The teaser of Mahanati showed a figure in a sari walking towards a balcony. And then, déjà vu struck. Was it a shot of Savithri from an old movie? The mild swing of the hips, the gentle gait… and then, the camera panned to the face.
“Did you notice that? I’m so happy,” exclaims Keerthy Suresh, who essays actress Savithri in her biopic Mahanati (Nadigaiyarin Thilagam in Tamil), directed by Nag Ashwin. She worked a lot on the gait of the actress, known for her diverse range of movies, countless expressions, and ability to lend life to any character she took up. She was a rockstar off the sets — Savithri loved motor racing, and lived life on her own terms before her untimely death.
Excerpts from an interview with Keerthy, who is also working on Saami 2, Sandakozhi 2 and Thalapathi 62.
How difficult was it to perfect the nuances and the quirks that made Savithri special?
Let me start with the walk… I imagined I was a slightly heavy person, and concentrated on my back while walking. It took some practice, but I got close to her walk. Watching her movies helped. A person changes many things to suit a character, but one’s walk, smile and other things remain. That said, I was always aware whom I was trying to be like.
Is that a reason why you hesitated taking up the role?
I was terrified when the role came to me. She’s a legend, and I’m still new to my field. I wondered if I would do justice.
And so, I said no. But, they persisted, and I wondered if I should listen to the narration. I got scared again. How will I pull this off, was my first fear. And then, was it right to do something this demanding at this stage of my career when I was doing commercial films too? Was it too early? Would the audience accept me? There were too many questions. And then, the script provided clarity. It was a movie that was being done as aesthetically as possible.
How did you relate to the trolls who wondered if you were right for the part? Some comments were pretty vicious…
I never focussed on what was being said behind my back. I was anyway questioning myself and too involved in that to wonder what others felt. But, the real fear started once I accepted the project. There’s this huge burden of expectation and you have to live up to it. When people came up and told me, “You’re blessed to be able to do this so early,” I’d be worried sick if I would do well at all.
Ashwin Nag chose you after seeing Thodari. You’ve always maintained you were convinced the film would give you something special…
Well, yes. I loved the innocence of my role in Thodari, and while the movie did not do well, I felt it would bring along something nice. And to think, Nag chose me after seeing me in the song ‘Ada Ada’. He loved the innocence, the very thing that many others had a problem with. He felt it matched the younger Savithri perfectly.
What is your first memory of Savithri? And, how was it to live her on screen?
My abiding memory has to be Maya Bazaar, and I would be bewitched by how luminous she looked. Shooting the film was a different ballgame. I’ve always been interested in textile designing, and studied it too. This film was a great lesson on the fabrics of yore. These days, what we wear is fashionable and comfortable. Those days, it was about how good a costume looked on screen, not on how comfortable it was. My mother (actress Menaka) used to tell me about her interactions with KR Vijaya amma, Padmini amma… where they spoke about how the jewellery would hurt the skin, and shooting with heavy hairstyles and under harsh lighting — the layers of pancake make-up. And, there were body-hugging blouses that did not have a single wrinkle. Who stitches that way now? We took time to get that look right. I would insist on tight sleeves because that’s what she wore. I would know it was tight enough if my veins stood out angry and green after pack-up. And, to think, I experienced just a portion of all that. After all, I was sitting in an air-conditioned caravan, and the designers sourced better fabrics that were kind on the skin. But, it was a lesson in how the stars of yore created a body of work under such difficult circumstances.
The team had put in so much research. Did you know, for instance, that she changed the shape of her eyebrows for every film, and also drew out her lip differently? After a point, I would not wait for instructions, and do it myself. Somehow, I instinctively felt this is what she would have done.
The film (Mahanati) releases today. What is your state of mind?
The film wrung me dry, but was a great lesson. It showed me what I can do, or cannot. It was an incredible experience. On the last day of shoot, I was in tears, and I’m not easily prone to them. I’m usually very lively on the sets, and thought I had the ability to switch off from the character. One day, an assistant director called out to me and asked if all was well, because I was unduly quiet. That was when I realised that while I thought I had switched off, I really had not. I was happy when we were shooting the happy part of her life, and when we shot the decline of Savithri, her depression and the alcoholic daze, I would cut myself off from others and get into that zone too.
On the last day, I hoped her blessings would be upon us, because we have worked really hard on the project. It was everyone’s passion project.
You’re being praised for your choice now. But, you’ve also been criticised for films such as Remo that glorified stalking…
I have always tried to do a mixed bunch of films. When I signed up for Remo, I saw it merely as a character who was being pursued. I looked at the team… there was PC Sreeram Sir, Sivakarthikeyan… We were doing a film that looked different from our previous outing Rajini Murugan. Sometimes, we end up making choices without looking at the holistic picture.
But, I’ve also been criticised for Thodari. I took up that film only for her innocence. I was asked how could one be so innocent and clueless. My reply was that the world is made up of different types of people.
You are still fairly new to Telugu audiences… how was it working in such a prestigious project there?
The scale of this film is something else. After working in different industries, you are used to picking up languages. It helped that there was familiar faces, including Bhanupriya, on the sets who also spoke Tamizh. I dubbed for myself and that made it more real.
You aspire to be a designer someday. In that context, how did the film work for you?
While I wear saris, I’ve never had the opportunity to wear so many in such a range of fabrics. Usually, for other films, I get my costumes days in advance, and would go over them. In this film, I was wondering how they would go about it. I did not put on weight or lose it for the role. The costumes had to do the job of making me look fragile or bulky. At one stage, prosthetics came in. The team had put in such effort to get the detailing right. The clothes were perfect. Occasionally, I would offer inputs regarding fabrics. I would ask for fabrics that draped well for a younger Savithri, so that the slimness was accentuated, and slightly heavier fabrics to lend bulk.
The Keerthy Suresh interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.