The newly-released Telugu-Tamil bio-pic Mahanati bringing to life the turbulent troubled tumultuous life of the legendary actress Savitri has gone into several highly-controversial aspects of her life including her (losing) battle with the bottle and her troubled marriage with matinee idol Gemini Ganesan, actress Rekha’s father (from his other wife).
In fact, when the principal actors read the script their first question was, “Would this film be allowed to be made?” Says the film’s young extremely focused producer Priya Dutt whose husband Ashwin Nag has directed Mahanati, “We were aware of what we had set out to do. The actors were all keen to be part of the project in big or small roles. It didn’t matter. They just wanted the story of Savitri Amma to be known to coming generations. The problem was, how do we get around the darker aspects of her life? The answer was simple. We didn’t get around the problematic aspects of her life. We tackled them headlong.”
The first move to avoid future libellous action was to take Savitri’s family into confidence. Says Priyanka Dutt, “We hid nothing. We didn’t try to make the film secretly or try to keep secrets from the family. We took Savitriji and Gemini Sir’s two children Vijaya Chamundi and Satheesh into confidence. They were told everything. I think the mistake that bio-pics make is to withhold information. This makes the people involved feel betrayed when the truth comes out. We hid nothing from Vijaya and Satheesh.” In fact Savitri and Gemini Ganesan’s children were on the sets on several occasions.
Recalls Priyanka, “Vijaya M’aam was specially supportive. She knew we were going to show her mother’s battle with alcoholism. She knew we would show her parents’ marriage to be far from perfect. And she was fine with it. I think she felt it was time her amazing mother’s story was told in the right perspective. There have been several books on Savitri Amma’s life. But none has done full justice to her. Vijaya M’aam hoped Mahanati would show her mother to be the formidable figure of Telugu and Tamil cinema who re-wrote the rules of the patriarchal film industry by becoming the first female superstar.”
Subsequently Savitri lost her stardom and thus began her raging battle with alcoholism and anonymity. Says Priyanka, “There are many parallels between Savitri Amma’s and Meena Kumariji’s life. In fact the two were very good friends in real life. They both died around the age of 40.The difference was in the career span. Meenaji kept working till the end. Savitri Amma stopped working for many years before her death. The period between her death and this film is very long. That stretch had to be covered so that current generations would know what Savitri Amma had achieved.”
Luckily for the team the biggest of actors came forward to play cameo parts in Mahanati.
Says Priyanka Dutta, “I think the project had Savitri Amma’s blessings. Some divine force was definitely watching over us. There were uncanny incidents and coincidences during the shooting that made us feel we were being guided into doing the right thing. I remember Vijaya M’aam was on the sets the day we shot Savitri Amma’s home accidently catching fire. Vijaya M’aam looked at the chandelier on the sets and exclaimed, ‘How did you all know my parents had a chandelier exactly like that in her home?’ We didn’t know. We just did what came into our hearts. We wanted the world to know the woman behind the Savitri image. I think we achieved that.”