Filmstars often act in the roles of real persons in what are known as “Biopics” or biographical movies. Biopics are usually about illustrious and interesting historical figures. Actors and actresses enacting such roles get praised if their performances are brilliant enough to project those historical figures in a realistic manner on screen. While artistes acting in biographical movies about noteworthy people is an established norm, it is very seldom that a real life film actor is considered worthy enough to be portrayed in a biopic on screen. One such film made about a great actress who sparkled brightly in the South Indian film firmament decades ago had a world -wide release a few days ago.
The film “Mahanati” made in the Telugu language hit the screens on May 9th. Its Tamil version”Nadigaiyar Thilagam” was released on May 11th. The film is about yesteryear actress K.Savitri who was known as Savitri Ganesh after she married Tamil romantic actor Gemini Ganesan also known as R. Ganesh and Gemini Ganesh. Savitri in an acting career of more than three decades acted in 258 films in five languages. The breakdown was – Telugu- 146;Tamil -90; Kannada -09;Hindi -07 and Malayalam -06. Savitri ruled the roost in Telugu and Tamil filmdom for nearly 15 years in the fifties and sixties of the last century. She was hailed as the finest actress of her time and earned the laudatory sobriquets “Mahanati” (Great Actress) in Telugu and “Nadigaiyar Thilagam ( Doyenne of Actresses)” in Tamil. The film makers have most suitably used those titles Mahanati and Nadigaiyar Thilagam for the Telugu and Tamil films respectively.
During British rule several regions in India were formed into territorial units known by the term Presidency.Much of what is known today as Andhra Pradesh together with Tamil Nadu comprised the bulk of the Madras presidency then. With Tamil and Telugu being the dominant languages in the Madras presidency most films were made simultaneously in the Tamil and Telugu languages and released together. The bi-lingual films were made in Chennai city then known as Madras. After the creation of Andhra Pradesh state under the linguistic re-structuring of states principle, Telugu filmmakers began moving to studios in Hyderabad and Vijayawada in the newly created state.
Savitri and other famous Telugu artistes like A. Nageswara Rao, N.T. Ramarao,S. V. Ranga Rao, Bhanumathy, Anjali Devi,Jamuna, Devika,Sowcar Janaki, S.Varalaxmi et al acted in both Telugu and Tamil films those days. Savitri herself made a name for herself by acting in Tamil -Telugu films like “Devdas”, Chandraharam”, “Maaya Bazaar” and “Missiyammaah” etc. In that context the making of a biopic on Savitri in both Tamil and Telugu and releasing it simultaneously does seem quite appropriate.
“Kaadhal Mannan” (King of Romance) Gemini Ganesan
Though the film has been in theatres only for a few days all indications are that it will be a block buster. This is because Savitri the actress was extremely popular with Tamil and Telugu audiences during her time and enjoyed what could be termed as a cult following at the peak of her career. However this film relates more to her Telugu film career than Tamil film career. Savitri’s screen persona was very lovable and fans both male and female were infatuated by her. Rising from humble beginnings, she had reached great heights as a popular film star through her acting skills,dedication and hard work. Her controversial marriage to Gemini Ganesan known as “Kaadhal Mannan” (King of Romance) captured the imagination of all young lovers.
Yet, her life ultimately ended as a tragedy. Her foray into film production and direction brought about financial ruin and caused estrangement from her husband. In a bid to drown her sorrows , Savitri the social drinker drank heavily and became an incurable alcoholic. She died a few days before her 46th birthday after being in a diabetic coma for more than 18 months. The story of Savitri was known widely in South India due to numerous articles and books. Thus the film “Mahanati-Nadigaiyar Thilagam” is proving to be an irresistible magnet for filmgoers.
Chirravurru Village in Guntur District
Savitri was of Telugu ethnicity and the younger of two daughters. She was born on January 4th 1936 in a small village called Chirravurru in Guntur district in the present day Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. At the time of her birth during British rule Guntur was part of the Madras presidency. Savitri’s parents were Komma Reddy Kuruvaiyya and Subhadramma Reddy. Her father Komma Reddy Kuruvaiya died when she was only six months old. Savitri’s mother Subhadramma took Savitri and her elder sister Maruti and moved to her husband’s elder brother Kommareddy Venkatramiah Chowdhury and his wife Durgammaa’s home. Thereafter Savitri’s paternal uncle KV Chowdhury became the guardian of both sisters.
