This colourful retelling of the life of Indian actress Savitri takes a lot of its cues from Hollywood’s Golden Era. An endless white staircase ascending to the heavens recalls the climatic musical number from Till The Clouds Roll By. A visit to the cinema to watch I’ll Cry Tomorrow foreshadows the heroine’s fate. And while there are also echoes of A Star is Born, the film with which Mahanati most closely associates is Citizen Kane.
After a brief opening depicting Savitri falling into a coma, the film flashes forward a year where her continual hospitalisation is treated as old news. A journalist is presented with a wealth of research material and sets off to uncover who the ‘Shankarayya’ is that the actress referred to in her last letter. Meeting family and fans who all have an uncanny recall ability (“I remember the first time I set eyes on her as if it were yesterday”), the journalist is presented with a picture of someone who is generous to a fault. Though this is laid on fairly thick, it is made believable by the endearing performances of both Sai Tejashwini as the young Savitri and Keerthy Suresh as the adult.
Though Mahanati spends way too much time on the journalist, even going so far as to give her a love interest and stutter, these episodes are diverting rather than intrusive. The main thrust of the story, the rise of fall of Savitri, is handled both affectionately and with good humour. Early scenes establish her high-spirited nature which seamlessly transitions once Suresh takes on the role. Rajendra Prasad’s portrayal as Savistri’s uncle straddles the two performances and provides a nice foil for both.
Yet the family dynamic is shattered when Savistri falls for her married co-star, Gemini Ganesan. Jealousies, infidelities and a descent into alcoholism follow, bringing to mind a line spoken earlier in the movie. A still photographer working on a movie set is advised the latest film contains... “Mythology, folk, family drama, comedy and courage. All the elements”. Throw in the odd musical number and you have Mahanati.
The characters of journalists Madhuravani and Vijay are fictitious.
Gemini Ganesan’s daughter believed the film inaccurately portrayed her father in a bad light.
“The makers haven’t researched and presented the film honestly. The team did not speak to the family and close friends of Gemini Ganesan… The film leaves you wondering where the facts end and the fiction begins. It has defamed our father. What has been shown on screen is a one-sided version that glorifies Savitri, and bluntly ignores many other aspects of her life… That scene in Mahanati showcases that mom had a drink with dad, but it doesn’t mean she drank first time with him only.”
Dr Kamala Selvaraj
Biopic contains a multitude of excellent scene recreations from Savitri's films including Pathala Bhairavi, Pelli Chesi Choodu, Devadasu, Manampole Mangalyam, Missamma, Missiamma, Maya Bazaar, Mooga Manasulu, Dr. Chakravarthy, Raktha Sambandham, Chivaraku Migiledi and Gorintaku.