Telugu Film 101: Savitri, the Basics

I just ordered possibly the last copy in America of the only English language full biography of Savitri.  But it’s shipping from a million miles away, and it looks dauntingly thick, so I have no idea when I will finish reading it.  In the meantime, I wanted to put up a post based on the very superficial information I have gathered by reading every single English language article I could find on The Internet about Savitri and her associates.

Usual Disclaimer: I don’t actually know these people, I have no inside knowledge of anything, and I really don’t know the Telugu film industry.  This is just the general knowledge that is accepted about these people.

 

 

Savitri is “like” a lot of other actresses, everyone from Meena Kumari to Sridevi.  But she’s not exactly the same, because no one person is ever exactly the same as any other person.  Instead of using a simple “a=b” kind of description, I want to see if we can come up with broad categories in which she will fit.

Like Vyjantimala and Waheeda Rahman many other actresses, Savitri came from a classical dancing background.  Bharatnatyam, the general southern Temple dancing tradition, went through a bit of a rebirth as part of the Independence movement.  The British tried to turn it into something shameful, but powerful voices fought back and reclaimed it as something noble and good.  Which meant that “respectable” little girls in the south might study dance, and even perform professional, without crossing that invisible line that made the no longer respectable.  Savitri was one of those little girls, her father died when she was very young, but her family still had a strong support in her uncle, she had a decent education and studied with an excellent classical dance teacher.  And then, once she had completed her training at age 12 (as is traditional), she began to perform professional with a dance troupe, always properly chaperoned and protected by her Uncle or other relative.

(This is here at age 15, in her big break through dance performance in a film in which she had a small part)

Like Nargis, and Nutan, and Tanuja, and most other actresses of the era, Savitri began playing adult roles in films at an extremely young age, her first attempt at joining films at age 12 when she was deemed “too young”, then returned a year later at first cast in a vamp role until it was decided she was again “too young”, finally having two small parts at age 15, and then her first lead role at 16.  Which made her a star.

Like actresses from Devika Rani to Madhubala to Vidya Balan, Savitri married a man who had been married before.  As an actress, she had a rare ability to move out in the world and meet men who might otherwise not be appropriate.  And she also had the ability to make decisions for her own life, a family that is open to their daughter acting might be willing to also accept her nontraditional choice in a mate.

Image result for savitri and gemini ganesan

(Here she is with her husband.  I truly do not get what all these women saw in Gemini)

Like many full figured lovely young stars, she turned into a slightly heavier older woman, but UNLIKE many of them, it did not stop her from continuing in her career.

(I still don’t get what she sees in him.  He’s okay I guess, but he’s not “I will turn my back on society and my family” handsome)

Like many young female stars, the roles as the sweet innocent heroine became less realistic and harder to come by as time went on, but UNLIKE many of them, Savitri was talented enough to transition to more mature characters, even to produce and direct, while still remaining popular with the public.

Like many young women who married not-so-great men, Savitri was left to raise her two children mostly on her own, but UNLIKE other women, Savitri sent them to the best schools and raised them in happiness and comfort, marrying her daughter off respectably and establishing her son in a career.

Like many people in the film industry ranging from Meena Kumari to Mahesh Bhatt, Savitri eventually became an alcoholic, a disability that is easy to hide and easy to indulge in the more open filmi atmosphere, and like many alcoholics, she died young, only 46.

As for the basics of her life, in that same 16 year when she had her break through role, she also met Gemini Ganesan.  In fact they had met earlier, before he began acting he had been the photographer that took her test photos when she was 12 and first visited the studio.  Gemini was a “respectable” person, a college lecturer turned aspiring actor.  He had been married young to a respectable wife with whom he had a couple kids, then got bitten by the acting bug and got a job at his relatives studio.  Where he got his first big break partly thanks to Pushpavalli, an older actress, not a major star but a name star, who encouraged him and fell in love with him.  She was not from a respectable family and a respectable background, and she became his mistress.  And at the same time, Gemini also fell for young fresh-faced and respectable Savitri.  He married her, it being legal at the time for a Hindu man to have two wives, and they had two children.  At the same time he was also having two children with Pushpavalli, his mistress, one of whom would grow up to be the actress Rekha.

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(And if I am understanding this correctly, Savitri was a bigger star than all of them.  Rekha, Gemini, and Pushpavalli)

Savitri kept working while pregnant, and after giving birth.  She went from a promising young actress to a brilliant subtle artist, revered and beloved by not just her home industry of Telugu, but Tamil films as well.  She was only in one Malayalam film, a surprise flop, and just a handful of Hindi films.  Another comparison that does not work, quite right, Savitri as Sridevi.  On the one hand, Savitri had classical dance training that Sridevi never did.  On the other hand, Sridevi started acting as a child and was a star from the start while Savitri had to struggle.  And the biggest difference, to me, while Sridevi became equally big in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam, Savitri was something a little special just for the Telugu and Tamil industries.

