People of my generation don’t need much prompting to remember actress Savithri. She was the reigning goddess of the decades when I was born and just growing up in Tamil Nadu. I have seen very few of her films in the theatre, only the last few, but then Doordarshan more than made up for the lack, making hers a face to adore even for my generation. Mahanati (telugu), Nadigaiyar Thilagam, in Tamil, does more than a great job of conjuring up the magic of her personality, the lustrous black eyes, tender expressive face, film success and vivacious personality. As a biopic, it goes further and reveals the emotions behind the beautiful façade, her rise to inordinate success and fame, personal life disasters and eventual crash into poverty, illness and oblivion. Perhaps it is the right time for this picture when she has almost been forgotten by Cinema and Cinephiles.
The 1960s and 1970s were a different era, and if the present could be described as a self-conscious, tech-dominated post-truth era, those decades were definitely, in comparison, an age of innocence. The cinema of that age reflected the same innocence, drama and exaggeration of the times. In general, it was introspective, more reformist if at all, and not deeply questioning of the status-quo. The picturisation of Nadigayar Thilagam is also in this sense, virtually a product of the 1970s film culture. Only two things stop us from totally being transported into that period: One is the lack of real film clips and the second is the lack of resemblance of any character to the real life personality they are enacting, with two notable exceptions – Savithri herself, played by Keerthy Suresh, and N T Ramarao who was recreated in the film using motion capture. There is a third tribute -a giant photograph of Sivaji Ganesan as Savithri enacts the Pasamalar song sequence ‘Malarndhum Malaraadha’. Both instances, of Sivaji and NTR appearing in the film drew claps from the audience, and you could feel their excitement palpably. Perhaps the reason for avoiding lookalikes was precisely to not draw attention away from the magic of Savithri-Keerthy’s performance which was truly magical. Another reason may have been to not dilute the tension of the narrative – even the opening scenes where Savithri is shown to have fallen into a coma, bring a lump to your throat.
I cried many times in the film and many others would have too. And while I belong to the time of people who grew up watching her on Television and some cinema, the film did move even those who hadn’t been exposed to her screen presence earlier. Dulquer Salmaan does a beautiful job as Gemini Ganesan. He is dashing, very much the ladies’ man GG was purported to be, but his looks not matching with the latter does bring us down to earth somewhat.
The film leaves us with heavy hearts. I took days to come out of it, and I guess many would have been affected by that. This is not out of nostalgia, but because of the poignant story, the effective narration and the authenticity. This is no nostalgia trip, but then it wasn’t intended to be either.