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.

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.

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.

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?”

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.

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.

Mooga Manasulu, Mahanati (2018).