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This story was published in 2018

‘Mahanati’ Savitri continues to be in the news, perhaps for the reason that she was the greatest female actress of an era in which the ‘superstar’ tags were alien, or perhaps for the ugly fight between siblings taking pot-shots at each other to keep their parents’ legacy intact ever since the biopic released (Mahanati in Telugu and Nadigaiyar Thilagam in Tamil). The fight was in-part over who was responsible for Savitri’s misfortunes.

A talk with her contemporary and friend Jamuna throws light on Savitri’s choices. A star in her own right, Jamuna started her career at the same time as Savitri. But their lives turned out differently, not for reasons of fate but due to decisions they took.

By her own admission Savitri told Jamuna that entering into wedlock with a much-married and elder person at a tender age of 16 was a grave mistake.

Unlike Jamuna, Savitri took the risky plunge of getting into direction and production. She wanted to take an active part in the industry when the offers started drying up, unlike many of her contemporaries like Saroja Devi, Vyjayanthimala, etc, who chose marriage once they felt their markets slipping. As film-maker, Savitri didn’t opt for original stories, which at that time directors like K Balachander started to experiment with, but rather went for faithful scene-by-scene remakes, which didn’t find favour with the audiences.

Even during her last days, Savitri started a bi-lingual in Tamil and Telugu, heavily borrowing on interest, but thankfully dropped the idea due to the good sense that renowned director Dasari Narayana Rao instilled in her. This after 7,000 ft of footage was shot. Rao was among the handful who lent Savitri a helping hand during the fag end of her career by ensuring small but meaty roles in his films like Gorintaku (1979) and Devadasu Malli Puttaadu (1978).

In contrast, while Savitri hit the bottle, depressed about her fading glory and turmoil in her personal life, Jamuna took to politics. Even though she didn’t come thumbs up, she didn’t bite the dust either.

We dig more in a phone conversation with Jamuna, who is into her 80s now, with not an iota missing in her chirpiness that we are so used to seeing on the big screen. Excerpts:

We hear that you were quite cross about not being consulted for ‘Mahanati/Nadigaiyar Thilagam’.
Naturally. Among Savitri’s peers/contemporaries, I am the only one who’s alive. She confided her deepest regrets in me. My inputs could have helped the film immensely.

Many people believe that it was Savitri who inducted you into the movies.
That is incorrect. We more or less started our careers around the same time. We were born in the same year (1936) as well. Just like Savitri, I got a break in the industry when Dr. Garikapati Rajarao saw an act of mine (Jamuna started out in theatre) and offered me the lead role in Puttilu (1953). I was just 16 back then.

How did you get close to Savitri?
I was born and brought up in a remote village in the undivided Andhra Pradesh. Savitri, who was just finding her feet in the movie industry, had come to shake a leg in the dance performances conducted during Navarati. This was the early 50s. She stayed at our house and we even dined together. However, it was during the filming of Missamma (Missiamma in Tamil) that we got close.

Missamma isremembered for other reasons. Many say that it was around that time that they noticed the closeness between Savitri and Gemini Ganesan.
Yes, you are right. We saw the closeness and the intimacy of the pair. They used to sit aside from the rest of us and jabber away for hours. I, acclaimed producers Nagi Reddy and Chakrapani, and ace actor Akkineni Nageswara Rao tried to talk her out of the relationship since we knew about Gemini’s philandering ways. I was a teenager at that time and was quite naïve and innocent about such things. She wouldn’t listen to any of us and we later came to know that she had secretly married him in 1952.

Did Savitri ever express regret about her marriage to Gemini?
It was the year 1966 and I had just given birth to my first kid, a son Vamsikrishna. By that time, Savitri who was a social drinker was heavily getting addicted to the bottle. Fissures had started to appear in her relationship with Gemini and by 1969 they had parted for good. During my son’s birthday ceremony, Savitri embraced me and sobbed uncontrollably saying that she made a Himalayan blunder by marrying an already married Gemini at such an young age. She told me that she was happy that I had waited it out and married a person of my parent’s choice. Her words still ring in my ear, “You have made a good choice by marrying an academic who didn’t come with any baggage.”

Even then I had advised her to let go of bygones and quit the drinking habit for the sake of her children. She had given birth to her second son Sathish, the only male of Gemini’s offsprings, in 1965. She still had years of acting left in her even if it meant supporting roles. But Savitri was always stubborn and didn’t pay heed to any of this.

Looking back, I wish the kind of support and counselling that’s available today was there back then. Maybe, it could have saved one of the greatest actors of all time. But again we don’t know. If there was one thing that Savitri detested, it was asking help from others.

They say that Savitri’s directorial ambitions did her in.
The movie Praptham (1971) primarily led to her ruin. She tasted success with Chinnari Papalu (1968), a Tamil version called Kuzhandai Ullam was remade later, but didn’t set the cash registers ringing. However, none of her subsequent ventures made money and she mostly went for remakes. She could have given up direction and production after one or two ventures that tanked but somewhere psychologically I could understand what was going on. During the making of Praptham, which took about five years, Savitri was well into her 30s and lead roles were drying up. Praptham was her last role as a lead and she started overshooting the budget. I had acted in the original Mooga Manasulu (1964) but she refused to wait for me to reprise my role in the Tamil version and signed debutante Chandrakala instead.

Even then things weren’t as bad; there were distributors lining up to purchase the movie for about Rs 25-30 lakh. But for reasons best known to herself, Savitri wasn’t willing to part with the rights and stuck to releasing the film on her own. When the movie started panning, Sivaji Ganesan was well known for his powerhouse performances. But, unfortunately, by the time the movie released, his market was slipping and the film bombed at the box office. Savitri lost a great deal of property owing to the Praptham debacle.

She still had a sprawling bungalow and estate in Kodaikanal. I had advised her to sell it off as even for those days it was fetching a princely sum of Rs 50 lakh. I told her to invest the same in fixed deposit for her and her children sake. But she would have none of it.

She even held the remake rights of Chivaraku Migiledi (1960), which she considered to be her career-best performance but thankfully didn’t make it in Tamil.

Did you ever see her during her last days?
I was driving down to Chennai for a cultural program in 1981. By that time, Savitri slipped into coma, from which she never came back. I visited her modest home in Anna Nagar having been used to her palatial mansion at Habibullah Road, T Nagar. Just the mere sight of her being fed by a pipe attached to her nostrils was disturbing. There were two doctors fussing around her and her son was also with her. I had spoken to the then Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister T Anjaiah about flying her out to America at the state’s (AP) expense but the doctors expressed the futility of it. I tried my might but I suppose it wasn’t in her Praptham (destiny).

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