Revathy needs no introduction to movie-goers in India. A highly respected actress, she has aligned herself with disability causes and is closely associated with the Chennai-based Ability Foundation. She was instrumental in organising a wonderful film festival, included in which was an innovative '60 seconds to fame' competition on 'Inclusion'. George Abraham met up with Revathy in Chennai, and asked her a few questions.
What sparked off the idea of the festival?
Films are my profession and anything I do, I connect to films. Jayshree [Jayshree Raveendran is with the Ability Foundation] and I talked about this many years back: Why don't we do a film festival? But when we got down to doing certain things, when I spoke to some film festival organisers, I found that it is practically close to impossible because of the financial aspect. Then in Delhi Brotherhood organised this film festival and I met Satish Kapoor. I saw him [in] the first year [and then] the second year (which was last year). Then I realised: why don't we just go ahead and do it?
I came here and I started working full-speed on it. It was like [I was on the] warpath. I said, "Come on, let's do it!" Then Mr. P.K. Nayar came into it and from then on it was amazing. The kind of support and help we got from everybody, including the filmmakers who made the films, who were willing to send their prints; embassies that brought in the prints; airlines that took care of the entire couriering and bringing in personalities. So it was support all the way. And it became so wonderful. A great experience, a learning experience for me
Do you think in these four days of doing films, the city of Chennai actually experienced the film festival? Did a lot of people outside the disability sector come in or do you see this as a challenge in future?
No, it is a challenge. It has not happened as much as I, personally, would have liked it to happen. I would have wanted people from the film industry and people just walking on the road coming in and saying: Oh, we're going to watch films from all over the world which are addressing disability issues. But it didn't happen. It was mainly people whom we invited personally, and a few already sensitive people who wanted to see more sensitive films. So I hope the next year, in 2007, we are able to break that. It's going to be a challenge as to how we're going to get a person walking on the road, who looks at the poster and thinks that he should watch this movie, and come in, like he would do with any other film. And want to be a part of the festival: there are these great films made by these great directors, and not just because it is a disability film festival. I would want them to come in there because of the films that are being screened, like any normal theatre.
That's going to be a big challenge in 2007.
There were films like Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 'Black', and 'Aankhen', which are big star films, which have drawn audiences in other parts of India, and in Chennai too, perhaps. What made you not include films like that?
Those were already seen films. They were popular films, they had had commercial releases in Chennai; they did pretty well and most people had already seen them. Festivals basically are a platform where you're bringing in films from other parts of the world. A Czech film or a Russian film is not normally released in the theatres of our country. This is a platform where you can see those films, and how filmmakers in those countries, with their own issues that are different from our country's, cultures that are different from our country's, are handling certain emotions, problems and things like that. So this is a platform to bring in films from other parts of the world which are not normally seen in our part of the world.
We decided we'd stick to that. Maybe to bring in the crowd, we should have screened 'Black' and 'Aankhen' [laughs], and then the crowd would have seen the other films also. I don't know.
I wanted to ask you again: These last four days would have been a great experience all over the place, but what exactly would you put in as the high point of the four days?
More than high point , I would say there were a lot of low points, which have stayed in my mind more than the high points. The only high point was to see the faces of the amateur filmmakers when they were given the awards. It was lovely! They were all thrilled and jumping. This filmmaker who came all the way from Mumbai was giving pamphlets to people, saying that my 60-second film is being screened today at this theatre! That was wonderful, that we were able to do this.
A lot of low points: I felt there are so many things more we need to do to make this particular festival totally accessible. Not just physically, but even otherwise.
Hopefully, by 2007, I personally, along with Jayshree, definitely want to achieve that. We realised there is no point in showing a Czech film to a visually impaired person because he cannot read the subtitles and he cannot understand the language! We want to make that accessible next year. These are the little things, big things I would say, that we need to do.
This '60 seconds to fame' contest that you held was a brilliant idea. How did you strike upon it and how did you go about promoting it? What was the kind of response and how did you evaluate it?
The '60 seconds to fame' was the brainchild of Jayshree Raveendran. She always said: Why don't we do spots to talk about disability? We discussed how we could make it a competition. And just about three months before the festival, we had these lovely posters that proclaimed, '60 seconds to fame', and talked about the prizes, which are Rupees 1 lakh and 75,000, which must have definitely attracted many people as prizes are always very important. We gave them a topic called 'Inclusive Society'. Three months before this we put it on the web, on the Ability [Foundation] site. I called up all the NGOs that we knew all over the country, sent them these posters, and made colleges -- that had visual communications departments -- aware of it. This helped in people talking about it. With the few people that we were able to really reach out to, the kind of response that we got is amazing.
We got about 379 entries. And there was this person who said, "My town does not have stamps, so I have to go to another town to courier my film." So it was very interesting. There were so many people just wanting to be part of this, and to talk about what they feel about disability and inclusive society. I watched all the films, because this is very thrilling for me. The first few films when I watched, I thought the kind of differences in thought processes are amazing. The same thing is talked about by different people from so many different perspectives. For me, watching these films was a huge learning process.
Some [were about] pity. Some [talked about] achievement by a single person. Some were about organisations. And some made it so hilarious: they took it the way they take life. There was this one particular film where the father comes into the room because he hears a squeaking noise, and he sees that his son, who has as a metal rod attached to his leg, is lying on the bed. He moves it and says, "Dad, it must be this." And when his Dad goes out, he immediately leans back with a sigh, and a girl comes out from under the bed! This means he was having an affair, which he didn't want his father to know about. Amazing thoughts, and so many beautiful visuals, and so many lovely words, which were all so interesting!
Shortlisting them was very tough. We had to be very strict [about choosing the ones which] talked about inclusive society, since that was the topic. After that we had a special jury headed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan who chose the best.
