I already put up the No Spoilers review, but I’m not even sure if those rules apply to this kind of movie. It’s based on a true story, and there aren’t really many surprises along the way. So you can read that review if you really hate spoilers, but otherwise you might as well read this review too. Although, fair warning, I also didn’t like this movie very much, so I may spoil it for you in a different way by making it no longer seem good.
Whole Plot in Two Paragraphs:
The film takes place on two levels, 1981 as Savitri lies in a coma and two reporters investigate, and the several decades covering the rest of her life as the reporters discover it. For the sake of simplicity, I am going to split them up and deal with them one at a time.
In 1981, Samantha Ruth Prabhu is a gold medal winning journalism major who now works at a paper and is stuck with the worst stories. Her father wants her to just quit and get married to the boy he has chosen, but she resists, feeling like if she can just get one good story it will be proof to her parents that she has a future in a career instead of marriage. Only at work she is always too unself confident, and stutters, and doesn’t speak up for herself when the male reporters get the best stories. She is assigned Savitri’s coma story, which is boring since it has been going on for months. And she is assigned to work with the dreamy (both meanings, he daydreams and seems disconnected, and also is very handsome) photographer Vijay Devarakonda who clearly has a crush on her and also thinks she is brilliant and talented and has a deep faith in her abilities. He encourages her to pursue the story she sees in an old man leaving flowers at the gate, and they discover he is a photographer who knew Savitri/Keerthy since her heyday, and has a letter from her written just before she slipped into the coma mentioning taking her son to meet “Shankaraiya”. Samantha sees the story in this, they can track down this “Shankaraiya” and get a scoop. Her editor gives the story to someone else, but Vijay encourages her to keep looking, and the two of them dig through archives and interview friends and relatives, even sneak into Savitri/Keerthy’s house and overhearing her aunt talk to her. As they learn about her love story, Vijay is inspired to imitate it and declare his love standing on a moving car just as Gemini/Dulquer did for Savitri/Keerthy. They are happy and in love, but Samantha’s engagement is moving forward. And she starts to learn how Savitri’s relationship fell apart, their story is going nowhere, it makes her doubt herself. She agrees for the engagement her father wants and gets an engagement card from Vijay. But at the last minute, she hears an old interview of Savitri which inspires her to go after her love no matter what, even if it is difficult, and she runs out of her engagement and interrupts Vijay’s engagement and gives a big speech, without stuttering because she feels so strongly, only to learn it was Vijay’s sister’s engagement, he was always faithful to her. And now, with her own love story completed and happiness found thanks to Savitri/Keerthy’s inspiration, she knows how to write the story. And finally she goes to visit the coma-ridden Savitri to thank her, and give her a photo of her father from the newspaper archives.
Savitri/Keerthy’s story starts with her being found already in a coma by her son. And then we see a glimpse of her from the photographer that Vijay and Samantha first interview, perfectly crying a single tear for a shot in Maya Bazaar. And finally, her childhood. She and her widowed mother were taken in by her maternal aunt and her husband, who resented the burden on the household. She played in the fields and made friends with another little girl who had a doting devoted father. Her uncle saw her natural talent for performing and encouraged it, hoping to raise money. As a young teen, she was the star of traveling shows, Prithviraj Kapoor (supposedly) saw her and said she was as good as a movie star. Her uncle got the idea to take her to Madras and try to make her a movie star. They have no luck in Madras except for Gemini/Dulquer who takes Savitri/Keerthy’s photo and says she could be a movie star. A year later, Gemini’s photo appears in a magazine and attracts the attention of a director who offers to launch Savitri. Her first shot goes wrong, she loses the chance, but then gets another doing a song and is immediately noticed. She is offered her first few major roles, including her first Tamil role opposite Gemini/Dulquer despite not speaking the language. Dulquer takes her out on the streets of Madras to learn the language, and soon they are sneaking out together constantly, and falling in love. He tells her that he is already married, an arranged marriage to help raise money for his med school that ended up not happening, and that he had a relationship outside of marriage with Pushpavalli, but now he is in love for the first time with her. And he suggests a second marriage. Keerthy resists, but is too in love and gives in. 3 years later the truth comes out when her uncle finds a love letter, Keerthy is thrown out of the house and goes running to Dulquer, whose wife accepts her and she happily joins their household. But her old director Prakash Raj comes to her and begs her to come back to film, so she agrees, makes Mayabazaar, and becomes the biggest actress Telugu or Tamil film had ever seen. She and Dulquer move into a massive mansion and have two children, but trouble arises when Dulquer gets jealous