At the centre of all the praise being heaped onto Nag Ashwin’s Mahanati is Keerthy Suresh. The 25-year-old actress pulled off the daunting task of playing one of South Indian cinema’s biggest stars in the Savitri biopic, standing out in a talented ensemble that included Dulquer Salmaan, Mohan Babu, Prakash Raj and Krish.

This was also Suresh’s first film led by a strong female character. Are such opportunities rare? “Forget rare, this is the first time I’ve been in a project that has a woman at the centre,” Suresh told Scroll.in. “It was totally a new experience for me.”

Suresh started out as a child actor in the Malayalam films Pilots (2000), Achanaayikishtam (2001) and Kuberan (2002). After returning to cinema as an adult with Priyadarshan’s Mohanlal starrer Geethaanjali (2013), she has featured in Malayalam, Tamil and Telugu films. Mahanati, released in Telugu and Tamil (as Nadigaiyar Thilagam), is the actress’s 14th film and according to Suresh, “easily the best role of my career”.

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Mahanati (2018).

For the movie, Suresh not only had to recreate Savitri’s off-screen persona but also her iconic movie scenes. Of these, Suresh found shooting the song Ahaa Na Pellanta from KV Reddy’s Mayabazar (1957) the most challenging.

The 1957 mythological film, based on the Mahabharata, holds special place in Savitri’s career. The actress plays Sasirekha, the daughter of Krishna’s brother, Balarama. Sasirekha falls in love with Abhimanyu (Akkineni Nageswara Rao) but is forcibly betrothed to Duryodhana’s son. Krishna steps in to reunite the lovers and takes the help of Ghatotkacha, the half-human half-demon son of Bhima. Ghatotkacha dons Sasirekha’s avatar and fills in for her at the wedding to Duryodhana’s son. Ahaa Na Pellanta is a song that Ghatotkacha sings in Sasirekha’s avatar.

It is believed that Savitri’s performance was so good in the song that SV Ranga Rao, who played Ghatotkacha in the film, came up to the actress after the shoot and praised her.

“Most people have already seen the song and the film and have enjoyed it,” Suresh said. “It was very stressful to recreate such an iconic song. You have to try and make sure you give your 100% and nothing less. I think we must have taken more than 20 takes to shoot that entire Mayabazaar portion. If in the next scene, Ranga Rao sir has to come and appreciate Savitri gaaru, my performance as Savitri had to be that good, right?” It was a big challenge.”

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Mayabazar (1957).

Tougher still was getting a grip of Savitri’s complex personality. Mahanati chronicles the many ups and downs in Savitri’s professional and personal life, particularly her rocky marriage to Gemini Ganesan (played by Dulquer Salmaan). Savitri was one of Ganesan’s three wives at the time (including the actress Pushpavalli).

Nag Ashwin was clear that the real Savitri had to be completely different from the reel one. “I had spoken at length with Vijay Chamundeshwari gaaru [Savitri’s daughter] to understand her characteristics, her mannerisms and even things like what pottu [bindi] she wore when she was at home, the kind of sarees she wore etc,” Suresh recalled. “Nagi [Nag Ashwin] was a big help, of course, in helping me figure out how to portray the off-screen avatar of Savitri. Gradually, we put different elements together and built an image of Savitri. It was our invention of course, but on the lines of whatever Vijaya gaaru told us and the research the team had done.”

The efforts paid off when Savitri’s daughter observed that Suresh had begun to resemble her mother. “One day, just as I walked onto the sets, she told me that I walked in just like her mother,” Suresh said. “That’s when I realised that things had started falling in place.”

Nag Ashwin and Keerthy Suresh on the sets of Mahanati. Image credit: Vyjayanthi Movies.
Nag Ashwin and Keerthy Suresh on the sets of Mahanati. Image credit: Vyjayanthi Movies.

Suresh now has three Tamil productions lined up: Saamy Square, a sequel to the 2003 action drama Saamy, Vishal’s Sandakozhi 2 and AR Murugadoss’s untitled next movie with Vijay.

But Mahanati has spoilt her, the actress said. “Whenever I’d enter the sets of Mahanati, I’d feel like the hero of a movie,” she said. “It’s different from being just a female lead in other movies, you know? That whole vibe is missing. Mahanati gave me that one moment of being in the centre of things, being in-charge – a moment I got to enjoy.”

Will this dictate her future choices? “I’m going to be choosy but I know very well that every film will not and needn’t be a Mahanati,” she said. “One needs a balance of all kinds of roles. Every woman-centric movie need not be a good movie as well either.”

Keerthy Suresh as Savitri. Image credit: Vyjayanthi Movies.
Keerthy Suresh as Savitri. Image credit: Vyjayanthi Movies.