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The Immortal Queen of South Cinema

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Nata Siromani, Kalaimamani and Nadigayar Thilakam, Mahanati Savitri has to her credit several Filmfare awards, Rashtrapati award for ‘Chivaraku Migiledi’ and a permanent place in the hearts of people.

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An illustrious actress of the golden period of South cinema, Savitri’s life and her tragic death at the young age of 46 on December 26, 1981, continues to intrigue and sadden Telugu film audience. Numerous books on her life continue to be published even today. And one wonders whether the story of her death has overshadowed the real humanist and great actress.


She is like sandalwood that spreads fragrance all around; she is like a piece of camphor that fearlessly glows in the darkness of night – said Jnanpith Awardee, eminent writer Ravuri Bharadwaj describing Mahanati, great actress of South Indian film industry of the 60s and 70s, Savitri. Ravuri won the coveted literary award for his novel ‘Paakudu Raallu’. Literally translated it means slippery stones and the book is the story of an actress who makes it big in Telugu film industry only to end her life in a tragic way. It is not just film world; life itself is a slippery stone. There are those who face the travails in life and stand still despite the slippery stone, there are others who make every effort to climb up the slippery stone and with strength of their will power, manage to reach the top and there are others who let themselves slip and fall.

Considered to be the Goddess of cinema in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, Savitri had managed to climb up the slippery stone when she was quite young, but let herself fall down and eventually succumbed to tragic death on December 26, 1981. Her story holds the intrigue and interest of a reader, not just for the way she died, but the way she had lived too.

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No wonder, there have been numerous books written on her life, some like ‘MahanatiSavitri Venditera Samragni by Pallavi; ‘A Legendary Actress Mahanati Savitri’ by VR Murthy and V Soma Raju were written after her death by fans and there are others like ‘Savitri Jeevita Charitra’ by GVG written when she was alive. Thirty two years after her death, senior journalist Pasupuleti Rama Rao published a book, “Venditera Vishaada Raagaalu’ last week, where he devoted considerable number of pages for the legendary actress.

She was born in 1936 on January 4 in a remote village called Chirravuru in Guntur district. She lost her father when she was just six months old. Her mother Subhadramma took both her daughters (Savitri and her elder sister Maruti) to live with her sister Durgamba and her husband Kommareddy Venkataramaiah Chowdhury who worked as a driver in Bejawada (Vijayawada). Despite poor finances, both the kids attended school.Savitri showed great flair for dance and so Venkataramaiah enrolled her in dance classes.

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She was not even 11, and she was a part of the renowned theatre groups of the time doing dance dramas all across Andhra Pradesh before acting in plays. She was the crowd puller and had acted with all the popular theatre groups including NTR’s National Art theatre, Jaggaiah troupe and several others. She had shared stage with many actors like Jamuna who in later years met her in the film world.  By that time, films were making inroads. Her uncle who took care of her finances ensured she took every step needed to get closer to acting in films, just like every other stage actor in those days.

When she was just 12 she was carted off to Madras to try her luck in films. Savitri did not mind it one bit and was hoping to catch a glimpse of her favourite actor Akkineni Nageswara Rao. By then, she had left her school behind and was busy acting on stage. A quick tour of the studios in Madras confirmed that she was too young to act as a heroine in films; this is despite her uncle trying to make her look older with the help of makeup. Any failure, whatsoever, made Savitri only more determined. “Feed her well!” was only what her uncle instructed her mother and aunt before getting back to theatre.

It was in 1948, during her first visit to Madras, Savitri met her future husband. They were at Gemini Studios, where she was asked to get her pictures taken. There was a handsome man looking very well-educated, waiting to take her photographs. He was appreciative of her smile and took her pictures, wished her luck. He then filed her pictures with a note – Looks promising if given an opportunity.

It was in 1950, when she was offered a role as female lead in the film ‘Samsaaram’. Shooting commenced and the first schedule was over, yet Savitri couldn’t get a hold over herself. She was too excited to work with ANR, the hero of the film. She had to take a lot of retakes and finally it was decided to give the role to Lakshmi Kantham.

