Nadigaiyar Thilagam: A well-made biopic that’s more in love with its subject than I’d have liked

In a film about an extramarital affair, an actor’s descent into alcoholism, and the opportunistic nature of people, the biggest shock is perhaps that Nadigaiyar Thilagam (Mahanati in Telugu) marketed itself as a bilingual. By now, we have been trained by enough ‘bilinguals’ not to expect artistes to mouth all the lines in Tamil. We can make our peace with a fair bit of Telugu-speaking by the artistes à la Baahubali. Nadigaiyar Thilagam though doesn’t even bother for the most part. Keerthy Suresh and Dulquer — who are excellent in their portrayal of actors Savitri and Gemini Ganesan — seem to have been shot speaking only in Telugu. A particularly offensive moment is the recreation of the beautiful ‘Malarndhum Malaraadha’ from Pasamalar. The audio is Tamil, but Keerthy Suresh is mouthing the Telugu lines of the song. Among the rewards of a biopic is the chance to relive the landmark moments of a personality, but this language issue totally ruined what otherwise would have been a rousing scene. It’s worth remembering that Pasamalar was in fact the original, and its Telugu counterpart, Raktha Sambandham, the remake. So, yes, you will do well to sign up for a dubbed film, not a bilingual.

Sign up also for a pretty long film that’s almost three hours long. These days, you can catch a palpable sigh of frustration when the censor certificate shows that a film is as long. But thankfully, director Nag Ashwin’s love for the material really shines through. By the end, you realise what an unenviable job he must have had, given how action-packed the life of Savitri was. In hindsight, he could have well been justified making a two-part film: One about her rise, and the other about her fall, given how fascinating both phases are.

Nadigaiyar Thilagam
Cast: Keerthy Suresh, Dulquer, Vijay Devarakonda

Nag Ashwin’s objective of making this film doesn’t seem to have been just the desire to familiarise people about the life and times of Savitri. It seems to have been to get you becoming her fan, to have you sympathise with the tough hands her life supposedly dealt her. From the first scene, when Savitri is found lying unconscious on her bed, there’s a literal aura in the shots. Sometimes, it’s lights in the background. Sometimes, it’s a setting sun. In one scene in the theatre, it’s light from a projector. Nag Ashwin couldn’t have made it clearer that Nadigaiyar Thilagam deems Savitri to be an angel descended from above, and a hapless victim of her circumstances. She’s shown to be a munificent spirit who can scarcely come to terms with the dark world she’s inhabiting — one full of ungrateful people and opportunists.  In one scene, a character tells her as much. I’d have enjoyed the tragedy of her story a lot more had I not felt the maker’s hands on my back, pushing me to sympathise with the misfortunes of this almost celestial being. Is it even a surprise then that when she’s rapturous in love with Gemini Ganesan, and you get the dreamy Mouna Mazhayile, the visuals show her climbing on a literal ladder into the skies and beyond.

It’s heartening what a terrific opportunity this story is for a female actor, and Keerthy Suresh truly makes the most of it. The film’s mounted on her role, and she really sells Savitri, both the wide-eyed innocence during the early stages and the fragility as she spiral into self-destruction towards the end. Dulquer’s as strong in the film too — he plays Gemini Ganesan unapologetically, and humanises him by portraying all his supposed charm and vulnerability. The writing, his casting and performance all unite to stop Gemini Ganesan’s character from getting villainised, and I’m really glad for that. Despite him being a substantial reason for the heroine’s fall, despite his womanising ways, you aren’t encouraged to hate him. That’s an apple Nag has done a great job refusing.

I wish he had done the same with the alcohol scenes, especially the first one. It’s portrayed almost as an encounter with the devil. The staging, the music, is the equivalent of the makers going, “OMG!” If it had been more understated, I dare say that the scene would have registered more deeply. The film’s also guilty of being pro-Savitri, and that, of course, is a problem with most of our biopics. Nadigaiyar Thilagam could have done with more problematising. In showing you Savitri’s discomfort when she first steps into Ganesan’s house, it stops you from realising she’s hardly the affected party — not in comparison with Ganesan’s first wife anyway. In emphasising all her benevolence, it stops you from truly being annoyed with her alcoholism and bad parenting. In a film less charmed by her, I’d have loved to have been given the opportunity to make up my mind about Savitri.

And oh, if you are wondering why this review hasn’t yet mentioned Vani (Samantha) or Antony (Vijay Devarakonda) — who play characters that help the Savitri story unfold — it’s because they are wholly unnecessary, and serve only as annoying distractions. Perhaps the film needn’t have been 170 minutes after all.

This column was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

One Comment Add yours

  1. A lot of strong performances but I wasn’t sold on the film itself. The slavish effort to canonize Savitri who is fascinating because she has clearly been a highly flawed yet amazing individual kinda ruined it for me. Agree with your assessment that the director tried to make the audience fall madly in love with her. We would have probably done so anyway if he hadn’t been armed with a sledgehammer to force us to acknowledge her awesomeness.

    Found Gemini Ganesan’s portrayal a little problematic too. Don’t think professional jealousy alone led to the rift between them. I mean GG was one of the major stars in the Tamil industry even if he wasn’t as well known in Tollywood. And I felt a little more about her work with the Giants of Tamil cinema like MGR and Nadigar Thilagam Shivaji could have been depicted and the half baked portions with Sam and Vijay could have done away with entirely.

    In trying hard to glorify Savitri, the moral ambiguity in her personality seemed glossed over to an improbable sheen. For instance, I found it hard to believe that she didn’t know that GG was a married man till he told her so himself. And then she acted all horrified and outraged, which made me roll my eyes and go huh? Even in a heroine – centric film clearly it is clearly hard to let go of sexist tropes. That the leading lady has to be an innocent, clueless , angel to win the love, respect and sympathy of the viewing audience. And why couldn’t she have been portrayed as someone who was a social drinker before the habit exacerbated into full – blown alcoholism? Her personal problem led to a drinking problem (could be but I am sure it was more complicated than a failed relationship alone), then the drinking led to her being a neglectful mum and financial troubles. It’s just excuse after excuse as if she was not at all responsible for any of the things that happened to her.
    We do need more film like this but they need to be bolder and made with more finesse.


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