Edited excerpts from an interview between Revathi and Baradwaj Rangan:
BR: Do you remember the first shot that you ever gave for Mann Vasanai?
Actually, I can never forget it. It was a test shoot at Vijaya Gardens in Chennai. Barathiraaja sir just wanted to see how I looked on camera and I went wearing my jeans and a shirt. He asked me to run on one of those grass mounds and, you know, kind of look into the camera. I’ve been a classical dancer so stage was a part of me and I have done a little bit of theatre in school. So I was not conscious about the camera.
Soon after that he wanted somebody to make me wear a long saree and I took a royal fall because I’ve never worn that kind of saree before that. I didn’t know how to carry it off and I took one royal tumble. That was my first shot, but it was not in the film.
The very same year, 1983, you had another extraordinarily film, Kattathe Kilikkoodu, with Bharathan. And you had a royal cast with Srividya, Mohanlal and Bharat Gopi. You said you were not conscious in front of the camera but this was still a league of its own, right? At that point, did something intimidate you or were you comfortable even at that stage?
Revathi: The thing is, I’m not a movie kid and I was not an avid film buff at that time. Being an army kid, film viewing was restricted to films my parents wanted us to see. For me, it was not about the personalities, you know. That didn’t kind of intimidate me in any way. But I was in awe of Srividya. You know, the way she carried herself, her beauty, I would never take my eyes off her.
With Bharathan, Gopy ettan and Srividya, it was like one little institution without their knowledge. I was learning so many things and it was fabulous. Soon after that, I worked with Bapu sir in Telugu, then I worked with Mahendran sir. So my foundation was Barathiraaja, Bharathan, Bapu and Mahendran. What more can anybody want?
And you just took off. I was going through your filmography and I think in 1985 you had ten or twelve films — Udhaya Geetham, Pagal Nilavu, Oru Kaidhiyin Diary — all kinds of films. And I’m like, did she ever sleep? How did she manage this schedule?
It was common but the thing is, it didn’t take so many days of shoot for a film, you know. It was about thirty-five days, forty days maximum. So that was okay and, actually, my mother was my manager throughout. So she kind of took conscious effort to keep days in between schedules. That definitely made a huge difference. So, I had my space and I had my career.
You didn’t really plan on a career in films but did you find yourself slowly beginning to enjoy it? Or did you just say, okay, this is a job like anything else?
No, no, I fell in love with it. I think in the first two or three films I really enjoyed doing what I was doing. I think playing another character, playing another person, I think that was just something that was in me. And it came out. I don’t know, it just happened.
Revathi, you’re also an important part of Women in Cinema Collective (WCC). It started in 2017. So this is going to be its fifth year. Two questions I want to ask you. One is, after becoming involved with this, do you feel as a director that you somehow want to tell women’s stories or that part of you is saying, even if it’s just about a man or a hero is a central story, I will still do that because it’s the director part of it. Or has WCC and seeing what’s happening around you made you want to say, I want to tell more women’s stories?
My two films, Mitr, My Friend and Phir Milenge, both of them were women-centric. I think that comes naturally to me. So, yes, I will be telling stories and most of them would be women-centric. Basically because my emotions connect with women characters. The men are, you know, the men I have known in my life. The men are there but somehow I connect with the women characters. So that I think is something which happened to me and it’s a personal choice.
But WCC has empowered me in a different way. There were so many aspects of filmmaking, of my workspace, that I just said, okay, this is how it is and this is how I need to handle it. This is how to diplomatically manage it. But why the diplomacy? Why can’t we make it right? I think WCC is a bundle of knowledgeable people and we have shared so much with each other. So this has empowered me the last five years.
Have you seen changes after WCC came in? Like personally seen changes in industry?
Sadly, not much but there is an awareness. There is an awareness especially in the Malayalam film industry. You know, somehow as an actor I’ve felt it was more problematic in the Malayalam film industry than any other. I feel there has been an awareness that there is something like this. Though they are, at the moment, kind of shunning it and shutting out of their perspective.
But I think in that way people have started thinking about it and talking about it. Understanding that there is a different perspective to everything in your workspace. It took a very long time just to make people understand the difference between consent and a “no”. Maybe because I was an army kid, maybe because I grew up not understanding any kind of gender bias, not seeing it in my life, it was easy for me to handle from the beginning of my career. The thing about consent and “no” itself is a thing that everybody needs to understand.