She was always a talented artist, singing, dancing, acting, and eventually also directing and producing.  But she struggled, as do many (if not most) artists to balance her personal life.  Her uncle/manager stopped managing her career after her marriage, and Savitri somehow juggled motherhood, acting, and career management.  Eventually it was money management that fell to the side.  She was known for spontaneously giving massive amounts to charity, not bothering to keep track of the cost.  Although her children also remember that they never felt hungry or deprived, she managed to keep her household running smoothly through it all.

Savitri died at age 45, after being in a coma for 19 months.  Her daughter remembers that Gemini was there through it all, being supportive and caring like any husband.  Her personal life was difficult and strange, but not really that different from anybody else’s.  She fell in love with someone and it was complicated and didn’t work out.  But they had kids together, and he was always part of her life.

What makes Savitri remarkable is not her personal life, but her professional accomplishments.  A star dancer at 12, a movie star at 16, a director by 34, and the top actress with critical and popular acclaim for two industries for 20 years.

 

At least, that’s what I got based on a quick tour of The Internet.  Stay tuned for when I eventually receive and read the full biography!

 

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25 thoughts on “Telugu Film 101: Savitri, the Basics

  1. Well, there’s a certain amount of “whitewashing” in what you posted above, but since I can’t give you links to what I read (since most of it was in the pre-internet era, and even after that, not everyone put their stuff up online).

    So I looked up the one objective fact, the date when polygamy was made illegal for Hindus in India. According to Wikipedia, it was in 1956. Now the thing is that i remember reading an article by Savitri in a Telugu magazine about her happy marriage, and her relationship to her “akka” (Ganesan’s wife). Since I was a kid at the time, I can’t remember exactly when I read this. I would guess after 1956, just going by my age. So that means this marriage took place when it was no longer legal. However, at that time, it was still possible for a man to get around this, if he had written permission from the first wife to take a second one. Now obviously most guys didn’t bother with this, since most women didn’t know their rights, and also since there was no legal punishment unless the first wife made an official complaint. (Of course it had legal repercussions to the second wife and her children, since they would have no legal claim to financial support from the man or his estate after he died.)

    Now, much later, i.e., after 2000, I read an article about Savitri in a Telugu magazine, where it was mentioned that Ganesan was very smitten by Savitri when she first came to Madras to try out for films, and actually made a marriage proposal for her to her uncle. I did a little arithmetic, and was aghast to realize, “Eww, she was barely 12 years old at the time! What kind of creep was Gemin Ganesan?” He was certainly at least 25 at the time. Her uncle rejected the proposal, saying Savitri was still a child. It’s not clear if he knew that Ganesan was already married. So, does this mean that Ganesan genuinely was in love with Savitri (putting aside his wife for the moment), was willing to wait for her till she grew up, and dedicated to her for all the years in between? Or does it mean that, when she came in his way again, now as an established and major star with a lot of money, she seemed like a good prospect to pursue again? I have no idea, and it could be a mixture of both.

    I am very surprised to read that her daughter claims that Ganesan “was there through it all, being supportive and caring like any husband.” Um, no. The reason people remember and talk about the tragic end to Savitri’s life was that Ganesan *wasn’t* there for Savitri, for many years before her death. The reason for her descent into alcoholism was her abandonment by Ganesan, and the loss of her money, to him, and to others who cheated her. She was reduced to playing bit parts in films just for the money, and no longer got any kind of star treatment (I remember one account by Gummadi, another famous star of her era, of how he saw her in the studio in her later years. At lunch break, everyone was either going home to eat, or had lunch brought in. She didn’t have either. He enquired if her lunch was coming from home, and she said no, nobody bothered about her any more, and how it broke his heart (of course this raises the question, why the heck didn’t he provide her with lunch? But let me not digress.) Moreover, when she went into coma (it was during a film shoot on location), she had none of her family there, either at the time when it happened, or for some days thereafter. It is possible that Ganesan might have helped to move her back to a Madras hospital (I have no information on this). But this portrayal of a devoted husband rings completely false. We’ll have to wait to see what your “thick biography” says.

    BTW, Savitri wasn’t a “trained Bharatanatyam dancer” in the way that Vijayanthimala was/is (Not even Waheeda was “trained dancer” in this way). She learned dance, yes, because her family was in a theater troupe, and so she learned this as part of her performance training, along with singing. Neither she nor Waheeda ever gave an pure dance recitals on stage (the way Hema Malini and Vyjayanthimala still do).