of her success. They fight, he forces her to drink with him. She is offered the opportunity to direct and takes it partly because she is frustrated with her marriage, and then on the opening night of her film finds Dulquer with another woman and leaves the premiere to sob. Dulquer is thrown out of her house, she drinks more and more, makes terrible financial decisions partly in an effort to show up Dulquer, and the income taxwallas take all her money. And one night she almost burns down the house in a drunken rage fighting with her young daughter who wants her to stop drinking. She slips into her first coma, is saved and told she has diabetes and must stop drinking. And also reconciles with her uncle and decides she must get her daughter married and settled and out of their crazy household. She starts life anew, sells everything to pay off her debts, moves into a small house and takes small roles to make money, but is still extremely generous. And plans to save money and open a rehab center to help other acoholics. But then learns she still owes income tax and the money she saved will have to go to that instead of her rehab center. This sets off a spiral and she starts thinking of Dulquer, it drives her to drink, and she ends up in a coma. The final reveal is that the “Shankaraiya” mentioned in the letter is the statue in her home town that she used to talk to as though he was her father. Meanwhile, her best friend from childhood and a young woman she lent a necklace to years before are going to join together and sell the necklace and use the money to start the rehab center in her name.
So, that is A LOT. It feels like even more while you are watching it. There are so many star cameos and little references to famous things and big dramatic recreations, it’s kind of too rich. And I guess that is what they were going for?
Celebrity stories can often turn into legends. The legends that unite people, you repeat them over and over again within your fandom, you pass them on to your children, it is part of joining the community to learn them all. And you discuss them and analyze what they mean, there are the accepted interpretations and the counter interpretations and on and on. And this is true in any celebrity community, not just Indian film.
The challenge is taking those legends that you have heard over and over again and turning them into a story, a film that has real human characters you care about, that surprises you with its twists and turns. This film opted to go another route. Instead of taking the legends and making them human, it takes the legends and makes them even bigger. Keerthy isn’t just a talented actress who developed her skills and learned more with every film, she is “Mahanati”, with a theme song as dramatic and triumphal as anything from Bahubali. She isn’t just rich, she has a live in goldsmith to make jewelry per order like royalty of old. And her love story with Dulquer wasn’t just a love story, it was magical and perfect and destined, complete with a sign from God when they were destined to marry (her sari caught on a chain hanging from a temple, which he then used to marry her). She didn’t just become an alcoholic, she hung onto a bottle of alcohol while her house burned down around her and her child wept.
(“Mahanati”!!!! She climbs mountains and leads armies and has a magical sword! Or at least, that’s what this song kind of sounds like)
It’s not just Keerthy, NTR does a cameo as his grandfather, and Naga Chaitanya as his, and both of them get to be Legendary stature, instead of just human. Mayabazaar is treated as a fated destined task, worth Keerthy turning her back on her marriage because she was needed for this holy mission. It’s an interesting take on celebrity biopics, instead of humanizing them, dehumanizing them, making them feel more like Gods, or at least royalty.
There is a purpose to these legends, which the modern day section of this film is trying to explain, the legends tell us who we are, give us inspiration for our own life, live on because they have a meaning for people. Samantha and Vijay learn of Keerthy and Dulquer’s love story and it changes the decisions they make in their own life. That’s what legends are for, to change us when we learn them and think on them.
But I’m not sure of a “legend” level story makes for the best film. Keerthy and Dulquer are stuck in a story with no real depth to it, and no personal freedom. It is all “destined” from the moment they met. They are in love because they are meant to be in love. They marry because they are meant to marry. Keerthy becomes the greatest star of all time because she is destined to be that star. Their marriage falls apart over it because they are destined to fall apart. It finally starts to approach human level only at the end of the story when Keerthy is a sad alcoholic trying to control her addiction and Dulquer is the grey haired old man popping into her life to offer help and the disappear again.
And the other problem is that the “legend” level is a little too simple. We tell each other the stories of our favorite celebrities and therefore reveal what is most important to us. Every celebrity legend contains multiple possible variations. If you look at the stories of the real Savitri, the one that would be most important to me is the making of Chinnari Papalu . That is the legend I would care about, but if I were to make a movie just on that, it would lose the other parts of Savitri, her famous charity, her famous acting talent, and yes, her famous love affair.
