REMINISCENCES Veteran actor Radha Ravi, whose performance in the soap, ‘Chellamay' is being lauded, takes a walk down memory lane. Malathi Rangarajan

My interaction with actor Radha Ravi reiterates the dictum that assumption is far removed from actuality. The son of veteran actor M.R. Radha, has to be an atheist, and his interests are restricted to acting and politics, I thought. But this graduate from Madras Law College proves me wrong. An ardent devotee, whose annual itinerary includes visits to the Sabarimala shrine, his unshakeable faith in the Almighty has made him highly spiritual. And the avid student of Vedanta strictly follows Swami Parthasarathi's emphasis on punctuality and civic sense. “How can I preach if I don't follow them,” he asks. “Being on time is a practice I imbibed from my dad. He would be ready with make-up on at least three hours ahead of schedule. And my Sabarimala sojourns, which have been going on for 41 years now, began even during my dad's time.” But the father was a diehard atheist! “His definition was very different – only a person without faith in himself is an atheist, he would say,” laughs Ravi.

Service has been an integral part of Ravi's life from his youth. If people living on his street in Teynampet, Chennai, had a problem to solve, or a social menace to tackle, they knew they could rely on Ravi for help. It is this trait that later made him hold a responsible position in Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI) and continue as the youngest and longest serving president of Nadigar Sangam, an organisation for the fraternity of actors. As president of Lions Club Madras United City, Ravi brought in the scheme of collecting unclaimed bodies from hospitals and performing the last rites with the chants of a Hindu, Muslim and a Christian, thus giving them a respectful burial. “We call the project, ‘Serve the Dead,'” he says.

Being forthright could have cost him dearly professionally. “It has,” he smiles, “But once you decide to serve you should go ahead in full throttle. That's what I do. If I've worked in 280 films I've lost almost 200.” Yet Rajnikanth, Kamal Haasan or Vijayakanth, Karthik, Prabhu or Parthepan, Radha Ravi has worked with several heroes, in his heyday. And his 38 years in the film industry is proof of his staying power. “I think as a family we are blessed. We may play the anti, but we have an unshakeable fan base.”

And small roles or big, villain or comedian, the actor has made an impact. “There was a time in the 1980s when I worked in 22 films a year,” Ravi recalls. Surprisingly Ravi's debut was in Kannada! “I was in love and the girl's family had shifted to Bangalore. So I saw the offer as a chance to follow her there,” he smiles sheepishly. And though from his school days he was into theatre, it was Kamal Haasan who brought him to Tamil cinema with K. Balachander's ‘Manmadha Leelai.' He went on to work with Kamal in ‘Vetri Vizha' and ‘Uyarndha Ullam.' “Like Kamal I give a lot of importance to costume, make-up and the wig I sport,” he smiles.

“We were a large group of friends that included Kamal, director Santhana Bharathi, and P.C. Sreeram who was younger. Every evening we converged on Samco Lodge, near Kamal's home in Alwarpet,” he remembers. “Like Ekalaiva I learnt a lot watching my father from afar. Though I did imitate him initially, I soon changed tack. When people have already watched and enjoyed M.R. Radha on screen, why would they need another?”

As Ravi confesses, he follows worthy practices of others. “Actor Sivakumar's discipline -- come what may he'd never swap dates he has given a producer with another. Like Satyaraj, I prefer not to fleece the producer. After the signing amount, I wait for the rest of my payment, and like Jaishankar who remained genial despite being taken for a ride often I don't attach much attention to money. You may call me naïve, but I prefer to be so,” he laughs.

Small screen success

If an actor has been able to draw attention in a Rajni film, it is Radha Ravi. The film is director Suresh Krissna's ‘Annamalai.' “I met Rajni to tell him I didn't want to play elderly characters anymore, when he asked me to don the role of Sarath Babu's father in ‘Annamalai.' I'm glad I took it up,” he says.

These days you don't get to see Ravi often on the big screen, but his role in the mega, ‘Chellamay,' is garnering plaudits for him from many a quarter. “I thank Sarath Kumar and Radhika for it. I play her brother, and Sarath felt the impact would be more if I do it. Now I'm identified with the character. People talk to me about the serial as if it were real! ‘Chellamay' has done for me what 280 films hasn't. Yet frankly, I didn't realise that it would be such a lengthy assignment,” he chuckles. Ravi isn't new to television. Long ago he's acted in one, and even directed ‘Koothaadi,' a 13-episode affair, for actor Revathy.

He is at home in comedy. ‘Chinna Maaplae,' with Prabhu and ‘Guru Sishyan' with Rajni are examples. “Vulgarity shouldn't pass off as humour. I think of our great comedians of the past, Nagesh and Chandrababu, in particular. When will we see such classiness and timing in action and dialogue again?”

As we walk out of his office, I notice pictures of film personalities adorning the hall. From Sarangapani, Muthuraman, MGR, Sivaji Ganesan, Padmini, Savithri and M.R. Radha to T.S. Balaiah, S.V. Ranga Rao, Nagesh and Chandrababu, the array is imposing! “Stalwarts, all of them! I apply make-up only after a silent prayer to them. The lady in the picture over there is my mother,” he points out. A beautiful portrait that exudes dignity!

“My parents are Gods to me. My father had terrific foresight. I'm proud to be the son of M.R. Radha and Dhanalakshmi Ammal. You cannot find a more accommodating person like my mom. Everyone knows that dad had women friends. Can you believe it if I say that all their children have stayed in this house at some point in time, and my mother has played the perfect hostess? Will any woman put up with such things? All she would ask dad was that he left for work every morning from this home in Teynampet.” Ravi's eyes turn moist. “I exhort youngsters! Don't send your parents away to old age homes. They don't deserve it after all they've done for you. We took great care of mom till the end, but the loss is something I'm unable to get over …” Leaving him to his reverie I quietly move out …