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‘Mahanati’ Savitri: All You Need To Know About South India’s Finest Female Superstar

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When the teaser of Mahanati released a few days ago, Keerthy Suresh’s physical transformation as the yesteryear Telugu actress Savitri created quite a buzz. In a recently-held press meet, she admitted that it took hours of make-up to get the look right.

Mahanati, releasing as Nadigaiyar Thilagam in Tamil on May 9, traces the period (1950s-1960s) when Savitri ruled the Telugu-Tamil film industry. Incidentally, that period was also considered  the golden age of South Indian cinema.

The film, directed by Nag Ashwin, will show Savitri’s life, right from her childhood to her final days. It’s not often that an actress’ life, irrespective of how talented she is, generates so much interest that it gets translated onto film. The last biopic on an actress’ life was The Dirty Picture, where Vidya Balan brought to life the heartbreaking tale of actor-dancer Silk Smitha.

As the film (Mahanati) approaches release, here’s a brief as to who Savitri was and why she remains special.

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Hailing from a remote village in Guntur district, Savitri started her acting career at the age of 11, taking part in plays and dance dramas across Andhra Pradesh. She came to Madras at the age of 12 to try her luck in films.

In her first movie, Savitri was paired opposite the legendary Akkineni Nageswara Rao, but she was unable to deliver her lines. After many takes, the director gave up and assigned her a smaller role. The movie was Samsaram (1950). Despite her limited role, Savitri was able to draw attention to herself with her screen presence, writes blogger Rukmini Sita K.

“The next 15 years saw her in lead roles in Telugu and Tamil films. It was the golden age of Telugu cinema and Savitri was the goddess*. This, despite competition from famous actresses of her time- Bhanumati, Anjali Devi, Jamuna, Krishna Kumari… She was not just an enormously successful superstar, she was simply adored without boundaries. She is still loved,” she writes. 

After playing small roles in movies such as Patala Bhairavi and Pelli Chesi Choodu, she was cast in  Devadasu (Devdas) in 1953. At that point, Savitri was only 17 and played Parvathi to Nageswara Rao’s Devadasu. The movie became a super hit and made her a household name in Andhra Pradesh.

In the Tamil film industry, she has worked with MG Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan and Gemini Ganesan, whom she later married. She was only 16 when she met Ganesan, a casting assistant at Gemini Studios, who was 16 years older than her.

The release of the Tamil film Manam Pola Mangalyam proved to be an important point in both their careers. It not only paved the way for a successful professional partnership but also brought them closer as a couple.

The couple was one of the most celebrated on-screen pairs for some of the iconic films such as Missiamma, Pasamalar, Kappalottiya Thamizhan and Kalathur Kannamma.

“Theirs was a sustained union that lasted for more than a dozen years, with a marriage, household and children. The Gemini-Savitri relationship worked wonders for their private as well as screen lives.” Savitri earned the moniker Nadigaiyar Thilagam, a report from The Indian Express reads.

Despite her cinematic rise, she had a very turbulent personal life.

In Tamil cinema, Savitri’s career almost got over by 1965. Film offers started to decline after 1965. She just had a few odd releases such as Thattungal Thirakkapadum, Kandhan Karunai and Saraswathi Sabatham, but these were films she signed up for before 1965. She did continue to act as a pair with NTR and ANR till 1970. She was not paired opposite Sivaji for six years after the release of Thiruvilaiyadal. Praptham was their last release.

Gemini Ganesan was already married when he met Savitri, and they got married in secret.  The couple had two children — a daughter and a son. But, it is said that Gemini Ganesan continued to have affairs, leaving her heartbroken.

“Amma, however, did not know how to handle her troubles. She wasn’t clever to deal with the situation. She was innocent and it affected her very badly. Also, she never had any proper guidance, that’s why she became an alcoholic,” Savitri’s daughter Vijaya Chamundeswari told the Deccan Chronicle.

Despite her many financial troubles, “neither her husband Gemini Ganesan nor the many that benefitted from her came forward to help her financially. She tried to drown her sorrows in more drink and finally succumbed to her disease at a young age of 46, after being in coma for 19 months,” writes Rajeshwari Kalyanam for The Hans India.

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While Keerthy Suresh plays the title role, Dulquer Salmaan will be seen as Gemini Ganesan, Savitri’s co-star and husband. Samantha Akkineni plays journalist Madhuravani, while Vijay Deverakonda plays a photographer. The cast also includes Prakash Raj as Aluri Chakrapani, Mohan Babu as SV Ranga Rao and Naga Chaitanya as Akkineni Nageswara Rao.

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