Monday, December 18, 2017

Mahanati Savitri

Reading time: ~ 8-10 minutes.

(This post is the third in the series- Remarkable Women)

Savitri, aka Mahanati (Great Actress) almost didn’t make it as a movie actor. 

In 1950, she was so nervous in her first movie role paired against the famous Akkineni Nageshwar Rao that she could not deliver her lines. After many tries the director gave up and gave her a smaller role. The movie was Samsaram
What happened next was unprecedented. 

Savitri became very determined to succeed. So much so, she shone brightly in a tiny role in the classic Patala Bhairavi in 1951. People at the studios began to refer to her as Raanante raanu ammayi (the song she danced to and from which you can’t tear your eyes away). 
A couple of small roles later (including Pelli Chesi Choodu), she was cast for Devadasu (Devdas) in 1953. She was 17 and played Parvati to Nageshwar Rao’s Devadasu. The movie was a super hit. A star rose, unlike anyone before and after her. 
The next 15 years saw her in lead roles in Telugu and Tamil films. It was the golden age of Telugu cinema and Savithri 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. What was it about her that was so magical? 

Grace and Fire

When small, I mostly saw her later movies on TV. She was typecast in suffering, sacrificing  roles. They didn’t make much imprint on me. In my teens I saw her famous films- Missamma, Mayabazaar, Kanyasulkam… and I fell in love. Her role in the early classics Missamma and Mayabazaar are so finely imprinted that it is unimaginable that anyone else could have played those roles. 

After that, for a couple of decades I didn't see any Indian movies except for one or two. One day, I was looking for songs on YouTube to watch with my then 7-8 yr old son and I clicked on her movie video songs. 
It was a tough stage in our personal lives, and as we were watching a particular old song Chaduvu raani vaadavani, tears welled up in my eyes. I began to understand her magic. Even now, whenever I feel low, I watch few of her select songs to feel better.

Savitri was genuine. She was her role. The character she played came alive and you were also the character along with her. She once fainted while doing an emotional scene in a movie (Tamil Raktasambandam). In Devadasu, in the last scene where Parvati runs out of her mansion but is blocked by a closed gate, she was supposed to dash against the gate and bang her head repeatedly against it. Savitri was so immersed in being Parvati that she did not stop banging her head even when the director said ‘Cut’. She didn’t hear
Savitri had grace (karuna). There is a constant kindness flowing from her person, using the medium of the role. We become part of that grace as we watch her. Her daughter said, in real life she would give money to all those who approached her for help when she stepped out. Her car would be surrounded by many in need. Once when she didn’t have money, she gave away her bangles. When she lost her riches, she sold saris from her wardrobe to give someone. Even now people approach her daughter for help saying her mom helped them before! 
Savitri was fire. Her roles were strong, and she defined them with depth and self worth (atmabhimanam). I heard in an interview that once when she was going in her car, a fellow by the road saw her and started singing something around her name, sort of teasing her. She stopped, came out and gave the fellow a few slaps. 
Speaking of cars, she loved racing. She competed in car races and even won!

She was moonshine, she was fire and she was everything in between, all at once! She was vulnerable and confident, effervescent with gravitas, effortless and thoughtful, whimsical and contemplative, conservative and defiant, romantic and serious, all at once. Her face and body were extremely expressive, she never missed a nuance and a detail- if she was playing veena, her fingers would strum in the right place. If she was carrying a load or cooking or boating, her body behavior would show that even as she sang or said a dialogue. Her onscreen chemistry with co-stars was amazing. Her co-stars raised their performance to match hers. Her co-stars were all formidable superstars- NTR**, ANR, SVR  in Telugu, Shivaji Ganesan, MGR and Gemini Ganesan in Tamil.
To me, she was like a many-petalled hibiscus (muddamandaram), with the hidden fire (agni) of the sun. Whenever the roles matched this ability, there were showers of petals and sparkles! It is our good fortune that there were many such roles. 

I don’t think she had any formal training other than playing in a few stage dramas. Her enormous natural talent is in display in the song Aha naa pellanta in Mayabazaar. In the end, she switches from female to male to female character, copying the mannerisms of the famous actor playing the male character (SVR) while the female she was playing was a male, temporarily, by magic. The complexity is so swift and spontaneous, it is out-of-this-world. She was 20-21. “I observed S.V. Ranga Rao garu for a few days and learned how to be like him” she said in an interview. 