Savitri was given a small role with one dialogue as compensation. Another year passed with one odd role (she acted as a vamp in the film, ‘Roopavati’, during which time she had also danced for one song in the classic film, ‘Paatala Bhairavi’).  Later, she got the opportunity to work in the prestigious Vijaya banner as second heroine in their hit film, ‘Pelli Chesi Choodu’. She was appreciated for her role and filmmakers came looking for her.

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Her uncle ensured she was booked in three-four films even before the film released, in February, 1952. What followed were ‘Palleturi Pilla’, the first film which had her name in the title card as the lead actress, ‘Sankranthi’ and the all-time great – ‘Devadasu’ – the film released in 1953 and Chandraharam’, ‘Ardhandgi’, Hindi film ‘Bahut Din Hue’, a Tamil film ‘Manampol Mangalyam’ and ‘Missamma’.

There is an interesting story behind Savitri acting in the immortal role of ‘Missamma’. This was in 1954. Originally Bhanumati, who by then was also handling her own productions, was signed for the film as she would suit the haughty character and this they did despite their personal differences. One day, the producers Chakrapaani and Nagireddy and director LV Prasad were waiting at Vauhini Studios for the heroine since 7 am and there was no sight of her until 1 pm. They were furious.

And they didn’t mince words to express their displeasure and Bhanumati known for her bluntness was equally unperturbed and walked out of the set. Savitri, who was originally to act in the role of Jamuna bagged the lead role and the rest is history.

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It was during the shooting of the Tamil version that people noticed the closeness between Gemini Ganesan (GG) and Savitri, a few producers complained about it too. She was signed for the film, ‘Kanyasulkam’ – the film got her critical acclaim. She was getting busy in Tamil too and learnt the language and started dubbing for herself. She was so good at it that for a long time Tamil film audience assumed that Savitri is a Tamilian. Soon it was confirmed that Savitri married GG secretly in 1952 itself.

An argument with her uncle ensued, and she walked away from him permanently.  Many of her well-wishers were aghast with her decision for obvious reasons. Not many had a good impression about GG. He was already married to Alimelu and had four daughters (Revati, Kamala, Narayani and Jaya Lakshmi) and was also involved in an affair with another woman, Pushpavalli. In his own words, he met her in 1951 and the relation continued and they had two daughters (Rekha who was born in 1954 and Radha who was born in 1955), during which time he was married to Savitri.

The couple decided to go to the press about their marriage in 1956. The same year she had acted in the film, ‘Mayabazar’ – the film that has stood the test of time and continues to be the best Telugu film ever made and her acting as Mayasasirekha is considered to be one of the best performances of Telugu cinema. Her film career was going in full steam ahead with success after success marking it – ‘Appu Chesi Pappu Koodu’, ‘Mangalya Balam’, ‘Bhale Ammayilu’, ‘Thodi Kodallu’, ‘Gundamma Katha’. She had given birth to a girl, Vijaya Chamundeswari (named after the production house that gave her memorable roles), many prestigious awards were coming her way, people accepted her in every form and they did not bother if she was gaining weight.

She liked buying a lot of property and jewellery and was as gracious in helping the needy. She kept an open house, people walked in and out at their will. If anyone admired her silk saree, she would readily give it away; once Suseela (singer) had gone to her place to collect donation to help senior actors, Savitri opened her purse and gave all the money she found, without even counting (which was over Rs 15,000). She would never say no to students who came seeking help for education.

If she found young disillusioned girls who had come looking for roles in cinema, she would give them money to help them to return home safely – she was an angel in human form when it came to help people. She trusted people whole heartedly and expected the same from them. In 1965, she gave birth to a boy, Sathish. She had everything she wanted and desired.

So where did it go wrong? For one, GG whom she thought would be able to change with all her love and whom she thought would be with her through thick and thin, did not mend his ways nor did he stand by her in her days of trouble, while she continued to live in hope. She had never kept an account of her money and the same was the case with her donations. Many so called well-wishers who hovered around her took advantage of this attitude of hers and continued to do so until her death. Some of them talked her into producing and directing films and while she was appreciated for her direction skills, the films did not do well and the partners refused to pay.

As self-respecting as she always has been, she sold a part of her property to pay her dues. She shifted from a palatial house in T Nagar to a small house in Anna Nagar. She was a social drinker, however, somewhere around 1969; she started drinking heavily and became addicted. She was affected with diabetes and high blood pressure. She grew more depressed with each encounter that broke her trust in people. And gradually she looked like a shadow of the glorious Savitri, the darling of South Indian film audience.

