"Asalu Savitri gari kadha rayadaniki meekem arhatha undi?" cameraman Naresh asks the reporter Madhuravani (Samantha). Her response, notwithstanding her stammering, is determined: "Arhatha sampadinchake rastanu." That opening exchange sets the standard and ambition for Nag Ashwin's Mahanati, and over the next three hours, the man achieves both in what will probably remain the gold standard for biopics in Telugu films.
With photographer Anthony (Vijay Devarakonda) in tow, Madhuravani sets about to know the story of the legendary actress. She comes across Savitri's final letter where the actress writes about meeting Sankarayya, though nobody seems to know who Sankarayya is. It is Telugu cinema's Rosebud moment from the iconic Citizen Kane. It is a daring and an ambitious move on the writers' part to reference one of the finest films ever made in Mahanati, yet the move works just as well here.
It is this very ambition that serves the film quite well, since despite the numerous delightful cameos, terrific performances and obvious nostalgia pervading the film, the narrative focuses solely on its charismatic lead Savitri (played by Keerthy Suresh). Madhuravani reconstructs her life through research and anecdotes from people who knew her. What she uncovers is not a story that just paints her life in numbers and films, but one that carries a message of fearlessness and belief in instinct.
The film then starts off showing Savitri as a wide-eyed and affable theatre artist who spends her formative days wondering how a father's love would be and pining for such adoration from pedananna Kommareddy Venkataramaiah Chowdhury (Rajendra Prasad). Her theatre career becomes the talk of the town, and it doesn't take long for the father-daughter duo to take the train to Madras. The camera takes a bit of time in falling in love with her, but she doesn't take that much in warming up to Ramasami Ganesan (Dulquer Salman), a married man with two kids and a notorious reputation for philandering, whom she marries at the age of 16.
The match between the impulsive Savitri and the free-spirited Ganesan is one headed for doom. The audiences' knowledge of what happened between them adds a curious dynamic to the relation. When the eventual turns actual, the tale that has been heartwarming so far showcases some dramatic emotional upheaval. Ashwin handles the melodrama perfectly, and the final act moves you despite its duration.
Ashwin respects the personal spaces of Savitri and Ganesan by not speculating on what might have happened between them. The script instead juxtaposes the ebbs and flows in their relationship with her choices of roles and her performances in them, and the result is method acting as we know it. The screen keeps shifting to black and white every once in a while, adding to the authenticity of the narrative. Ashwin's script is a winner all through in how it chooses what incidents to pick and string into the narrative in bringing to life the phenomenon that is Savitri.
Keerthy Suresh doesn't just play Savitri, she becomes her. It is like she was destined to play the role, and it is unimaginable that the director could have even auditioned others for it. It is not just the resemblance, which is almost surreal at times, but also the performance that is arresting. From the playful and vivacious girl in the early stages of her career to the forlorn and devastated matinee idol unable to stop her freefall, Savitri is brought brilliantly to life by Suresh, who emotes as much through just her eyes as through her expressions. Suresh owns each moment of her author-backed role in a tour de force.
The supporting cast is led by Dulquer Salman who plays Gemini Ganesan as a man who can't help his charm, can't help falling in love, can't help being in cruel positions in the matters of the heart, and in general can't help himself. When he is called Kaadhal Mannan (king of romance) by a distributor, Salman lets you feel how uneasily the crown sits on Ganesan's head. In the role of an unlikely tragic hero, Salman puts in an assuredly self-centred yet affectionate performance. Rajendra Prasad is always dependable in roles that require gravitas, and in Mahanati he gets to display his enviable range.
Nag Ashwin took about three years in mounting this film, and the effort shows in every detail in the script, every costume, every choice of framing and lighting, and every choice of artist for the cameos. Special mention should also go to Sai Madhav Burra, the dialogue writer whose words add value to every scene. The production design is a tad inconsistent at times, and Mickey J Mayer's score and songs don't add much to the experience, but this is already a film that is so rich in everything else that minor issues such as these don't impact the overall experience.
We can't recommend Mahanati enough, so do yourself a favour and book your tickets immediately. Also take your parents along, for they might be able to find and appreciate more nuances. For a change, this is a movie that justifies its duration and is worth the hype. Soak it in.
Here is what I wanted to say about the movie..
Cinemane jeevithangaa cheaukunna o jeevithaanni cinemagaa theesi,
Aa jeevithamloni vyadhani o cinema kadhalaa cheppi,
Mana kallamundunchina kallu chemarche chitrame 'mahanati'!
Mahanatiga maathrame telisina manakau, thana loni manaku teliyani daana gunaanni, prema thanaanni hrudyangaa cheppi,
Mahanatini maha vyakthigaa manaku punah parichayam chesi,
Manaku, mana mundu tharaalaki chirakaalam gurthundi poyela chesina darshaka nirmaathalaki, natee natulaku, saankethika nipunulaku Maha vandanaalu!