Discovering that Savitri had a flair for dancing and acting her paternal uncle let her participate at a very young age in dance dramas staged by a theatre company. The family moved to Vijayawada city where Savitri learnt music and dance from Sista Poornaiyya Shastri. Once Prithviraj Kapoor the father of actors Raj,Shammy and Sashi Kapoor was the chief guest at a show featuring Savitri and was highly impressed by her performance. This made Savitri’s uncle cum guardian think of making his ward an actress in films. As the film industry started flourishing in the post -independence period, Savitri’s uncle Chowdhury began seeking openings in films for her.The family relocated to Chennai in order to facilitate Savitri’s entry into films.
It was then that Savitri met her future husband Gemini Ganesan for the first time.He was then working at the famous “Gemini” film studio owned by the legendary S. S.Vasan. Ganesan’s full name was Ramaswamy Ganesan. He went by the name R.Ganesh at Gemini Studio. In later years when Ganesan entered films as an actor in Tamil films, there was another Ganesan also had started acting in films. He was called Sivaji Ganesan because he had made a name for himself by acting as the Mahratta king “Sivaji” in a drama. To differentiate from Sivaji Ganesan, People referred to Ramaswamy Ganesan as “Gemini”Ganesan on account of him having worked at Gemini studio for many years.Savitri came for an audition at Gemini studio and was tested and interviewed for a part by Gemini Ganesan. She was not selected because she was found too young for the role.Gemini however noted in his report that K.Savitri had “striking features,showed much expression and had much promise”.
Savitri got her first break in 1950 through a minor role in the Telugu film “Samsaaram’. After getting a few more films doing small roles ,Savitri got her major break in 1952 through maestro L.V. Prasad who directed “Pelli Chesi Choodu”in Telugu and its Tamil equivalent “Kalyanam Pannip paar”. Savitri was the second heroine in the film starring N.T.Rama Rao and G.Varalaxmi.Thereater she got to play the lead roles in some more films. In 1953 came “Devdas/Devadasu” made in Tamil and Telugu by director Vedantam Ragavaiah. Savitri was the heroine and A.Nageswara Rao the hero in both films. The film was a roaring success. Savitri was now established as a heroine in Tamil and Telugu films. She began to get paired with almost all the leading actors in films including her future husband Gemini Ganesan who was earlier known as R. Ganesh in films.
Full-Fledged Love Affair
Her first film with him was “Manam Poala Maangalyam” in 1953.It was directed by P.Pullaiyah. Gemini was already married to Alamelu called Bopji and had children by her. This did not deter the man who was regarded as the king of romance on screen as well as off screen. Both Ganesh and Savitri were struck by Cupid’s flowery arrows while acting together in Manam poal Maangalyam. It developed into a full-fledged love affair in 1955 when both acted in “Missiammaah” directed by LV Prasad. By this time R. Ganesh had become Gemini Ganesan. When Gemini attempted to court Savitri, her paternal uncle and mother often obstructed it as much as possible.
When Savitri’s family objected strongly to this liaison, she ran away from home and sought refuge from Gemini. Savitri and Gemini married secretly at the Chamundeswari temple in Mysore(now Mysooru) in a Hindu ritual conducted by a brahmin priest where Gemini tied the “Thaali” around Savitri’s neck. Gemini who was then living with wife Alamelu and children at Nungampaakkam set up a second home with Savitri in a rented house at Abhiraamapuram. Later Savitri bought extensive property on Habibullah Road in T’Nagar and built a modern mansion. Gemini began shuttling between both houses. The couple had two children a girl Vijayachamundeswari and a son Sathishkumar. Samundeswari is a physiotherapist in India while Sathishkumar is a computer engineer in the USA. Sathish is the only son Gemini had. All his other children from wives Alamaelu and Pushpavalli (mother of actress Rekha) were daughters.