She grew thinner and started looking much older. Around the same time the income tax department seized her properties and the situation turned from bad to worse. She started acting in films, of whatever she could get to support her expenses. She was even known to have travelled in taxis and buses to go to studios. But her generous nature did not leave her. All this while, neither her husband Gemini Ganesan nor the many that benefitted from her came forward to help her financially. She tried to drown her sorrows in more drink and finally succumbed to her disease at a young age of 46, after being in coma for 19 months.

Senior director Dasari Narayana Rao shares, “People say drinking ruined her. But who doesn’t drink in film industry? She just chose to be open about it. She was generous, extremely helpful and loving. Once she saw a junior artiste who fainted during a shot. On enquiry she found that the artist in question skipped her lunch as the production executive talked rudely to her, when she requested for better food. The next day, she brought lunch for the entire unit – the same seven different curries that she brought for herself.

The producer who heard this was apologetic and ensured that everyone was fed well from that day on.  Once we were winding up shooting and the unit was planning to celebrate my birthday, she heard the commotion and asked me – Thammudu! What is all this and I told her? She was upset for not being informed about it earlier and immediately took her gold chain and put it in my neck. It was one of my most memorable moments with her. This was before she left to Bangalore never to return again.”

Dasari was one of the few people who helped her during her last days. In fact he ensured there was a role for her in most of his films like ‘Gorintaaku’. He made the film, ‘Devadasu Malli Puttaadu’, especially for her, it is believed, so as to support and help her during difficult times. In later years, many, including the family members tried to say thatSavitri had absolutely no financial problems. Dasari refuses to divulge, “She is a great actress and there were roles for her. And if I wanted to help her what is the use of saying it now. I have the highest regard for her and that will always be there.”

Why is it that no other actress has ever been able to reach her popularity or stature? “That is because she has the most expression-filled face. And for her acting is a passion,” he added.

Film producer Katragadda Murari, who has a high regard for Savitri shared, “When she says a dialogue, it comes from within her. She would immerse herself in a scene and perform brilliantly when she was in front of the camera as if she is switched on. She can act with her eyes; she can act with her mouth. I do not think any other actor can give close shots so beautifully like she did in ‘Moogamanasulu’.

Even towards the end, this passion for acting did not change. There is a scene in ‘Gorintaku’ where she beats her son for abusing his father and her bangles are broken. After the shot, we saw blood on her hands. Oh! I did not notice. Don’t worry I am used to this,” she simply stated. ‘Velugu Needalu’, ‘Manchi Manasulu’, ‘Donga Raamudu’, ‘Chivaraku Migiledi’, she has donned every diverse character that came her way. When she died, I was devastated thinking how can this happen to the most beautiful actress of all time. There were lakhs of people to bid her good bye. It was heartrending”.

“There are some stars who become actors by instinct and not by instruction. Savitri is one such natural actor. She had acted in the first film for which I had written dialogues – ‘Dr Chakravarthy’. I was there on the sets for one of the scenes where she is answering a phone. I was excited to watch the legend mouth my dialogues and realised that only she can deliver them so well. Even when she had the disadvantage of her body in later years, she could outbalance it with her characterisation and she would make us reconcile to her in any form.

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Even Meena Kumari of Hindi films, who is often compared to her, did not have the large canvas of characters that Savitri did. I was witness to her decline and think it was majorly because of her husband. There were many around her who misguided her and she was duped of her money. She died a lonely and unhappy woman. However, I am happy that her children are doing well. She was able to marry her daughter to her nephew, who is a good person,” shared writer, actor Gollapudi Maruti Rao.

Savitri died young, but is there an expiry date for her fame? Probably not! One just wishes that she is remembered not just for the tragic end but for the film legacy that she has left behind, that continues to entertain and inspire the future generations.

With inputs from ‘Mahanati Savitri venditera Samrajni’ by Pallavi,  ‘Venditera Vishaada Raagalu’ by Pasupuleti Rama Rao, ‘A Legendary Actress Mahanati Savitri’ by  VR Murthy and V Soma Raju and  ‘Mahanati Savitri’ by GVG

First published in The Hans India

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