In my family, when someone rants too much and seems completely out of control, the question that's asked, with utmost sympathy and an air of resignation, is, "Vattaanalle?" (You're nuts, aren't you?). Any fan of Malayalam cinema will catch the reference and recall the scene from Kilukkam, Revathy's 1991 film with Mohanlal, where she plays a young woman who pretends to be mentally ill. The Priyadarshan comedy is among many of Revathy's fantastic performances in her long career of nearly four decades. Surprisingly, it's only now that the veteran actor has won her first Kerala State Award for Bhoothakaalam.
In Rahul Sadasivan's psychological horror film, Revathy plays Asha, a single parent with an adult son. It's not a genre that she enjoys doing (her only other horror film is Ram Gopal Varma's Raat) but Rahul says that she signed Bhoothakaalam after she heard him out because it's not your usual run-of-the-mill haunted house script. "She was the first person I pitched the story to before everything fell into place, before the production house, before meeting Shane (Shane Nigam plays the son). I wanted a powerful performer to bring depth to this character. The chemistry between the mother and son, Asha and Vinu, had to look fresh. Revathy Ma'am has not done many Malayalam films in the last decade, so I thought it'd be good to approach her and see if she'd be interested in doing the film," he tells Film Companion.
Indeed, Revathy hasn't taken the conventional route that many older women actors are forced to take: play the bonafide mummy to male actors who are younger to them by just a few years. Instead, she has actively carved out a space for women actors like herself. Her involvement in the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), a film body set up in Kerala after the sexual assault of a prominent woman actor in February 2017, has also meant that she has become more selective about the projects she takes up. Among her films from the last decade, Molly Aunty Rocks (Malayalam, 2012) and Power Paandi (Tamil, 2017) stand out.
In Molly Aunty Rocks, Revathy plays a spirited and independent woman who lives life by her own rules. She is pitted opposite Prithviraj Sukumaran who plays an IRS officer in the film. How often does one get to see such a non-judgmental representation of a middle-aged woman with her own mind on screen?
Director Ranjith Sankar who made Molly Aunty Rocks recalls how the film happened. "I actually met her for another film in which I wanted her to play the mother. She asked why people like me were not writing proper characters for women of her age. She said that after 40 or 50, the only roles she was getting were that of an advocate or mother. She asked me why there are no films being made for 50-plus women actors in India that are not these stereotypical roles," says Ranjith. That's when Ranjith suggested the idea of Molly aunty, a middle-aged woman who believes in fighting back.
Despite being such a legendary actor, Ranjith says that she would call him to discuss how to play the role. "She's an actor who thinks a lot about the film and the character. She thinks about all the details, from pre-production to costumes. I had not met an actor like her until then. She travelled to Mumbai and met with the costume designer Sameera Saneesh, and she personally sourced the costumes that were required for the role. At the time of the shoot, she was learning film editing and she would do that at night. We used to have so many discussions about a lot of things…it was such a learning experience for me," he says, adding that it remains one of the greatest sorrows of his career that her performance in the film did not get the recognition that it deserved.
"The role she portrayed was not an easy one. Molly is brought up as a communist and then she makes a life in the US. She comes back when she's middle-aged, and experiences culture shock. The performances we tend to rave about are of characters who go through some turmoil. But Molly aunty, who's very subtle, displays her envy, ego…such flawed, human characters…it's very difficult to pull those off. I'm convinced it's one of the best performances by an actor in the last decade. I hope the film will be discussed more in the coming days at least," he says.
In Power Paandi, Revathy plays a middle-aged woman who rekindles a romance with her boyfriend (Rajkiran) from decades ago.
Television anchor and actor Dhivyadharshini (known popularly as DD), who played Revathy's on-screen daughter in the film, says, "Working with Revathy Ma'am was very scary. I was nervous because I'd heard that in the '80s, any assistant director who was trying to write a film or director who was making a film, would always say that they wanted a heroine like Revathy. She was the undisputed queen and everyone knows about her acting prowess. But she made it easy for me. Acting is also about reacting to the co-actor, and the scene we had (about giving the romance a second chance) is something I really believe in. I was so excited to say those lines, and Revathy Ma'am followed it up with this kutti dance that was so cute. Such characters should be likeable, only then the point we're trying to make will reach people. Needless to say, she's so damn lovable!"
Born in Cochin as Asha to Indian army major Malank and Lalitha Kelunni, Revathy made her debut in Bharathiraja's Tamil film Mann Vasanai (1983) after the ace director spotted her on a magazine cover. She was only 17. In an interview, Revathy revealed that she was so unused to wearing a long saree that she tumbled on the sets. Muthupechi, a young woman in a rural Tamil Nadu village, was leagues away from the life that Revathy knew, but her performance nevertheless fetched her a Filmfare award. The film went on to become a big hit. That same year, she starred in Bharathan's Malayalam film Kattathe Kilikkoodu, playing a jealous young woman who deliberately woos a middle-aged professor to draw the attention of the man she's actually attracted to. The other actors in the cast were Mohanlal, Srividya, and Bharath Gopy. Reflecting envy, insecurity, and an immense capability for self-destruction, the young actor's portrayal was pivotal to the film's success.