Meanwhile Savitri’s film career blossomed and she soon became the top female star in Tamil and Telugu films. While pairing with the leading male actors, Savitri also acted in many films where the story revolved around the chief female character played by her. Film scripts were specifically written with Savitri in mind. She received top billing in film advertisements. Many box office hits owed their success to Savitri more than the main male actor. She became a highly paid star on par with her male couterparts. Savitri also formed her own Drama/dance troupe “Navabharata Natya Mandali” and staged the play “Aatma Vanchanaa” written by Buchi Baabu.
Savitri and Gemini were very popular in Sri Lanka known formerly as Ceylon too. The couple had many fans from all communities in the Island. Savitri in particular had a lot of female fans. I remember Gemini and Savitri arriving by plane from India at the Ratmalana airport in the early sixties. They were the chief guests at a cultural event named “Silamboli” or tone of the anklets. Hundreds of fans mobbed them at the Airport. The newspapers in all three languages published photographs of their arrival on the front pages. In later years Gemini Ganesan came several times to Sri Lanka.In 1978 Gemini along with actress Rajshree attended a musical show at the Sugathadasa stadium as chief guests.
Savitri’s Gold-Clad Feet
Savitri bought a lot of property, Jewellery, motor vehicles and expensive sarees with her earnings.She had different types of motor cars. She participated in car races and once won a medal coming first.Savitri also bought costly jewellery and wore them at functions. She had a very expensive diamond necklace of which many photographs appeared in those days. She flouted convention and created controversy by wearing anklets and ankle chains made of gold .This amounted to sacrielege in a socio-cultural context. Photographs of Savitri’s gold-clad feet were widely circulated. Since it was not customary to wear gold on one’s feet, Savitri was severely criticised for this.
Neela Selai kattikonda Samuthira Ponnu
Even though she wore gold on her feet, Savitri had a golden heart. She was a great philanthropist who donated lavishly to deserving causes. She also helped several needy people by paying for their education, medical treatment and wedding expenses. She donated extensively to the Indian Defence fund during India’s wars with China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965-66.Savitri also helped fellow actors. When ace comedian and family friend Chandrababu faced eviction because he could not pay off his mortgage dues, Savitri stepped in with a huge cash payment and prevented it. When the actor Surulirajan faced financial difficulties it was Savitri who came to his rescue without expecting anything in return.
Savitri was regarded as a great actress on equal terms with the legendary Sivaji Ganesan. The great thespian publicly acknowledged that he was extra -careful when acting in scenes with her. “Konjam Asanthaalum Savitri Nammalai Thooki Saappittudum”(If I slip even a little bit Savitri will gobble me up) Sivaji said, implying that the actress had the potential to get the better of him in scenes featuring both.Thus when Sivaji was honoured with the title “Nadigar Thilagam” or Doyen of Male actors, Savitri was bestowed the female equivalent “Nadigaiyar Thilagam” (Doyenne of Actresses).
Savitri acted together with Sivaji in 25 films “Annayin Aanai. “Kaathavaaayan”, “Ratha Thilagam”, “Paasa Malar”, “Padithaal Mattum Poathumaa?, “Navarathri”, “Thiruvilaiyaadal” etc. Both earned much praise for their performances in Paasa Malar where they acted as brother and sister and in Padithaal Mattum Poathumaa? in which Savitri acted as Sivaji’s sister in law. A much remembered performance was in “Thiruvilaiyaadal” in which Sivaji played Lord Shiva and Savitri his consort Parvati/Shakti. Their acting was stormy in shots where they clashed verbally and breezy in the amorous love scenes. Two other memorable sequences were the Shakespearean drama in “Ratha Thilagam” where Sivaji was Othello and Savitri Desdemona and the “Naattukoothu”(Folk drama) in “Navarathri” where both were the lead characters.