Savitri is not known much beyond the Telugu and Tamil film world. The reach and recognition of southern craft, culture and art has been and is still lower than the north but the upside is that it has retained a regional flair. It is a pleasure when I read comments on Youtube and discover younger generations discovering her like I did. She imparts a uplifted, noble feeling for the people who watch and can relate to her.

Grief and Health

In complete contrast to her stardom, Savitri’s personal life wasn't happy or secure. She had no support system. 

Born in a small village Chirravuru in December 1936, she soon lost her father and was raised by her mother in their uncle’s home in nearby Vijayawada. Her father was a talented Harikatha artist. Savitri’s mother and uncle took her to Chennapatnam (as Chennai was then called) in the late 40’s and looked for roles by visiting studios. The studios thought she was too young. They went back and two years later, when she gave a dance performance in Kakinada, someone noticed her and she was called for a role in Samsaram

In 1952 Gemini Ganesan was her co-star in a Tamil movie, Manapolu Mangalyam. She was 15-16 of age and he was 16 years her senior and was married with children. He was asked to teach her Tamil. He must’ve been a charmer and she must’ve been charmed. They secretly married in a temple in 1952 and Savitri announced that in an oblique way in 1956 (she signed for a fan as “Savitri Ganesan”). In reality, telling her family about her marriage in 1956 had much drama, with Savitri jumping from the back wall of her house and fleeing to Ganesan’s home*** to escape her very controlling uncle. 
Savitri had Rs. 750 in her bank account when she and Gemini Ganesan started a life together in a rental. Thankfully, her relations with her uncle mended due to a truce managed by Akkineni (ANR). 
But there was more. Ganesan was also in a secret relationship with Pushpavalli. Pushpavalli was a talented actress and was the lead in a few films in late 40’s in which Gemini Ganesan had small roles. Actress Rekha, one of their two daughters, was born in 1954. 

Savitri and Gemini Ganesan had a successful movie partnership for a decade. Savitri adored Gemini Ganesan. She was a traditional wife, Gemini was like a god to her and was the king of their household. They had two children. She was given the title “Mahanati” in a public function in Hyderabad in 1964, in which Savitri and Gemini Ganesan were felicitated by Andhra Yuvathi Mandali with an elephant ride. The state of Tamil Nadu gave her the title "Nadigaiyar Thilagam"
But by late 60’s their relationship started falling apart. In Gemini’s company, Savitri had been drinking alcohol in social settings. This slowly became an addiction aided by her sorrow in personal life. Gemini Ganesan had become aloof, and she was hearing from others of affairs. They separated and she was never the same. It must’ve been very difficult- she was conservative with self-respect, just like her movie roles, but in real life she had to choose between the two. In 1969, she asked him to leave. It must’ve broken her heart and we can see the melancholy in her features in her later movies (Kodalu Diddina Kapuram onwards). In 1970 her mother died.
Soon, one of her directorial ventures sunk her money due to scheduling issues and a few movies she stood as guarantor on goodwill or produced did not do well. She lost much of her wealth. At the same time, in her naivety she ignored some notices from income tax and didn't open them. She had owed more in her taxes- about 8 lakhs. Before she knew it, the owed tax increased with interest to 40 lakhs. She had to sell more of her assets. Given her guilelessness, lots of her staff cheated on her during the sales and pocketed large portions of money. 

Savitri had struggled with her weight all through. Somewhere along, she developed diabetes. All these stressors added up. By the 72-73 she was doing smaller roles in movies to support her children and pay the remaining tax. And was frequently being hospitalized with ill-health. She had moved from her big home to a small rental in 1977. Roles were not easy to come by as people were uncomfortable to give a small role with a small fee to an actress of her calibre. This pained her.