    You mentioned that you might watch Maya Bazaar before seeing Mahanati (though, if you’re seeing it tonight, there won’t be time), but I suggest that a better film for you to watch is the Telugu Devadasu. I know you hate Devdas, but this was the role that made her a star.

    For the Telugu speakers here, here is a radio interview that Savitri did in 1979 with All India Radio, where she talks about how she got into films, what her favorite characters were, etc. It was a “fan interaction” type of program, not really an interview, so she was answering the questions that fans had written into the station.

    Even the non-Telugu speakers might find it interesting, first for hearing how she sounded when she wasn’t acting, but also for a little acting exercise she does, demonstrating the many different ways to say the same line of dialogue. (starts at 11:18) She also mentions how she wanted to sit in on a song recording, and director of the film tried to talk her out of it, saying it really didn’t concern or affect her in the film, but she insisted. Good thing she did, too, because the singer (a non-native speaker of Telugu) had broken up the “words” of the song in a most inappropriate way, so that actually they were no longer real Telugu words, and Savitri corrected that.

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    • From everything I can see, the consensus is that Savitri and Gemini got married in 1952. Which brings up the legal question of whether second marriages were grandfathered in as legal after the law changed. I would assume they would have to be, just because it would be a paperwork nightmare to try to track down all the now “illegal” marriages. Even if it was just a small proportion of the population, that would still be millions of people.

      What I find really interesting is that, again from everything I can see, the marriage wasn’t publicly announced and sort of came out by accident when Savitri signed an advertising contract with Gemini’s name. Which, to me, says that even though it was legal, they knew it might not be something the public would want to know about their favorite stars.

      The Gemini supporting and being there during her last days comes from an interview with her daughter related to this movie, here: https://www.deccanchronicle.com/entertainment/tollywood/260417/i-never-watched-ammas-films-vijaya-chamundeswari.html

      Which isn’t to say I believe it! Any child would want to believe their parent was a decent person, and would look at their relationship through rose colored glasses. I could believe that what she chooses to see as “my dad, of course, was there through out” actually meant that he stopped by to visit three times in 19 month.

      From what I can see from every source I can find, her family wasn’t performers. Her uncle, who managed her career and supported them after her father died, was a driver. She was part of a theater troupe and performed as a child, until she joined films. But yes, not a dancer like Vyjantimala who performed for the Pope and all that. And it sounds like the troupe she performed with was more acting than dance, she met some of the top actors of the day through their sponsorship of her group, before acting with them on film.

      I actually did watch Devadasu as part of my binge of every Devdas. But I missed Savitri, because I was more interested in the film as a whole compared to the other versions rather than individual performances. I just rewatched some of the best bits of Maya Bazaar to remind myself of her, I forgot that she has that whole part where she is possessed, allowing her to completely change her acting style and mannerisms.

      On Wed, May 9, 2018 at 10:35 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Have you watched Vaazhlvey Maayam (premabhishekam in Telugu I think)
        It can also be considered amongst movies inspired by Devdas

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    • You noticed I avoided that, huh? I’m honestly worried that if I share it someone else will snap up the Only Copy in Existence before I can. It’s “A Legendary Actress” by VR Murthy. I have no idea of the quality, beyond that it looks respectable and is in English.

      On Wed, May 9, 2018 at 10:38 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Sorry, I just wanted to know if it was a writer I knew. I don’t know Mr. Murthy.

        You can remove your reply, if you like, as well as my original inquiry and this response. 🙂

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        • I’ll risk it! Last time I checked, there were two copies available in America for $30, and one for $649.

          On Wed, May 9, 2018 at 11:13 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. I’ve searched through Savitri’s films on youtube to suggest one that you could watch for her, specially. Alas, while a ton of her really classic films are on, none of them has subtitles. 😦 So here are my suggestions for films which are on dvd, and which thus have subtitles. They may be on some streaming service (I’m really not sure how those work), but I figure you might be able to find one. First, I suggest Narthanasala, which I know is on dvd with subs. You might enjoy it, anyway, since it’s about a particular chapter in the Mahabharata — not like Mayabazaar, which only used the characters. And her acting as Draupadi was much acclaimed. It’s also a fun kind of movie (not too depressing, like Devadasu), so you will probably enjoy it for its own sake. The other I was going to suggest was Kanyasulkam, based on a very classic Telugu play. Again an acclaimed role for Savitri. But you might find it less accessible, as the play was specifically about a social evil of the time. You could probably get it all from the film (if it has subtitles), but having a bit of background on the society of the time before watching might help. I was thinking of this so you wouldn’t watch two Puranic films of hers (Mayabazaar and Narthanasaala), to get a little contrast,

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    • Thank you!!!!! Classic Telugu is surprisingly hard to find on legitimate streaming services, classical Tamil is much easier. Probably just a fluke of some studio buying up the rights to early Tamil and bothering to subtitle and sell it versus early Telugu which ended up languishing.

