When Revathi enters a frame, you know everything is going be alright.

The movie might not entirely work. Some of the writing could be dodgy. But when Revathi is on the screen, everything settles into calm and comfort.

You are assured of a performance guided by realism and filled with empathy and depth. You are rewarded with a vulnerable, complicated and resilient portrait of womanhood. You are likely to remember the names of her characters – Asha, Divya, Muthupechi, Masha, Sathya, Thayyama, Chitra, Anitha, Nandini, Panchavarnam, Maggie.

In her latest movie, Revathi is playing Revathi. Aye Zindagi, directed by Anirban (he uses only one name), makes a case for ethical organ donation through characters played by Revathi, Satyajeet Dubey and Mrinmayee Godbole, among others. Produced by Shiladitya Bora’s Platoon One Films, Aye Zindagi is being filmed at several locations, including a semi-operational hospital in Navi Mumbai.

One half of the swanky hospital is a treatment centre for Covid-19 patients. The shoot is underway in the other half, which is is awaiting official permissions to operate. Until those are granted, the film crew is taking advantage of a readymade set-up, which includes wards, a cafeteria and a pharmacy.

In Aye Zindagi, Revathi plays a counsellor. In real life, she has been involved with efforts to encourage organ donation since the mid-1990s. Director Anirban, who is a qualified nephrologist, approached Revathi about the film through a doctor with whom Revathi had organised organ donation drives in Chennai.

“I pushed myself to do it because I believe in the script and feel it is a story meant to be told,” Revathi told Scroll.in. “And I have a fabulous role in it.”

Revathi on the sets of Aye Zindagi. Courtesy Platoon One Films. Photo by Mansi Rajpura.

The subject was important enough for Revathi to decide to travel from Chennai to Mumbai in the middle of a pandemic. Like many other film professionals, Revathi largely sat out the coronavirus health crisis. Successive lockdowns forced an unscheduled break in an otherwise busy schedule, barring a two-day shoot in 2020 for the anthology film Navarasa on Netflix.

Revathi used the time to reconnect with the things she hadn’t had the time for – her eight-year-old daughter Mahee, her interests, herself. She focused on her writing. In addition to acting, Revathi has directed two features (Mitr, My Friend and Phir Milenge) and contributed an episode each to the anthology films Kerala Cafe and the unreleased Mumbai Cutting.

“I even made a small film in my house, and I am thinking about whether I should put it out,” she added. “But more than film work, I did other things. This included spending time at the Adishakti performance space in Auroville. The lockdown has changed a lot of things in me. The urge now is to do something that my heart is totally into. There is also an urge to tell a few stories. I have written those stories, but I am not happy with the writer in me. I prefer to work with a writer.”

The first lockdown in 2020 also liberated Revathi from a role she had tired of, in the Sun TV serial Azhagu. In the show, Revathi and Thalaivasal Vijay played parents to a brood of five children.

Revathi had been telling her producer to kill her character, also named Azhagu. “March 18 was the last day of my shoot, the character had gone into a coma and I said, let her die,” she said. “Then the lockdown was announced. I had completed all my projects and I was planning to take a three-month break anyway. The lockdown was a godsend.”

Navarasa (2021).

Revathi spoke to Scroll.in before filming her scenes for Aye Zindagi. Dressed simply in a red-and-black ensemble, she sauntered in during a lunch break and ate her meal with the rest of the crew.

As soft and steely as her characters, the 55-year-old powerhouse performer is now at the sweet place where she can afford to not give a damn.

“Age makes a huge difference, when you are 45 and above, you can say anything and get away with it,” she observed. “And after 50, it’s like you are a queen. Nothing is going to happen to you, nothing can.”

It wasn’t always like this. Revathi says she has been through her share of self-doubt. She has battled cynicism and boredom, which bedevil anybody who has been on a shooting lot for long enough.

“I carry on easily, but it’s not that I am beyond moping and regretting,” she said. “I was like that between 2003 and 2010. I was in a state of feeling that I should have got this and not the other person. I was mentally going through a period where I could neither convincingly do a mother’s role nor be a protagonist.”

