by Meena Yeggina

Cast: Keerthy Suresh, Dulquer Salmaan, Samantha Akkineni, Prakash Raj, Rajendra Prasad, Bhanupriya, MohanBabu, Vijay Devarakonda, Tanikella Bharani
Director: Nag Ashwin
Music: Mickey J. Meyer
My Rating: 4.5/5

Savithri's life is both an inspiration and a disincentive.

While being deeply delighted in her versatility as an actress and unrelenting compassion as a human being, you also become immensely disturbed at the way she lets her life crumble in the crushing hands of love and alcohol. Yet, you come out of the theater wanting to know more of this fascinating human being. The three-hour movie leaves you frustrated of having read just a shallow Wikipedia description rather than an in-depth, sumptuous novel. But the director need not be blamed for this: Savithri's volatile history cannot simply be summed up and packaged neatly just in a film.

However, putting together a biopic on Mahanati Savithri, an artist par excellence, is an idea by itself that deserves applause. Take a bow, director Nag Ashwin, for your tremendous set detailing and research.

The director showcases Savithri through the lens of a fictional character, Madhuravani (Samantha), a shy and stuttering journalism gold medalist. She reluctantly begins to write about Savithri, when Savithri first falls into coma (and eventually dies after 19 months) in 1980. That's not all, though. The young director connects Madhuravani romantically to a Christian co-journalist played by Vijay Devarakonda, thus also bringing forth a secular twist to the story. Deverakonda plays the role of a philogynist that is in contrast to his dreadful role in the notorious Arjun Reddy.

With his help, Madhuravani begins to explore and dig deep into the life of Savithri. She gets fascinated and eventually derives both courage and inspiration from the inimitable actress.

The story lazily spins through flashbacks of Savithri's 40 years of life that will enthrall you in its charisma and honesty. Beginning from her delectable childhood and ending in her untimely, tragic death, Savithri's life in waves makes you laugh, squeal, marvel and cry. You delight in her free spirit that never took a challenge lying down.

The director lovingly portrays her meteoric rise as a star followed by slow yet steady fall, without airbrushing gritty realities.

After two kids, a good few years of married life and colossal rise as a star empowered by exorbitant amounts of money, Savithri, encouraged by her now jealous and egotistical husband, succumbs to alcohol. Her separation with her cheating husband, her mother's untimely death at 52, alcoholism, income tax raids, loss of fortune in movie making, and above all the treacherous backstabbing of her own kith and kin, brings this mighty, beautiful and trusting star crumbling down. Unimaginable sums of money (out of about 50 films produced per year in South at that time, 25 of them were made with Savithri), including 4 to 5 houses all over South India, land and jewelry, all down the drain mainly because of her innocent trust and love for fellow human beings.

Ashwin did a wonderful job of tying Savithri's emotionality to the audience's. No matter what stage of life she is in, you inherently feel for her. You feel her pain as her husband (who already has a wife, two children -- daughters at that -- and a mistress), her relatives, and her friends, betray her trust. As her overflowing kindness is fleeced, abused, and tormented, you wonder yourself about good karma. The sense of dejection that surrounds her last ten years of life envelops you as well.

I was also intensely touched by the gentle yet deep mother-son bond shown in the film. At 12-14 years of age, Savithri's son never left her side and stuck to her through her almost two-year coma. This I learned through various accounts online and not through the movie though you do catch glimpses of their love on screen as well.

Keerthy and Dulquer as Savithri and Ganeshan breeze
life to the characters without mimicking

The movie, however, is not so much about her sorrows as it is of her rejoices. It celebrates her talent, innocence, trust, and unending love. You will leave the theater with a wonder at this miracle called Savithri: Her unbelievable acting prowess where she could elicit just two drops of tears without glycerin from just one eye and her unconditional joy in living life and enjoying her own talent leaves you nourished as a human being.

Keerthy Suresh as Savithri is simply stupendous. Many-a-times I forget that she is not the original Savithri. Her mannerisms, springy movements, smile are all so similar to Savithri without making you discern that they are forced or imitated. Rajendra Prasad as her uncle was wonderful. Unbeatable. I also could not get enough of Bhanupriya as Savithri's pedamma (aunt) - a miniscule role in which she looked terrific.

The backdrops, settings and props are so well designed that you never doubt their time-bound authenticity.

Savithri comes across as a brat, a wanton, an urchin and a giver. Dulquer Salman as Gemini Ganesan is a masterly portrayal of the male ego swathed in superficial compassion. Again, like Keerthy, Dulquer steers the performance away from being imitative. His nickname "Ammadi" for Savithri somewhat touches your soul. Their love story probably was genuine and true for a prolonged moment but unfortunately could not stand the effects of time, fame and fortune.

Mohan Babu as SV RangaRao
brings the magnificent star to life

In addition to anguishing for Savithri's pain, no female viewer can ignore the sorrow of Gemini's first wife as well.

There are memorable cameos from many including Nag Chaitanya playing his grandfather Nageshwara Rao. Director Ashwin makes telling use of the references and props from the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s to not only recreate the flavor of those times but also to reflect on why those times are so distant and faded from memory.

There is an intrinsic hollowness and hypocrisy in the way a successful woman professional was treated by those whom she trusted. Savithri never failed. Those around her did.

Mahanati celebrates a life that finally came to nothing because of its generosity.

While her co stars like ANR and NTR are fine and happy financially, it's sad that Savithri is haunted and hunted down by income tax officials even until her death.

Background music captures your heart with haunting melodies but the songs overall are a little disappointing. Except the title song the rest are visually beautiful on screen but not too capturing outside of it.

Another small disappointment is the absence of any cameos of yesteryear female stars such as Jamuna, Shaukar Janaki, Anjali Devi or even Bhanumati. Only male cameos of SVR, ANR, NTR, Chakrapani and so on are brought in but the female stars are completely sidelined, which leaves you with an unwholesome sensation. The director, understandably, could have assumed that it would be too much work to bring in a suitable cameo for any of those popular actresses.

Mahanati overall is a treat and am very proud that it came out in Telugu. Relish it with your parents and children.