      Anyway, I will go on a quest tonight for Kanyasulkam, I think that is the one I am more curious about, partly like you say so that I don’t see two Puranic films, but also because I am still trying to build a vision of the “other” Telugu industry, the character driven classic social films instead of the big action hero driven movies.

      On Wed, May 9, 2018 at 3:34 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Hey, I found a subtitled film on Youtube! It is one of her classics, though it’s more of a showcase for ANR (he plays nine roles), but still Savitri also has a strong part. The film’s title is Navaratri (Nine nights).

        It was also made in Tamil where the male lead was played by Sivaji Ganesan. Then it was remade in Hindi, but Savitri didn’t act in that one.

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  3. The move is getting rave reviews on Twitter – has anyone seen it? I’ve seen Keerthy only in Remo and she was so bland, I refuse to believe that she has just become this amazing actress over one movie.

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    • I read through some reviews. The professional reviews are somewhat confusing, with contradictory statements within the review, though overall they give a positive (not perfect) rating. The “regular people” reviews are outstanding. I’m sensing that it’s more the love of people for Savitri herself which is making them see this film as great, since it’s about her. It’s hard to put the praise for Keerthy’s performance in context. Is it the excitement of seeing her reenact iconic scenes from Savitri’s films that provides the excitement, or is it her actual performance? In other words, when the scene comes on screen, are people immediately transported to their memories of the original scene, and see their memories of the film with Savitri projected, or are they actually seeing Keerthy acting as Savitri? It’s hard to say without seeing the film. I do find all the gushing about Keerthy and the film not quite believable. Anyway, if the film does well, it will be good for the industry, to inspire more biopics, perhaps. All the reviews are not enough to get me to the theater, but I might watch it some day when it’s available online.

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      • Biopics are strange. What I’ve read consistently (usually around the Oscar time when all the best actors are from biopics) is that people think it is a great performance just because you know what it is supposed to be. That is, if the actor successful performs like the real life person, you can go “aha! Great performance!” just by comparing the two. Versus fictional characters, where there is no baseline to point to. Is it acting or is it just skillfull mimicry?

        On Thu, May 10, 2018 at 1:14 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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        • Yes, I think this is exactly what is going on, even with Ranbir in the Sanjay biopic. The compliments are all about how well he is imitating/reproducing Sanjays mannerisms, though even there, several people have pointed out that he is making Sanjay sound like Munnabhai, whereas Sanjay in real life never talks in that tapori style.

          Similarly, with Keerthi, I think what is going on is that they devoted a lot of effort to get her styling exactly the same as Savitri’s in the various films from which sample scenes were shown in this movie. I watched an audience reaction video, and this is one of the few specifics that people mentioned. From saying “She looked exactly like Savitri!” it is a small step to say, “She acted exactly like Savitri!” The other thing I got out of the comments is something I suspected earlier, that the younger generation who were born after Savitri died are the ones who are appreciating this film the most. Some comments were, “For people like us who don’t know anything about her life, this was really informative,” and, “Since we never saw her act, this is giving us a chance to see her again,” which I though a particularly strange thing to say, since they are not seeing her, they are seeing Keerthy. Oh, well. It seems well on its way to be a success, as it’s getting a lot of support from within the industry to succeed, too (sort of like the way Bahubali 1 was supported, though perhaps on a smaller scale).

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          • The bigger question, which is really more sort of philosophical than anything, is whether “acting exactly like” someone is actually good acting. The Crown, for example, which is filled with real life distinctive characters, the writers slightly fictionalized and dramatized and invented moments. And the actors began with a simple matching hair style and famous way of speaking, but then expanded it to have these big completely invented emotional moments and so on. It moved past “they look just like/act just like [ ]” to “did you see that amazing scene between the two actors, the way they delivered the lines, the subtle facial expressions, the emotions?”

            Ideally, I would think, an actor moves past just being “exactly like” the real person in a biopic and into creating their own character and their own emotional moments that are beyond real life and unique to the film. Even if that means they are less true to the “real” story.

            On Thu, May 10, 2018 at 9:19 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. >>>I still don’t get what she sees in him. He’s okay I guess, but he’s not “I will turn my back on society and my family” handsome

    AFAIK, she was looking not for a handsome/charming guy, but a companion/fatherly figure who could show some compassion – especially, as she lost her father early and her guardian uncle looked after her upbringing, but never gave any love/affection. Not surprising for a rural girl who became star at young age, but none to share her feelings with.

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