Imagine the charm, the aura one must have to leave a legacy that last decades and probably will be talked about for many more decades to come – such was Savitri – the South Indian actress from the 1950s who rose to become an ‘evergreen’ star in male-dominated entertainment industry.
At a time when scripts, shoots were planned keeping only the male stars in mind, Savitri’s performances, her expressions, and her beauty forced writers and directors to think otherwise. This was the era when the South film industry had male icons such as N.T. Rama Rao, Akkineni Nageswara Rao, and Sivaji Ganesan. Savitri easily acted in over 300 films during that period including Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and even a few Hindi films.
“There were so many instances when movie shoots had to be cancelled or postponed to suit Savitri’s schedule and I think that speaks a lot of what a personality she was,” director Nag Ashwin told ThePrint.
Ashwin’s 2018 multilingual biopic on Savitri titled ‘Mahanati’ in Telugu was an attempt to give the younger generation a chance to rediscover the actress, he said. In fact, to many in their 20s or 30s, the movie did give a sneak peek into the actress’ life which was glamorous and successful but with a heart-wrenchingly tragic end. Mahanati was a box office success and even won National Film Awards in 2019, including Best Feature Film in Telugu, Best Actress, and Best Costume Design.
There are more than a few ways to remember Savitri, who started her journey in the mainstream movie industry as a teenager. ‘Stubborn, determined, could effortlessly get under the skin of any role, chirpy, and a renowned philanthropist’ is how most veteran film experts remember the icon.
Determined and phenomenal
Savitri was not just a phenomenal actress but was also known for unique personality. Imagine a twenty-something woman in a sari, that too in the 1950s, loving car-racing, cricket.
“There was luminescence like moonlight on her face. She was a cool beauty and when she performed on the sets, there was utmost perfection and people would be in awe watching her. She was also very stubborn. For her first Tamil movie, the director got someone to dub for her role as she did not know the language and refused to give her a chance to say her own dialogues. She took it as a challenge and learnt Tamil and started dubbing her dialogues,” film historian Lakshmi Priya told ThePrint.
Savitri was born on 6 December 1936 in Chirravuru, Guntur district, Madras Presidency, which now falls under Andhra Pradesh. Her childhood was not easy. She lost her father when she was just six months old. Her mother and she moved in with her elder sister and her family. As the elder sister and her husband, Savitri’s uncle, did not have children – they accepted Savitri’s family to stay with them.
Her uncle Kommareddy Venkataramaiah Chowdhury, with the intention of earning money for the family, introduced Savitri to arts during her childhood. She moved to performing theatre. It is said that when Savitri was a child, she was ridiculed by her Bharatanatyam dance teacher and she was so offended that she took it as a challenge and learnt the dance just by observing him teach others.
She then, along with her uncle, travelled to Madras (now Chennai) to find work in cinema, and thus began her journey.
A successful journey, painful end
From being thrown out of her first movie, in 1950, for being not able to give a perfect shot and needing multiple retakes, to delivering back-to-back hits and signing her 100th film in no time – Savitri’s professional journey is an inspiration to many.
Savitri’s first significant role was in 1952 in the Telugu film Pelli Chesi Choodu.
Veterans recollect Savitri’s house warming ceremony in Madras in 1956, the grand affair was a reflection of her success – a lavish bungalow in Chennai’s Habibullah Road was decked up for hundreds of guests. Savitri then became neighbour to several senior film icons . But her life took a tragic turn following her failed marriage to actor Gemini Ganesan. She lost almost all her earnings, ended up in massive debt, and had an extremely troubled relationship with alcohol. From donating her entire jewellery collection, during her career peak, to the Army Relief Fund to selling her last piece of jewellery for survival – Savitri’s journey is equally excruciating.
She was in a coma for almost 19 months and died on 26 December 1981, at the age of 46. Some of her best work includes movies such as Missamma (1955), Mayabazaar (1957), Chivaraku Migiledi (1960) and Mooga Manasulu (1964).