Savitri acted with MG Ramachandran(MGR) in only three films namely “Mahadevi”, “Parisu” and “Vaettaikkaaran”. There was much scope for her acting in Mahadevi but the other two were more male -oriented with the prime focus on MGR. As a result she turned down offers to act opposite Ramachandran,
However her most memorable films were with her husband Gemini Ganesan.Both acted together in 44 films Among these were “Missiammaa”, “Yaar Paiyan”, “Maayaa Bazaar”, “Kappaloatiya Thamizhan”, “Paava Mannippu”, “Paarthaal Pasi Theerum”, “Paatha Kaanikkai”, “Hello Mr. Zamindhar”, “Kaathiruntha Kangal”. Poojaikku Vantha Malar”, “Aayiram Roobai” and “Katpaham” . Fans loved seeing these real life parners playing lovers or acting as husband and wife on screen. Their chemistry on screen was terrific. Love duets with Gemini crooning and Savitri cooing were relished by many. Sadly the loving Gemini-Savitri couple got separated after some years.
They Called Each Other “Ammaadi” and “Kannaa”.
Despite Gemini’s philandering and Savitri’s professional multi-tasking both enjoyed a loving relationship where he called her “Ammaadi” and she called him “Kannaa”. Sadly their relationship soured and broke – up due to certain reasons. There was no formal divorce because they had never been legally married.
Friction between both developing when Savitri ventured into film making. Earlier she ran a film unit specialising in outdoor film shooting. She also invested partly in a fw films and engaged in film distributon for limited areas. Savitri had from the time of her entry into films wanted to produce and direct films. Her role model was the actress Bhanumathy who directed the film “Chandi Rani” and also co-produced films with her director husband Ramakrishna. She was now encouraged by fellow artistes to produce and direct films.Savitri formed the company Sri Savitri productions and embarked on a venture to direct a film. Gemini a cautious man who believed in making real estate investments over film production was unhappy.
Gomatha Engal Kulamatha
Savitri’s maiden venture as producer -director was the Telugu film”Chinnari Papulu” based on a story written by her friend Veeramachaneni Sarojini. A novel feature of the film was that the well-known playback singer P.Leela composed music for it. The film was a tremendous success. An elated Savitri went on to make K.Balachanders Tamil film “Neerkumizhi” into a Telugu film “Chiranjeevi”. The film crashed badly at the box office. Savitri then made her debut as director in Tamil by re-making Chinnari Papulu” as “Kuzhanthai Ullam”. The film had Gemini Ganesan as the hero with Sowcar Janaki and Vanishri as the heroines. Savitri played a cameo honorary (Gaurava) role. The film did not flop but did not do too well either.
Gemini Ganesan now began advising Savitri not to make any more films. But egged on by a group of self -serving sycophants scrounging off her, Savitri spurned Gemini’s advice and went ahead making films. This led to heated arguments between hus band and wife. Complicating matters further were reports that Gemini Ganesan was having a clandestine affair with actress Rajshree. Apart from this Savitri also started imbibing liquor frequently to relieve stress. Her constant companion in clinking glasses was the writer V.Sarojini. When Gemini objected to Sarojini’s presence and the drinking bouts, an enraged Savitri reportedly asked Gemini to “Get out”.This was the ultimate straw that broke the camel’s back. Gemini left in a huff and never returned. The loving couple who called each other Ammaadi and Kanna had a permanent rupture. Some of Savitri’s close relatives including her sister Maruti and brother in law Mallikarjun reportedly encouraged the break-up. So did some of Savitri’s woman friends.
“Praaptham” in Tamil and “Vintha Samsaaram” in Telugu
Despite Gemini’s opposition Savitri went ahead with film making. She attempted to make two films at the same time. In 1964 savitri along with A.Nageswara Rao and Jamuna acted in the Telugu film “Mooga Manasulu”directed by Adhurthi Subba Rao.The film was a smashing success.It was remade later in Hindi as “Milan” with Sunil Dutt and Nutan and again proved commercially successful. Now Savitri wanted to re-make it in Tamil as “Praaptham” with Sivaji Ganesan, Chandrakala and herself doing the three key roles. At the same time she bought the rights to the Tamil film “Vietnam Veedu” starring Sivaji and Padmini. Savitri remade the film in Telugu as “Vintha Samsaaram” with Jaggiah and herself in the lead roles.