But if you are telling a “legendary” story, you have to stay focused on the moral you wish to impart. This film ends with that moral, Samantha learned that it is worth risking everything for love. Which, fine, she learned something from Keerthy/Savitri’s story. But in order for her, and the audience, to learn that lesson, all the other parts of Savitri had to be stripped away and her story changed to fit this one particular legend.
I don’t know many facts about Savitri’s life, but I already know enough to know that this movie changed things to fit the story it wanted to tell. The simplest and most obvious lie is in Savitri and Gemini’s first meeting. Yes he was the photographer at the studio when she first came to Madras. But she wasn’t 14, she was 12 years old. He was 28. The reason they make her 14 in the film, and don’t make him seem 28 isn’t only because they want Gemini to appear less predatory, it’s because they want to make the love story start at the same time as her film career. Gemini sees her through the camera, already a little in love and vice versa, and takes a picture that makes her a star. Which is also a lie, Gemini’s photo simply languished in the studio archives along with many others, Savitri got her big chance thanks to coming back a few years later and making the rounds of the studios again, nothing to do with Gemini. But that would make Savitri’s success appear to be due to her talent and luck, not True Love, and this has to be a story about True Love.
Savitri is famous for her ability with language, let’s make up a story that ties that to true love too, Gemini teaches her Tamil. Savitri is famous for her performance as Paro in Devdasu, let’s tie that to Gemini, it was her love for him that taught her how to play the role. And on and on and on. At every turn, her story is changed every so slightly so that everything ties in to what they want it to tie into. Even her alcoholism, a very personal problem resulting from genetics and circumstances and all sorts of other factor, is tired to Gemini. Gemini forces the first drink on her, after she finds him cheating, she drinks to lesson the pain of it.
I am disappointed in this superficial treatment of this particular story, and also a little unhappy that this is the lesson the film chooses to draw from a powerful intelligent successful woman. It cuts her down to size, just another woman in love and that’s all. Which always seems to be the way these biopics go. A woman needs a man.
Even before she meets Dulquer, that is Keerthy’s obsession. She wants to have a father. Sure, she has two mothers (her mother and her aunt) and her grumpy uncle guardian but, according to this film, all she wants is a father. And in case we missed the point, when she meets Dulquer and tells him how she always wanted a father, he offers to play act as her father, giving her a piggyback ride and taking her on a carousel.
Keerthy’s natural talents for mimicry only get expression because she is told her father was a storyteller and she wants to be life him. She only agrees to perform in plays to please her psuedo-father uncle. She is only happy going around the studios looking for movie work because her uncle tells her to call her “father” while they are there for the sake of appearances. She falls in love with Dulquer when he acts like her father. She loses her uncle and runs to Dulquer instead. She loses Dulquer and loses everything as her world falls apart. And in the end, she is dreaming of returning to her village to visit the statue that she pretended was her father when she was a girl.
(Little girl Keerthy/Savitri is awfully cute)
This is a the “only female Superstar”, who directed the film with the largest number of female crew members ever, who was endlessly talented and successful, and her life is reduced to the men who were in it. And while she is reduced, those men are raised up and up and up.
I already mentioned that her first meeting with Gemini/Dulquer was altered so that she is 14 instead of 12, and he was an unknown age that seemed a lot more like 21 than 28. Their romance part later in the film is helped along a bit too. She is 16 (which was true), and he is twice her age, 32. But he doesn’t seem it, he is young and dashing and carefree and she is surprised by his reveal that he is already married and had an affair before her. His marriage is described as a price he had to pay for his dream of becoming a doctor, but then the money ran out and he is married and still not a doctor. So I guess we should feel sorry for him? Pushpavalli is disposed of in one sentence acknowledging that he was with her before. And when we meet his wife, she seems to be about the same age or maybe slightly older than Keerthy, and she and Dulquer have two baby daughters. His age is never directly stated (unlike the flat out lie with Keerthy), but the impression is of a young man, maybe around 22 or 23, just starting out in life with a young wife and two babies. In fact, Gemini had married at 20. It is hard to find ages for his children, with Savitri or with other women, but it seems as though his daughters with his first wife would have been children, not babies, by 1956 when Savitri’s marriage to him became public. The fudging in this seen makes it appear that Gemini had married recently, had a fling with another woman, and fallen in love with Savitri, all within a few years.
(now, does this feel 16 year old and 32 year old, or 16 year old and 21 year old?)
