Long after the end credits roll down, Mahanati stays with you. More importantly, Keerthy Suresh does. For generations that did not grow up watching Savitri on screen during her heyday, this film brings the life of the actress par compare on screen and off it.
Up North, Alia Bhatt has been receiving similar bouquets for her spy thriller Raazi, about an Indian girl who gets married to a Pakistani to spy for her country.
The biggest surprise is that both films have done phenomenal business, worldwide, breaking the myth that women-centric films win critical but not commercial acclaim. While Raazi minted Rs. 7.53 crores on its opening day, and Rs 32.94 crores during the first weekend, Mahanati has already grossed over $1.5 million dollars in the US. It is said to be the fifth highest Telugu grosser of 2018.
Bollywood has been slowly but surely writing films with near-equal space for the male and female leads, and they exist in the middle of hero vehicles. But, in the South, it is after a very long time that the audience has experienced a film headlined by a woman in every sense of the word. It glorifies her, yes, but also highlights her frailties. And, all credit to director Nag Ashwin for seeing Savitri in Keerthy when the world trolled the young star after it was announced that she was to play the legendary actress.
There are a couple of scenes among the many stellar ones that stand out — when Keerthy sheds exactly two tears from her left eye, and when she knows there’s a bottle of liquor lying outside, but tries hard to not succumb to temptation. Keerthy admits she experienced a never-before high as a performer in this film. “It is going to be difficult to match,” she tells Silverscreen in an exclusive interaction after the movie released to great reviews.
“From the beginning, I knew the movie would shape up well, but this success was something I never expected. I truly did not know it would become as big as it has today,” she adds.
In all her movies so far, while Keerthy has tried to leave her mark in the limited scope offered, this film was a canvas on which she could paint varied emotions. And, how she does it! “I did not realise it during shooting. Now, on screen, it looks very different, like a lot of work has gone in,” she smiles. The actress confesses that while she was not amazed seeing herself on screen, she was, seeing the audience response.
Keerthy is still young, and believes this is the time to do a bouquet of movies across genres. “This fell in place. I have to opt for a mix of movies, because it is not possible to always get author-backed roles.”
You can put all of Keerthy’s works on one side of the scale, and Mahanati will still emerge the weightier one on the other. Hope directors offer her better scripts, and writers learn to weave a story around an actress who can handle being a performer and a star. “In a way, I think that this film will lead to better-written roles,” she hopes too.
Why this film spreads hope is because the South Indian film industries desperately need a mascot to champion the cause of their leading ladies. We have seen too many talented actresses fall by the wayside, for reasons that are too frivolous to even list out. While heroes and their families are celebrated, with their wives being hailed as annis, married heroines are given the short shrift. Samantha Akkineni (who is also part of Mahanati, in a thread that does not really gel with the rest of the film, and Amala Paul (whose recent Thiruttu Payale 2 was a hit) are glorious exceptions.
The film, and the overall appreciation that has come Keerthy’s way, gives hope that talented heroines will be allowed a chance to bloom in roles of substance, and will no longer be treated like mere eye candy. It has taken Keerthy just about 12 films and four years to land Mahanati. That’s huge in an industry where heroines usually wait for at least a decade or more before they land any role of importance. If things improve, this might also mean better remuneration for the women, an issue that is not often openly discussed, but needs to be.
And so, while we celebrate what the director has achieved with the biopic and Keerthy has, as a performer, we should also guard against a return to the old ways. Keerthy says that commercial films are a must, and she wants to be a part of them when age is still on her side. But, there is a caveat: Yes only to films that treat its female characters with the dignity they deserve.
Will the teams of Saamy 2, Sandakozhi 2 and Thalapathi 62, all starring Keerthy, make amends, and allow the heroine to shine despite the overdose of testosterone the films will ride on?