Both “Praaptham” and “Vintha Samsaaram” were released on the same day in April 1971. “Praaptham” which Savitri directed, produced and acted in barely made even but “Vintha Samsaaram” was an utter failure. With the exit of Gemini Ganesan a cabal comprising relatives, friends, domestic servants and film company employees had gained much influence and power over savitri. Moreover they had also systematically robbed her. False accounts were presented and funds siphoned off.Jewellery was stolen and some houses and property misappropriated. Savitri being in an inebriated state frequently had aided these dishonest elements. So with her films crashing at the box office Savitri was in a terrible financial crisis. ,As a result Saviri had to sell off her Habibulla road mansion, other houses elsewhere ,estates,jewellery and luxury vehicles to offset her financial losses and reimburse her creditors.
She moved to a rented house and began travelling about in Taxis, three-wheelers and cycle rickshaws. She also started acting in a lot of character roles (Gunachitra)in a minor capacity.Like many other yesteryear heroines Savitri started acting as a mother in many films. Savitri acted in more than 75 films in a nine year period from 1971 to 1980. In spite of her fragile situation, Savitri borrowed money and started a film in Tamil and Telugu about a womal lawyer in 1974. Ravichandran and Bharati acted in Tamil along with Krishna and Vijayanirmala in Telugu. After shooting around 7000 ft of film Savitri abandoned the project on the advice of enowned director Dasari Narayana Rao. Her film making epoch had ended
Unconscious In a Diabetic Coma for 19 Months
Her health started deteriorating. Savitri was a diabetic and also suffered from high blood pressure. Furthermore she had become an alcoholic. It was her husband Gemini who made her imbibe liquour first at a diplomatic function organized by the Indonesian embassy in the early sixties. Thereafter she had become an occasional social drinker. However she started drinking frequently due to stress when she became a producer-director. A gang of scroungers surrounded her and exacerbated this tendency.Financial losses and separation with her husband, made Savitri turn to strong drink in a big way for solace and also to drown her sorrows. Her health began deteriorating. On May 11th 1980 Savitri collapsed at a hotel in Mysore where she had gone for a film shoot.It was due ti hypoglycemia. Apparently she injected insulin and had continued drinking without eating. She was admitted to hospital in Karnataka and later brought to Chennai on May 17th and hospitalised at the Lady Willingdon Hospital.She was in a diabetic coma and was continuously unconscious. Her estranged husband Gemini returned to her bedside and looked after most of her medical expenses. Savitri was later moved to her home and kept under intensive care. She lay in a coma for nearly 19 months and finally passed away on December 26th 1981.
Finest Performance Of Keerthy Suresh
This then was Nadigaiyar Thilagam Savitri’s sad story. Her tale was widely known thanks to numerous articles and books written about Savitri. So when a film was made about her so many years after Savitri’s demise there was tremendous public interest. The titular role of “Mahanati/Nadigaiyar Thilagam” denoting Savitri is played by a young actress Keerthy Suresh who is of mixed parentage with a Malayalee father and Tamil mother. The key role of actor Gemini Ganesan/Ganesh is played by Dulquer Salman the son of Malayalam Super Star Mammooty. Dulquer Salman and Keerthi Suresh act in Tamil and Malayalam films. In a bid to cash in on their popularity with Kerala audiences the film has been dubbed in Malayalam also. Both Dulquer Salman and Keerthi Suresh have received rave reviews and much kudos for their performances.
Keerthy Suresh has excelled in what could be regarded as the finest performance of the 25 year old star’s cinematic career. She has brought Savitri to life on the screen.The greatest praise came from Savitri’s daughter Vijayachamundeswari who observed emotionally that seeing Keerthy on screen in the role was just like seeing her mother and that the performance was perfect. Prosthetics was used to make Keerthi look chubby and fat like Savitri. She wears 120 costumes in the film.The same hair styles, Saree designs and jewellery used by Savitri have been replicated. Keerthi also consulted Savitri’s daughter and obtained an insight into Savitri’s facial expressions and mannerisms. She displays at least 12 of Savitri’s unique gestures and movements in the film.
Other roles are essayed by Samantha,Vijay Devarakonda, Rajendra Prasad,Prakash Raj, Bhanupriya,Shalini Pandey and Malavika Nair etc. In addition to these character roles , there are a number of other cameos by reputed artistes appearing as actors,actresses, directors, producers, script writers and cinematographers who were contemporaries of Savitri and interacted with her. For instance Akkineni Nageswara Rao was the lead actor with whom Savitri acted in many Telugu films. In the Savitri film the role is payed by Nageswara Rao’s grandson Naga Chaitanya who is a popular actor himself. Tamil fans of Savitri may feel disappointed to some extent because the film’s focus is primarily on her Telugu film career. Most of the cameos and character roles of real life persons are mostly from the Telugu film world.
