Savitri: a legend like none other

Former journalists and authors who have chronicled the life of Savitri discuss the varied, at times disturbing, facets of her life

May 03, 2018 02:57 pm | Updated May 07, 2018 05:07 pm IST

 Pasa Malar-Gemini Ganesan, Savithri

Pasa Malar-Gemini Ganesan, Savithri

The life of a celebrity, especially an actor, makes for a fantastic read. Their childhood, the struggles they faced in their personal life and how they overcame all that to become icons can be a matter of awe. The beautiful Savitri made a lasting impression in south Indian cinema. However, in her short life, she provided enough fodder for her biographers who, with their sources, have etched a graph that rose, reached the zenith and plummeted irrevocably.

So dramatic have been their versions of her life that her fans and cinema lovers still argue about the veracity of content.

When Ravuri Bharadwaj’s ‘ Paakudu Raallu ’ came out, many said it was about life of Silk Smitha but some spoke with conviction that it revolved around Savitri. Pallavi, whose book’s seventh reprint is coming out, had contacted the late Gnanpeeth awardee.

When she asked Ravuri whose story it was about, his reply was that the woman in his book represents all heroines in the Telugu film industry and not just Savitri. He apparently picked each character of every popular heroine and attributed it to the protagonist.

Nag Ashwin’s biopic Mahanati has brought back the discussion on the superstar and as his film releases on May 9, Savitri’s biographers and writers in the twin States reminisce their association and wonder if the film will be an authentic and factual representation of her life.

Close quarters

Journalist Pasupuleti Rama Rao visited Savitri every week and wrote her story in a serial, until she slipped into coma.

Samantha’s role in Mahanati is probably inspired by him. Rama Rao recollects, “If Madhubala and Meena Kumari were known for their beauty in Bollywood, it was Savitri here. Her drinking habit ruined her and all those who surrounded her came with vested interest. Her uncle siphoned off her remuneration and she rebelled. From a bungalow in T Nagar (in then Madras) to a tiny house in Anna Nagar, her fall was steep and I hung around till her cremation. She loved jewellery and would deck herself up at home, on days when there was no shoot. In her hey days, there was a goldsmith to design jewellery at her place. One day she looked tired at the studio. When I enquired if she had eaten anything and had taken her insulin shot, she said there was no maid and no one to cook. I asked her why she did not ask some assistant to get it, she said he told her there wasn’t any breakfast left. I immediately gave her the injection and some breakfast.”

Fall from grace

Jamuna, her co-star, is upset that she wasn’t even contacted during the making of the biopic. “Most of the people she worked with are gone but I am alive and I have not been contacted; we had experiences. We shared a close bond. Pallavi had written a thick book but I don’t agree with what she wrote; her work is a piece of fiction. On the other hand, Kampella Ravi Chandran had given an accurate psychological analysis of Savitri and why she fell from grace. A Savitri film without Jamuna? This generation might not know us well. How many of them would have watched her films? I guess they might be showing clips of her famous hit films.”

Destructive tendency

Ravichandran, in his book Savitri: Karigipoyina Karpurakalika, reveals that the producers and director of Mahanati met him, gathered information and asked for some photographs. He came in for flak for being bold in documenting the actor’s life but also says his book was funded by Savitri’s family.

Ravi Chandran observes that once a personality becomes a star, fans and audiences will not like it if his/her past is raked up.

 A still of Savitri as Sasirekha in the all-time classic Mayabazar

A still of Savitri as Sasirekha in the all-time classic Mayabazar

He has a different opinion on her and emphasises that the late actor was not initiated into drinking by Gemini Ganesan. “Someone else did it and her husband took advantage of it, also no one exploited Savitri economically. It was a destructive tendency. She took loans, did not pay taxes and only after splitting from Gemini she did 120 films, so where does the question of poverty arise?” he says and adds, “She was a good artiste; aame bomma andanga geesukuni aame chinchesukundhi . From fire to the frying pan, she would jump from one problem to the other. Even god couldn’t write her tala rata well. She was not stable, she was a fickle personality.”

The biographer lauds her as a beautiful and a fabulous actor but emphasises that people shouldn’t dictate to writers and journalists what to write and what not to, “ Balaheenatalu matlaadakudadhu (not to talk about weaknesses) is what they think. What has been written is backed by research and evidence. From being a street dancer to rising to a position where she could demand the DoP to put two key lights on her and rope in technicians and singers of her choice for the films she acted in, is no joke.”

It is about stardom and power. Ravi Chandran adds, “ Aame vaibhogam intha antha kadha . From having 10 cars in front of her house, she came down to asking people please take my son for a ride in your car.”

₹100 crore property

 Kamal Haasan with Savithri in Kalathur Kannamma

Kamal Haasan with Savithri in Kalathur Kannamma

Author Pallavi’s Mahanati Savitri: Vendi Tera Samragni is in the seventh reprint. She is die hard fan of Savitri and met all her colleagues, relatives and Savitri’s brother in law. She wants the film to be as beautiful as Savitri and says whatever unacceptable things she has done, she did it on a rebound because Gemini Ganesan cheated her. “As Telugu people it is our responsibility to safeguard her honour. What went in her personal life is known to very few people. After 1957, when Maya Bazaar released, her fate changed. Producers flocked to her. When she was at her peak, her assets in 1960s were valued at ₹100 crore. It was on benamis, it was a viscious circle and by the time she realised it was all gone. There was one property in Yousufguda called Savitri Bungalow that eventually was passed on to her sister. Her brother in law too created problems. He passed away two years ago.”

Director PC Reddy who directed Savitri says, “there is none who can equal her beauty and talent. She didn’t heed to anyone’s advice and got married very early. I remember she was so addicted to drinking even on the sets; she threw up on my shirt during a shoot. The next day she got a brand new shirt for me. She was a generous woman.”

Mahanati is pitched a celebration of Savitri, the actor. Vijay Devarkonda tweeted that the film is “about a girl with dreams first, a woman who loved and wanted to be loved next and a superstar last” (sic). That probably sums up this generation’s approach of viewing cinema.

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