With such impressive debut films in two major south Indian industries, it didn't take long for Revathy to become an established actor. From her early work, it is perhaps her role as Divya from Mani Ratnam's Mouna Ragam (1986) that is best remembered across generations. A chirpy college girl pressured into an arranged marriage by her family, Divya decides to rebel against her unsuspecting husband. But the reason isn't just her frustration at being thrust into the relationship, it's also her inability to get past the death of her boyfriend. At a time when "thaali" sentiment was rife in Tamil cinema (remember Andha 7 Naatkal?), here was a heroine who demanded divorce from her newlywed husband. The film revolves around Divya's changing emotions, her initial resentment giving way to confusion as her husband continues to treat her with respect, and finally, her recognition of a different kind of love. Older, quieter, and perhaps more long-lasting.
More than 35 years since its release, Mouna Ragam is still cited as an example in any discussion on films centred around meaningful women characters. Revisiting Revathy's body of work at a time when mainstream Tamil cinema is cleaved into star vehicles with negligible women characters and "women-centric" cinema led by emerging women superstars, one is nostalgic for an era where the division wasn't so marked, and an ordinary character like Divya could become the focal point of a film.
In Bharathan's 1992 film Thevar Magan, a drama based on a dominant caste community in Tamil Nadu, Revathy plays Panchavarnam, a village woman who is married off to the sophisticated Sakthivel (Kamal Haasan). She knows that he was in love with another woman and had only married her due to certain compulsions, and it is endearing how she tries to draw him towards her while being sensitive to his feelings. The 'Inji iduppazhaga' song between the two is an example of crackling chemistry if there ever was one. Revathy won the National Award for Best Supporting Actress for the role.
She played the conflicted wife again in Balu Mahendra's 1993 film Marupadiyum, the Tamil remake of the Hindi film Arth. Thulasi is a homemaker whose life is ripped apart when she discovers that her husband is having an extramarital affair. The film follows her story, from dependence to liberation, with an unconventional approach. Eschewing the "kal aanalum kanavan" ("even if it's a stone, it's still your husband" – meaning, a woman has to respect her husband no matter what) line of thinking, Thulasi refuses to take her husband back and becomes a single parent to her adoptive daughter. Her pointed question to her husband, asking him if he'd have taken her back if she'd had an affair, was a cathartic moment for many women viewers back in the day who had to endure mainstream cinema's patriarchal gaze that was invested in protecting the institution of marriage at any cost.
Much is made of a young woman actor who chooses to play a mother on screen. When Aishwarya Rajesh won critical acclaim for Kaaka Muttai (2014), she spoke about how she was initially hesitant to do the film because she was worried that she'd be stereotyped into playing the "Amma" on screen forever. Even today, it is considered to be an inadvisable move for a young heroine who is looking to establish her career in cinema. Yet, Revathy flouted this traditional wisdom by playing mother to three children in Mani Ratnam's Anjali (1990). She was all of 24 then. The film is about a child with intellectual disability and the world around her – family and society. As the conflicted Chitra, a mother who is first led to believe that her baby is dead only to realise that the child is now two years old and does not know her at all, Revathy's searing performance remains unforgettable.
24 years later, she played Shubhangi, mother to a teenager with cerebral palsy in the Hindi film Margarita with a Straw. Directed by Shonali Bose, the film is among the rare depictions of people with disability as human beings with desires and dreams of their own and not as objects of pity. Watch the scene when Shubhangi washes her daughter's (Kalki Koechlin) hair and listens to the latter confessing that she has a crush; the worry that flits across her face before she forces herself to smile, the crushing responsibility that she's always conscious of. Oof!
But it's not that Revathy always played serious roles. In fact, she has been part of some timeless comedies like Arangetra Velai (the Tamil remake of the 1989 Malayalam film Ramji Rao Speaking), Magalir Mattum (a terrific film with three women characters who take on workplace sexual harassment), Varavelpu and more. She reprised the character of Masha from Arangetra Velai in Kalyaan's 2018 Tamil comedy Gulaebaghavali and won a Vikatan award for Best Female Comedian too. Revathy is also an amazing dancer, be it classical dance (Devasuram with Mohanlal comes to one's mind immediately) or contemporary styles (remember the catchy 'Kaalam Kaalamaga' song from Punnagai Mannan?).
When she stepped into the shoes of a director, Revathy again broke the rules. Mitr – My Friend, her 2002 English film with Shobana and Nasir Abdullah in the lead, had an all-woman crew. The film, which is about a middle-aged woman who has lost her sense of individuality and must deal with the generation gap, won Best English Film of the year at the National Awards. She went on to direct Phir Milenge, which has Shilpa Shetty playing the role of a woman with HIV. Once again, Revathy showed courage in picking a taboo subject and representing her convictions on screen. She also directed two short films in the anthologies Kerala Cafe and Mumbai Cutting. She's currently directing Salaam Venky, a Hindi film with Kajol in the lead.
Revathy, with her long track record, her willingness to lend voice to difficult causes (the WCC has found itself alienated from the Malayalam film industry for their stances), and her ability to walk the talk, writing and making cinema that she believes in, is an inspiration to her contemporaries and actors of the next generation. Congratulating Revathy for her win at the Kerala State Awards, actor Nadhiya, who also made her debut in the '80s and continues to act, says, "She is someone whose work I have always admired. I wish her many more awards and hope she keeps shining!"