The most egregious change was the complete erasure of Rekha and her sister Radha. Gemini didn’t just have a small fling with Pushpavalli, he was with her for years, had two children with her, while he was married to Savitri. And he did not totally abandon those children. He didn’t claim them in the same way that he claimed his other children, but he was in their lives.
That’s one of the best things about the “real” Gemini. He had many children with many women, but he did not deny them or abandon them. He wasn’t around much, and he didn’t always send money, but they knew who their father was, and they knew they had siblings, and that’s a lot more than many other men did in the same circumstances. I’m not saying he was a good father or a good husband, but I don’t like the way this film version of Gemini brushes off his children and relationships and never brings them up again, declares that his love for Savatri is his only “true” love.
It also minimizes Savitri. It is possible for a woman to know that her husband has another wife, and a mistress, and children with both, and not let it destroy her life. Maybe Savitri didn’t want a man around all the time, maybe she liked enjoy Gemini’s company once a week and being free to do what she wanted the rest of the time. Maybe for her Pushpavalli and his first wife were a bonus. It’s as likely as that knowledge of him cheating completely destroyed her, as this film suggests. Especially since, again, Rekha and Radha existed and Gemini acknowledged them, it wasn’t a secret that he was sleeping with a third woman while married to Savitri and his first wife. Or that he was still keeping up a relationship with his first wife. Some people just prefer open relationships, and when you are talking about a man who was married 3 times (yes, he took another wife when he was 78 and she was 36), and had a long term mistress, then it seems likely he was attracting women who didn’t actually want monogamy. It’s kind of ridiculous to suggest that Savitri became an alcoholic because Gemini wasn’t the perfect husband, because OF COURSE HE WASN’T THE PERFECT HUSBAND!!!!! She knew that going in!!!!
There’s something else that makes it look a little less “reckless passion” and a little more “going into it with eyes wide open”. Savitri’s marriage didn’t come out because her uncle found a love letter. It came out because she signed a contract “Savitri Ganesan”. Which either means she was so used to the name and so unashamed of it that she signed without thinking, or she signed on purpose to bring out the truth, or she was just such an important person that she had to sign multiple legal documents and it was going to come out any way. And none of these 3 options fit with the story the filmmakers want to tell.
Keerthy’s Savitri is almost simple-minded in her naivety, she would never be able to plan out a purposeful reveal of her married status. She also certainly wouldn’t be signing legal documents, honestly I wouldn’t have been surprised if they’d just decided to make her illiterate, that is how “simple” this heroine is drawn to be. And most of all, she is not supposed to be unashamed of her married state, she is supposed to be conflicted and torn up and romantically passionate and blah blah blah. It can’t be just a practical multiple partner marriage in which she is perfectly happy to have romantic assignations and not want any more, and doesn’t even think about it to the point of accidentally signing her married name, it has to be Grand Passion.
And of course, Keerthy’s Savitri is so passionately in love with her husband that she would much rather stay home and keep house for him than continue working. It is only when she is told that Telugu cinema itself requires her, that she goes back to work. There’s another fudge, a big deal is made of the first time after marriage that a producer asks for her without Gemini. Well, so what? Wasn’t she constantly acting with other actors besides him? Wasn’t he in fact one of the slightly smaller stars among her co-stars? And wouldn’t that have been something they figured out and didn’t care about long before this moment?
This film keeps trying to fit the A Star is Born template, and it just doesn’t work. Partly because Savitri and Gemini don’t fit that template, they succeeded at the same time, he didn’t help her only to watch her move past him. It wasn’t a grand love that shaped her entire life, it was a part time love and the rest of the time she was busy with other things. And they didn’t fall apart because of professional jealousy, at least there is no particular evidence that they did, they fell apart for any one of the many reasons that couples fall apart.
And the other reason it doesn’t work is because the A Star is Born template is old and tired. Its been around since the 1930s and Janet Gaynor in the first version. Women don’t need men to succeed, they never really did, that was just something men told themselves to feel better. There doesn’t have to be a wise and powerful older man who comes in to find your talent and mold you, you can mold yourself. And a romance doesn’t have to fall apart, just because the woman is the more successful one, a supportive partner can be happy standing on the sidelines and cheering her on.
The funny thing is, that’s what we actually get in the modern day love story. A woman whose partner just wants her to succeed, and a woman who succeeds on her own merit. It’s fresh and nice and new, but it is drowning in this hacknayed old-fashioned legendary star biopic that surrounds it.