The 177 minute film is directed by Nag Ashwin. His wife Priyanka Dutt, Sister in law Swapna Dutt and father in law C.Ashwini Dutt are the producers. The screenplay based on Savitri’s life is by Siddharth Sivasamy while the dialogues in Tamil and Telugu are by Madhan Karky and Madhav Burra respectively. There are five full songs in the film. There are also a number of tracks in bits and pieces from song sequences in films acted by Savitri.Music for both background score as well as the main songs are composed by Mickey J.Meyer. He has tried to bring about the tone and tenor of the music prevalent during Savitri’s time.
Samantha Acts as Journalist Maduravani
The director Nag Ashwin has adopted a novel device to relate the story. Savitri is in a coma and a journalist Madhuravani and photographer Vijay Anthony try to unravel her past and probe her life story . The story of Savitri’s life is narrated through a series of inter-related flashbacks going back and forth. Madhuravani is played by Samantha Ruth Prabhu who recently married the actor Naga Chaithanya. Vijay Anthony is enacted by Vijay Deverakonda. Savitri’s life from childhood to demise over time period from the forties to the eighties of the 20th century is covered in the narrative. The tale to a very great extent is told through the journalist Madhuravani played by Samantha who probes the life of Savitri in the film.. Editing is by Kotagiri Venkateshwara Rao.
The Art director is Avinash while the production designer is Shivam. Great effort has gone into making this biopic a flawless period movie. 42 sets were created to shoot the various scenes.Among these were settings such as the now non -existent Vijaya-Vauhini studio and the Parrys Corner of an earlier vintage. One remarkable creation was the studio floor within floor set for the scenes of vintage movie “Maayaa Bazaar”. Every prop and item used was acquired or constructed with meticulous detail. These ranged from the wooden clapper boards used earlier, the camera and equipment of an earlier vintage and costumes and vehicles of a by gone era.
The cinematographer is a Hispanic from the USA Dani Sanchez Lopez Much of the movie was shot on celluloid to get the feel of an earlier vintage. Many sequences are shot in a grainy style to depict the “technicolour” of those days.. Scenes are in colour and in black and white and are inter-woven seamlessly. Different types of lenses and filters have been used on different occasions. Organic lighting has been used at times and some shots are taken by hand -held cameras. The most striking feature about the film’s cinematography is the use of colour in the filmy narration.
Colours Depict Phases in Savitri’s Life
The colours change through each phase or segment of Savitri’s life. Lush greens and sepia browns are used to depict the village life in Guntur where Savitri came from. When she migrates to the urban studios and city life, the colours blossom into warmer pinks, oranges and yellows and reds. When Savitri falls in love, the colours red and maroons start infiltrating into the frame. As Savitri becomes successful in her career and prospers, there are brighter hues golden tones. When people get jealous and envious of Savitri’s success there are shades of blue-green and green.As her life falters there are shades of blue to illustrate her weaknesses. There are the colours crimson,mauve,purple and blue in darker tones as Savitri deteriorates. Low -key lighting, deep shadows and circling camera work enhance the mood of pathos.
The well-created biopic about Savitri is a profound cinematic experience. To those of us who grew up seeing Savitri on screen and appreciated her acting , the decline of her personal life has been most distressing. The rise and fall of “Nadigaiyar Thilagam” Savitri in real life is the stuff from which many melodramatic movies can be made. It is to the credit of the director Nag Ashwin that he has genuinely attempted to present an authentic account of Savitri’s life. The greatest praise he has received for his work is the compliment by Savitri’s daughter Vijayachamundeswari that “Mahanati/Nadigaiyar Thilagam” was the first time that the story of her mother Savitri’s life has been told so truthfully by anyone.
This is an enhanced version of an article written for the “DBS Jeyaraj Column” appearing in the “Daily Mirror” of May 12, 2018. it can be reached via this link:
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org