Theatre was the lifesaver at this point. “I went into theatre because I wanted to rejuvenate myself,” she said. “The actor in me was practically crying out. I was working for the sake of working. Then theatre happened, thanks to Arundhathi Nag. She pushed me into doing a couple of pieces and then I bounced back.”

By the 2000s, Revathi had notched up acclaim for her acting prowess. Some of her best-loved films in Tamil and Malayalam – Mouna Ragam, Kattathe Kilikkoodu, Arangetra Velai, Pudhumai Penn, Kizhaku Vaasal, Devasuram, Kilukkam, Magalir Mattum, Thevar Magan were already behind her.

In 1991, she had made her debut in Hindi with Suresh Krrisna’s Love, co-starring Salman Khan. Love was a remake of Krrisna’s Telugu-language Prema (1988).

It was Krissna who had the bright idea of casting Revathi in the Hindi version. Revathi’s father was a major in the Indian Army, and she was educated at Kendriya Vidyalaya schools, which explains her fluency in Hindi.

Saathiya, Love (1991).

Her parents – Malankattil and Lalitha Kelunni – christened her Asha after her birth on July 8, 1966. Until very recently, it was Asha Kelunni who signed the cheques.

The name in her official documents is now Revathi Asha Kelunni. “It used to be an issue, I would go for these international festivals and my passport would say Asha Kelunni,” she said.

The name Revathi was given by the director who cast her in his rural drama after seeing her photographs in magazines. When Tamil filmmaker Bharathiraja approached Revathi’s parents asking if their daughter could play a role in Mann Vasanai (1983), his stellar reputation for realist dramas helped overcome their reservations.

Revathi was learning Bharatanatyam in Chennai at the time, with the aim of becoming a professional dancer. “I think they said okay because it was Bharathiraja,” she said. “Since I was brought up to take my own decisions, they asked me, and I said I would like to try. After doing my first film, I said I really liked it, and could I do a few more?”

Revathi’s debut landed in a decade bursting with female actors who held their own against ascendant male stars. Even as Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth hogged the screen and the screenplay in the 1980s, their co-stars, such as Suhasini, Revathi, Radha, Ambika, Raadhika, Khushboo and Shobana, left their imprint too.

Mouna Ragam (1986).

Revathi credits her progress to the directors who were seeking a middle path between mindless entertainment and mindful narratives. Under the tutelage of Bharathiraja and Mahendran in Tamil, Bharatan in Malayalam and Bapu in Telugu, this untrained actor received her first lessons in the nuances of performance.

“I was young and had no idea – I had been thrown into the deep sea,” she recalled. “I used to imitate Bharathiraja sir. Bharathan, Bharathiraja sir, Bapu sir and J Mahendran – these were my foundation. All of them are from different schools of thinking. I was like clay being moulded in different ways.”

For instance, Bharathan’s Kattathe Kilikkoodu (1983) taught her about portraying an urban character. Mahendran’s Kai Kodukkum Kai revealed to her the importance of “silent performance” – relying on expressions and body language rather than dialogue.

Mann Vasanai (1983).

These collaborations contributed to Revathi’s image as a thoughtful actor more interested in character exploration than glamour. But there were missteps and miscalculations.

“My principles in accepting a role have always been the same – the story should touch my heart,” she said. “It should be something that interests me to give so many days of my life to it. The language and the experience of the director doesn’t matter. But in the first 10-15 years of my career, I jumped into a film if I thought the script was very interesting, only to realise that the director didn’t have the same kind of thinking I did.”

Those were the days when directors would woo actors with script narrations: rather than giving actors a screenplay to read, directors would verbalise and at times act out the entire script.

“The first time I saw a written script other than the NFDC [National Film Development Corporations] films I had been in was for Thevar Magan in 1991,” Revathi said. “I could visualise the film like I was reading a novel.”

Thevar Magan (1991).

Some roles were rejected because the narration wasn’t up to scratch. These include Priyadarshan’s comedy Chithram, which went on to become a big hit. Revathi was approached for the part eventually played by Ranjini.

Priyadarshan teasingly needled Revathi when the film had crossed a 100-day run in theatres. “I told him, please don’t narrate a story next time because you are a horrible narrator, you didn’t narrate the essence of the film,” she said. When he approached her for Kilukkam (1991), which was later remade as Muskurahat in Hindi, she told him, I will do the film, just don’t narrate it to me.