Death and Memory

On May 10, 1980, Savitri stopped in Bangalore at Hotel Chalukya while going back for a Kannada movie shoot in Mysore. There Savitri had some family-related visitors. They left with her son (Satish Kumar) for some shopping and by the time they came back, Savitri, who had quit drinking (and also lost weight) was with a bottle of gin. There was dinner and the guests left, but Savitri apparently did not eat and was stressing out about a recent court notice (on taxes). The guess was that, she took her insulin shots, had a few drinks and fell asleep without eating. She went into a coma from which she did not wake up. Her blood pressure had dropped. She had been in a coma before and had come back. But this time it was different. 
She was taken to Lady Curzon hospital where thousands of people showed up to pray for her (even though she acted in very few Kannada movies). Eventually she was brought back to her home in Chennai. She was cared for by her relatives. Natural to the state of coma, her body became emaciated and she became skin and bones over months.
But Savitri had already died the night she went into coma. Even in those days there must've been privacy if a person, especially a celebrity, was in state of coma or acute ill-health. Somehow, she didn’t have privacy. Lots of individuals were allowed to visit and even take pictures.  The final clinical death was on December 26, 1981. She was 44. 
I wish media would stop making news of her one+ year in coma and give the privacy at least now. 

But Savitri got her wish (it was close)- she wished that when she died, she would die while acting, in a set. 
I remember her death being announced on Doordarshan in 1981. There was a hush everywhere. I didn’t know much about her at that time but was struck as to how actor after famous actor who was interviewed was in tears.  

Her daughter Vijaya Chamundeshwari runs a gym in Chennai to help women stay in shape, for her mother didn’t have any know-how or help in this area. Vijaya has said that when she travels in Andhra, some people slowly approach her on the streets and ask if she is Savitri’s daughter (there is a likeness). 
When she says yes, they ask with much feeling, ‘Can we touch you once?’

Such is Savitri’s timeless abode in the hearts of people. 


Notes & References

*Telugu and Tamil movies were both based in Madras (Chennai) in the beginning. I saw in a documentary that one of the first movies made had the actors speaking in both languages! The heroine spoke Tamil and the hero spoke Telugu.
Savitri was probably as popular in Tamil industry at her peak as in Telugu. I wrote she was Goddess of Telugu industry because I know Telugu films of that time but am not familiar with  Tamil field. 

**I find myself a little partial to the movie pairing of Savitri and NTR. I love the intensity, trust and the sweetness of their on-screen chemistry. 

*** The Hindu Marriage Act outlawing polygamy came into effect in 1955. Since Savitri and Gemini Ganesan married in 1952, they held their marriage to be valid. However, they remarried in 55-56 in Tirupati. Gemini Ganesan's first wife Alamelu did not object. It was to their house that Savitri went after the conflict at her home. Savitri did not know of Gemini Ganesan-Pushpavalli at that time. 

Interview with her daughter Vijaya Chamundeshwari on Gurthukosthunnayi TV program, 3-4 part series.
Kiran Prabha radio series, 3 parts
Savitri's lively talk on radio (a must listen): Talk 


Dear Readers, 

I wanted to write a small addition to this blog post since this post is being read by many new fans of Savitri. This addition is to try and understand her extraordinary skill. 
Another way to try to understand is within Indian context. In it, emotions are said to be of 9 types (navarasa)- Love, Joy, Wonder, Courage, Calmness/Shanta, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. If we look deeper, these emotions can be grouped as opposites except for one. For example, consider Love-Anger. Love is the opposite of Anger. If we are feeling love for someone, we are not feeling anger. If we are feeling anger, we are not feeling love. One rests, even momentarily, on not feeling the other. 
Similarly, the other pairs are- Joy-Sadness, Wonder-Disgust, Courage-Fear. Only Calmness/Shanta stands alone. All 4 opposite-pair-emotions rest on how Calm/Shanta we are. If we are Shanta, all other emotions stay within a range.

Savitri’s base was always Calmness/Shanta and on this were added the emotions that were called for in a character. She was able to hold all the emotions in a range and had the ability to alternate the deepest emotions at subtle speed. 
Indian story-telling calls for larger-than-life protagonists, so she added her facial expressions and body language to aid the expressive dramatic effect in a way that was just right with intensity and grace. All this came naturally to her. 

Here are some examples -
1. Paatalabhairavi - She was 14 in 1951 and was already showing the superstar ability in her. In this song (3:20-4:47) she showed Love-Joy-Wonder-Sadness-Anger-Courage resting on a foundation of Calmness/Shanta. 
2. Thodikodallu (1957). Savitri and ANR. She is in a sari, doing a physical movement that is not quite sari-conducive. Yet, she acts beautifully. 
3. Gundamma Katha (1962). Savitri and NTR. Amazing expressions. 
4. Nartanasala (1963). She is Sairandri here, and with very minimal facial expressions is showing Courage-Sadness-Wonder, always resting on a foundation of Calmness/Shanta.