanati have been received thus far from the descendants of Ganesan’s other partner, the actress Pushpavalli, with whom he was in a relationship while being married to both Alamelu and Savitri. The union produced two daughters, including Rekha, the future Hindi movie star.

Mahanati makes only a fleeting reference to Pushpavalli, although she does figure in Rekha’s memories of her parents in her television interview with Simi Garewal in the late 1990s.

Rekha describes in painful detail her tortured relationship with Ganesan in the Rendezvous with Simi Garewal episode. “Do you remember a time when he was at home?” Garewal asks. The answer: “No.”

Rekha says she had three mothers – Pushpavalli, Alamelu and Savitri – but no father during her formative years. “If you don’t taste something, you don’t know what it means,” she says. “I didn’t know what the word father meant.”

Rekha tells Garewal about seeing her father from a distance when he would drop his other daughters to the school where they all studied. “I don’t think he noticed me,” Rekha says.

Did this bother her? “Maybe I blanked it out,” she replies. “I don’t know what happens between two people…Who are we to say anything?”

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Rekha in Rendezvous with Simi Garewal.

The interview takes a bizarre turn when Rekha says she has been in touch with her father after her mother’s death in 1991– but not in person. (Ganesan died in 2005, after the television interview). “I had a real conversation with my dad – not in the worldly way,” Rekha says. “I haven’t yet spoken to him, not in words, but through eyes, touch, a smile.” She suggests that she has been sending telepathic messages to Ganesan, about whom she has only the nicest things to say.

Rekha shared her first public platform with Ganesan when she handed him a Filmfare lifetime achievement award in 1994. “I never lost him to find him, he was always there within me,” she tells Garewal in a moment that is both moving as well as disturbing.

A rosier picture of Ganesan’s relationship with his three families emerges through the pages of his fourth daughter Narayani Ganesh’s fond tribute. In Eternal Romantic My Father, Gemini Ganesan (Roli Books, 2001), Ganesh writes, “Despite his stable of affairs and long intimate relationships with other women, Bobji remained the undisputed leader of the Ganesan household.” Bobji was Alamelu’s nickname.

The book is filled with photographs and anecdotes that serve to underline the bonhomie that existed between members of the three households. About Ganesan’s frequent extra-marital affairs, Ganesh writes, “He seemed to be seeking refuge from reality; he craved adoration and appreciation. Bobjima learnt to survive all the heartaches and misunderstandings through sheer patience.”

Gemini Ganesan. By Arpita Ghosh - s.saregama.com, CC BY-SA 4.0.
Gemini Ganesan. By Arpita Ghosh - s.saregama.com, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Although Kamala Selvaraj has complained that “The director didn’t even explore how my mother would have felt when she [Savitri] came into my father’s life”, Mahanati does allude to the compromise between women in Ganesan’s life. In one scene, Savitri shows up at Ganesan’s household on a rainy night, only to be confronted by Alamelu and her children. Alamelu is wary but not hostile.

In Mahanati, the first wife of Savitri’s husband turns out to be the least of her worries. Director Nag Ashwin is even-handed in his treatment of the men and women who influenced – and possibly damaged – Savitri. But the central question of why Savitri lost the battle and the war remains largely unanswered.

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Mooga Manasulu, Mahanati (2018).
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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.