Revathi’s squeaky-clean image also meant that some of the oomph-oozing characters played by her rivals passed her by. She simply couldn’t see herself in such roles, she explained. Besides, her innate sense of logic rebelled against needless objectification.

“I didn’t do characters I didn’t believe in and I felt I would be uncomfortable in,” she said. “In any case, an image had formed with my first few films. But I distinctly remember being offered the Tamil remake of the Hindi movie Julie that Lakshmi had starred in. I saw the film and I didn’t have the courage to do it. The role, the performance, the dress, I couldn’t do it.”

From a young age, Revathi realised the value of telling her directors what she thought of certain costumes, dance steps, or suggestive dialogue. “It came from my home – there was no gender discrimination in the way my sister and I were raised,” she said. “If a film had a story that treated a woman like a doormat, there was no way I would have done it.”

This feminist thinking later led Revathi to become a founding member of the Woman’s Cinema Collective, formed after a Malayali actor was assaulted while she was on her way to a dubbing session. “That incident was very shocking, it could have happened to any one of us,” Revathi said.

Revathi and some of her peers were able to stand their ground because filmmakers were sensitive enough to create strong characters for them, she pointed out. “It just happened at the time that there were films written for Suhasini, Radhika, Radha, Shobana,” she said. “Each of us had our own space, and it wasn’t crowded. Nobody was stepping on anyone else’s toes.”

Anjali (1990).

The golden run lasted until the end of the 1990s. After appearing in some of her most well-regarded films in that decade – Anjali (1990), Thevar Magan (1992), Magalir Mattum (1994) – Revathi found herself in that “in-between phase that is a very bad time for an actress”. Unlike actors, who can carry on being heroic and romancing women half their age, actresses have an expiry date. It usually kicks in at around 30, after which they are routinely cast in maternal roles.

Despite her misgivings, some of Revathi’s most memorable roles have been in the 2000s. These include the crime drama Ab Tak Chhappan, in which she was paired with Nana Patekar.

More recently, Hindi audiences have savoured Revathi in Margarita With a Straw (2014) and 2 States (2014). In Tamil – Power Paandi (2017) and Jackpot (2019) – and in Malayalam – Virus (2019) – Revathi has been the dependable element that delivers without trying too hard.

Revathi’s efforts are now concentrated on a few films a year. She hopes to get her new version of Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth off the ground. Revathi had starred in the Tamil remake, Marupadiyum (1993).

“The script is ready but nobody has been cast just yet,” she said. “Sometimes, I wonder if I should write films for myself and act in them, but when I directed the movie Phir Milenge and did a couple of scenes in it, my assistant director told me, can you please not act in your own film, you are a devil. I was so wound up.”

Power Paandi (2017).

Nostalgia for the cinema of the 1980s, which transformed Revathi and her generation into movie stars, is evoked in the comments left on her Facebook fan page. Here, cineastes who were not even born when Revathi became an actor extoll her talent.

The nostalgia has a more unusual expression. In 2009, the actors Suhasini and Lissy Priyadarshan started a club of actors who emerged in Southern cinema in the 1980s. The group “Class of 80s”, whose members range from Khushboo to Chiranjeevi, marks its existence with an annual themed party. For the tenth anniversary party in 2019, the guests were required to dress in black and gold.

Membership has been extended to such Hindi film actors as Jackie Shroff and Poonam Dhillon (who have also worked in Southern productions). The Covid-19 pandemic ruined any plans for a gathering in 2020. But the members meet for a coffee or lunch whenever they can, Revathi said.

“Whichever city we are in, we tell the group and we meet up with whoever is free,” Revathi said. “It’s such a beautiful thing. All of us look forward to our get-togethers. We don’t just talk about the past. We hold each other’s hands and are there for anything anyone is going through.”

It’s finally time for Revathi to get onto the shooting floor. She films a scene with Satyajeet Dubey, who plays a cirrhosis patient in Aye Zindagi.

“Revathi is a fantastic actor, is from the right age group, and is committed to the whole cause,” said director Anirban as he peered at the camera monitor. “She brings respectability and gravitas to the role and the whole film.” When Revathi is in a frame, you know everything is going to be just fine.

Arangetra Velai (1990).