While good wishes and congratulatory tweets were flooding in for the Best Actors at the National Awards this year, one person we aren’t talking enough about is the 26-year-old who won the Best Actress – Keerthy Suresh.

Essaying the revered and complex character of the much-loved actress Savitri, also known as the Nadigaiyar Thilagam or the champion of actresses, Keerthy shone in a way no one had expected her to in the 2018 release Mahanati.

Written and directed by Nag Ashwin, Mahanati was all about the life and times of the late Savitri and how she was, perhaps, too good for the world around her. How she thrived on, and eventually succumbed to love, a love that she gave immensely, received immensely, and then got hurt by immensely. For a person and a personality so real, so intense and so respected, it was imperative that it had to be dealt with utmost sensitivity over everything else. And Keerthy was an unlikely choice to do so. 

Having portrayed seemingly lighter characters before, essaying Savitri was a huge responsibility to carry for Keerthy. She was trolled almost everywhere after she got signed. No one believed that she could pull off a role as challenging as the Tamil and Telugu cinema legend. And yet, she didn’t get deterred. 

When the film was released last year in May, Keerthy shone like a diamond and stunned one and all with the soul-stirring performance. Breathing the beloved Savitri to life, Keerthy, in a span of three hours, showcased the innocence and desperation of a teenage girl who wanted nothing but her father’s love, the happiness of a growing woman who fell head-over-heels in love with a charismatic man, the anguish of a woman torn between her ever-growing love and the boundaries of the society, the heartbreak of a woman who had given it her all only to realise that her fight for love had been worthless, the power of a woman who brought the screen on fire every time she performed, and above all, the kindness and philanthropy of a woman larger than life for a reason, who wanted the world around her to be happy as she grew, despite her highs and lows.

To do all that, and so much more, in one film is no mean feat. Especially when you have no backing, and yet an overpowering sense of duty when you are playing the role of a person who had been a goddess of the cinematic world in the 50s.

There’s a scene in the film where Savitri is asked to emote with her eyes, where the director specifies that she needs to drop only two tears from one eye. The catch here is, the team is out of glycerin. Keerthy, in this scene, is seen to be playful at first, brimming with confidence that she can manage it all. And as soon as the on-screen director — almost convinced that this would be an impossible nut to crack — yells action, Keerthy is seen transforming herself from chirpy to crestfallen in a second. She hums a melancholic track and drops exactly two tears, thereafter. The director is shown to be shell-shocked and awed at once. And so is the audience, as Keerthy successfully manages to tell a behind-the-scenes story of Savitri’s brilliance, as if it was she who actually did it all. It’s very easy for such scenes to become caricature-ish and look fake. What Keerthy brought to the table was a sense of earnestness and honesty to her Savitri that made her character look real.

In fact, all the throwback and behind-the-scenes clips that are recreated from Savitri’s films look effortlessly similar. Right from her mannerisms to her dialogue delivery, it all was worthy enough to make Mahanati a genuinely-good tribute to the celebrated actress. Even when portraying her personal turbulences, be it her choice of getting married to an already married man, or slipping into the cobweb of alcoholism, or getting entangled in debt due to her own naivety, every single nuance was dealt with a strange but brilliant sense of innocence and helplessness that was needed to bring it all across without tampering with her aura. Keerthy glides throughout the movie, narrating a range of various emotions of a lifetime through her eyes and her deep understanding of the superstar’s magnanimity as well as her vulnerabilities. With her performance, she showed that there was much more to her than mere facial resemblance with a legendary actress, and that she had the potential to be one herself in the times to come.

If there’s something we seriously need to talk about, and celebrate a lot more, it’s performances like that of Keerthy’s, so that the next time any award function announces the Best Actor (Female) as their penultimate award of the night, it’s not seen as a ‘nice gesture’, but is something that rightfully deserves to be the show-stopper.


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