A rags to riches story fascinates and provokes admiration, just as riches to rags story evokes sympathy. How are we to feel about the life of Savithri who in a short life span of 45 years combined both? She was never in destitution, to be sure, but the film wants the audience to experience extreme highs and lows along with her, and by and large delivers. The film fields some of the biggest names, even in minor roles, a sign of the admiration, nay, veneration with which she is held. It is an honor just to be part of this film.
It begins at the end, with a poignant scene of one of greatest actresses, lively and proud, who reached highest levels of stardom brought down on a stretcher, to the lowly grungy hospital floor as an unknown, nearly lifeless and in coma. The exploration of her past comes in the form of two journalists Samantha's Madhuravani (surely a tribute to Savithri's outstanding role in kanyaasulkam which unfortunately does not feature in the film), and Vijaya Devarakonda's Anthony.
Child Savithri shelters a stray dog when she herself is seeking a shelter. If true, what happened to that dog may forever be lost to the posterity. What we know, however, is unlike some dog lovers, her caring and sharing nature extended to 'stray' humans who often repaid this magnanimity with emotional and financial exploitation.
We see that Savithri is raised in her uncle and aunt's home after her father passes away when she is still a months baby. The uncle (ably played by Rajendra Prasad) motivated by the lucrative glitter of film world puts every effort to make her an actress. He is protective more than affectionate, merely a guardian, not a father figure she craves for. Then in her first visit to Madras she comes into contact with Gemini Ganesan. Dulqer Salman whose supremely charming portrayal will win many a female hearts, gives a hint of what impact handsome Gemini Ganesan had on an impressionable young teenager who finds in a guy twice her age what she misses in her life - caring father figure and an attentive romantic lover. A tiny detail of his being an already married man, with kids, and with an appetite for extramarital affairs on the side is hidden from her until she is already emotionally too far into the relationship to step back.
In the popular imagination, marrying an already married man was the source of her tribulations. Surprisingly, as per the film, it plays little role in her downfall. One gets the impression that things would pan out in the same way, if she were the only married wife of Gemini Ganesan. The first wife rarely comes into picture, and the husband convinces Savithri with his male sophistry that his relationships with multiple women weighed less than his love for her.
Then the film dwells into some of her finest performances, and lucky breaks, for her and for Telugu cinema, like missamma. The film initially, tantalizingly predicts her acting with NTR and ANR, but all three were never shown together in any frame, in spite of excellent candidates like missamma and gundamma katha (the latter did not make it to the cut, though superior to doctor chakravarthy which did). Mohan Babu's SVR got more screen presence with her and the only major actor shown talking about her acting prowess. Why? Because there is also an elephant in the room - in this case missing - when depicting her film career: NTR. He is virtually absent. Reportedly this was due to the refusal of Jr NTR portraying the legend, out of some pig headed humility, and the director refusal to field any one else. Unfortunately, even while making such great films, crass clannish considerations seep into and blight Telugu cinema. The director simply should have fielded some one else. This was an egregious blunder. At least among Telugu audience, depicting Savithri's professional world without NTR is akin to showing her personal world without Gemini Ganesan.
The cracks appear in the marriage when her career is taking off when husband's is nosediving. Skirmishes are legion. When she takes to acting the guy takes to drinking and philandering. He protests disingenuously that she knew all this before the marriage. That was 'when she was Savithri, but now she is Savithri Ganesan' is her caustic reply. What she valued above anything else was trust and when people close to her break it, she is broken, repeatedly. The emotional turmoil compels her to walk out on Gemini Ganesan, in the process, severing her from the only support system she would otherwise have had in handling her finances which fall prey to a series of misjudgments and chicanery by the people she trusted.
All this was by and large known and it was the details that were lacking in the public domain. How well she was taken care of during her last months had been a controversy. Her own daughter, in earlier interviews, and her son, more recently, have refuted allegations that Savithri suffered due to neglect. There were millions of her admirers and reportedly some donors who came forward to bear the expenses. The film could have been an opportunity to set the record straight.This most crucial and tragic phase of her life remains unanswered, due to director playing it safe. Admittedly it is a tightrope act to make a bioepic that could potentially offend those who are still alive. One gets the feeling that his role as a husband has been sanitized.
Where the director excels is in the script and the introduction of fictional characters in the form of journalists. In the interleaving of past and present, their love is blossoming at the same time Savithri's is wilting. While the biography limits the director's ability to take too many liberties with the story, no such restraint existed for the fictional part and he exploits this creative dimension to the hilt and provides contrasting comic, but empathetic juxtaposition to increasingly gloomy downturn of Savithri's life. Madhuravani's Samantha speaks in stutters because she got stammer. There is no reason for Vijay Devarakonda speaking as if he is about to acquire one. He appeared to be the same character downloaded from his earlier 'pelli choopulu'. He could have been cast bit differently. However, both of them carried their roles with aplomb. So did Mohan Babu as SVR. It is charming to see the roles of legendary figures like Marcus Bartley, Singeetham, KV Reddy, mercurial Chakrapani. We miss countless others like Jamuna, Relangi, Suryakantam, Gummadi, redoubtable Adurti Subbaarao; and no MGR, Sivaji Ganesan either. The film could have an extended version for non-theatrical release. There is little mention of living contemporaries like Jamuna (Gudipudi Srihari, giant of a film critic, places her ahead of Savihtri), Kakarala Satyanarayana, who, but for his age, could have walked into SVR's role.
Even these excellent performances are majestically upstaged by mesmerizing Keerthi Suresh in the title role. Her portrayal in the iconic 'aha naa pellanta' song is so close to the original that people, even without the excuse of short sight could mistake one for the other. This is just one of the many scenes she radiates as the legend. This is also severe indictment of hidebound Telugu film's habit treating female leads as decorative pieces instead of harnessing their talent.
The director's another significant achievement is to bring Savithri to a new generation of young people.
Finally this film is a beautiful, albeit an unfinished painting on a great canvas. I highly recommend seeing this on big screen.