Who comprised the jury?
Mr. Gopalakrishnan chaired the jury, and we had Jaya Bachchan, Mani Ratnam, Nandita Das, Rajiv Menon, Paresh Parecha,and Samuel Mani. We had an inclusive jury and it was amazing to see them argue. For instance, Mr. Gopalakrishnan and Mr. Ratnam liked certain films very much, visually. But when Mr. Parecha and Mr. Mani voiced their opinions, the perspective changed entirely. This shows that in our society a lot of us are not sensitised to many issues. I suppose that has to start from, maybe, the school. Maybe, from everywhere.
There are so many things that need to be done in order to make a totally sensitive and accessible society. That's one thing we want. Because sometimes we were also so shocked [and realised that] we hadn't [thought of certain] perspectives!
Where do you go from here in terms of the festival? Is it going to be an annual feature? Is it going to be only in Chennai or do you want to take it around the country? Do you want to take it overseas? How is it going to be?
Every country, every place has its own festival. This is the norm all over the world. The London festival is called the London Film Festival; for years it has been in London . Whether it has been Montreal or Cannes , whether it is Sydney or anywhere else. So we would like to have this in Chennai. And we would like people from all over the world to come here, to be part of it.
I would say that in 2007 we would like to make it as big an event as any other international film festival, and we want people from all over India , and all over the world, to want to be a part of this festival. Maybe not in 2007 but at least in the years to come we will make it bigger and bigger.
Now, you have been a mainstream film personality. So what actually draws you into these kinds of socially relevant activities, and is politics a kind of past story or is it going to happen in the future?
( Laughs ) Okay, the first question is about how I'm getting into the social circle of issues. There is no specific reason for it at all. It is just that I was sensitised at a very young age by my parents and by my school, and I have had a friend who was disabled. So I think I was sensitised not by anybody but it just happened naturally. I suppose that is one aspect of it.
And then, being a film personality, I realised that I can use my popularity to be a voice for certain things: whether it is the polio plus drops, the issue of cancer or disability or AIDS or whatever. I realise when a popular person speaks about it, people listen to the popular person. So I just decided to make use of the power of my popularity to voice [certain topics].
Of course, politics is - I sincerely believe when you want to do something good -- politics is social work with power. You are supposed to be working for the nation, for the people. The only thing is you are given power to make decisions. I just thought that as a politician I would be able to do so much more; I don't have to go and stand in government offices for specific organisations. Talking about accessibility, I don't have to go and talk to the C&DO officials, saying, you have a law, why don't you just implement it. If I had a position in politics, or if I had the power, I would just fire the person who ( laughs ) does not implement the law! It was that urge, that you can utilise power for a better use. That's what you are supposed to do! That's what made me go into politics.
I actually took part and contested as an independent candidate in 1996 and after that I campaigned in 1999, but I realised that I have to learn a lot more and learn to be a better hypocrite - I don't know what - and I need to tackle these people better, because I'm too emotional. And that doesn't work here. So either I need to back people who I know will take this forward, or I need to change myself in order to handle the political arena.
I wouldn't say it is a thing of the past. Sometimes I don't know myself! I do things I never thought I'd do (laughs). Every day I learn about myself. So I don't know if I'll be a part of politics or never be a part of it. I might just jump into it.
You've done Phir Milenge on AIDS, you did Anjali . When you do films like these and Mitr , would you also continue making films on issues of disability or would you like to integrate, as you talked in the conference, disability as an issue which you do in your mainstream cinema?
That's right, that's what I believe in. For me, I'd like my film to be mainstream. That I'm definite of, because I feel that anything, if talked and only taken to film festivals, really does not reach where I want it to reach. I want my film to be a mainstream cinema which should be released in mainstream theatres, and I need people to see it. The main reason I took up Phir Milenge and cast people like Abhishek Bachchan, Shilpa Shetty and Salman Khan, is because I wanted this issue of stigma towards an HIV positive person to be talked about. Why did Salman Khan play HIV positive? What is Shilpa Shetty doing in this film? That is what I wanted. I think it takes the message much further.
In Phir Milenge I had a lawyer's character, acted by Mita Vashisht, who does not have an arm in the film. So she is disabled. So this was something we brought into the film, but we were not talking about disability. She is part of mainstream society, she is a lawyer. She had an accident when she was a kid; a bus ran over her arm and she lost an arm. Her parents sued but lost the case and then this girl decided to be a lawyer. She became one of the top lawyers of India . That is her story, which is basically said in a couple of lines in the film. I just decided that she is a mainstream person in the society, she is a lawyer of a specific company, and she is fighting. But, she happens to be disabled. So the disability was something that is there but is not the focus. I like such things also. I feel my films would always have something like this.
Last question. In the major part of a film like Sholay - the biggest film ever made in India , perhaps - Sanjeev Kumar was disabled. There are mainstream films like Suhaag where Shashi Kapoor was blind. Incidental disability being a part of a mainstream film like this, do you think this makes a difference, or do we need more of such films to make a difference?
I think it is also the attitude towards the disabled person in that film which will make the difference later. Either you make the disability an issue of the entire film, then it is how you treat it. Do you treat it with pity? Do you treat it in the way that even though he or she does not have a leg, he has become the hero? Do you just want to take it as part of everyday life? So it is also the attitude in which disability is treated within each film that makes a difference.
As far as Sholay is concerned, I saw it as a kid. But it did not impress me so much, as much as a film like Sparsh which impressed me when I watched it 25 years ago. The sensitivity with which it was dealt with, that impressed me much more than Sholay. But now I'm a different person. Maybe we should talk to a rickshaw fellow or someone who has seen Sholay 25 times. Maybe Sholay impressed him much more than Sparsh would ever impress him. So I suppose it also depends upon the person who sees it.