Every summer, the organizers of the Toronto International Film Festival come up against a wall. Or The Wall, so to speak – a space inside one of the TIFF Bell Lightbox’s offices that is covered floor to ceiling with the fest’s schedule. Hundreds of screenings are pasted to the wall, a massive Rubik’s Cube of a calendar to arrange and rearrange until everything fits just so. And last year, this puzzle – one whose pieces included not only the desires of TIFF organizers but the competing agendas and whims of movie stars, directors and the highest order of Hollywood gatekeepers – was Ravi Srinivasan’s to solve.
Newly promoted to senior manager of festival programming for TIFF after almost a decade programming Canadian, Filipino and South Asian cinema for the organization on a seasonal basis – a period during which he championed such films as Antigone, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, and Scarborough – Mr. Srinivasan now had, according to TIFF chief executive Cameron Bailey, “the big, hard, hairy job of the festival. And he embraced it with ease. There wasn’t anything in this world of film that intimidated him.”
“I would walk by that small office, the door ajar, and would see Ravi just standing there, staring at this giant schedule – he was so gung-ho to show everybody his ability to navigate any problem,” recalls Anita Lee, TIFF’s chief programming officer.
Robyn Citizen, director of festival programming and Cinematheque for TIFF, adds that Mr. Srinivasan possessed the perfect profile to be the organization’s lead Canadian programmer – easily the most influential role in the country’s film landscape – following this month’s retirement of TIFF veteran Steve Gravestock.
“Watching Ravi, you saw a problem-solver – he understood all the pieces and diplomatic relationships that go into building an industry. But he was front-facing, too,” Ms. Citizen says. “He had the passion, the grace, the knowledge. He was somebody we had our eyes on for a while.”
On Jan. 14, Mr. Srinivasan died at home of a brain aneurysm, aged 37. His sudden death not only left family, friends, and colleagues in shock, but has, in Ms. Lee’s words, “left a huge hole in Canadian film.” In addition to his work with TIFF, Mr. Srinivasan programmed for Hot Docs, Reel Canada (which runs National Canadian Film Day), and sat on the boards for Toronto’s Regent Park Film Festival and the Future of Film Showcase.
“He viewed film not purely as a formal exercise, not purely as entertainment. Drawing on his Filipino and Indian immigrant heritage, he understood that in everything he did, representation mattered,” Mr. Bailey says. “He epitomized a new generation of people who think about movies in Canada.”
Mr. Srinivasan was also the connective tissue of a large, sprawling social network, one encompassing both the local film community and friends he made, and kept, while growing up in the Sarnia, Ont., suburb of Corunna. He was the “Energizer Bunny,” according to friend and fellow Hot Docs programmer Aisha Jamal – the big-hearted, loud-shirted extrovert who knew everyone, and who was eager to, if not get the party started then certainly keep the celebration going.
But according to close friend and fellow film programmer Adam Cook, Mr. Srinivasan’s gusto was partly due to knowing that life could be cut short at any moment. When he was two years old, Mr. Srinivasan lost his father, Thiruven. (At 21, he lost his mother, Larraine, to the same cause that would eventually kill him.)
“He had a tough upbringing not having his dad, and also growing up as a person of colour in a very white town,” Mr. Cook says. “That can turn you into someone who is guarded and not trusting, but he went the opposite way. He took on everything with love and warmth.”
Adds Vivian Belik, Mr. Srinivasan’s girlfriend and a programmer at TIFF’s Cinematheque: “He was someone who was able to hold space for people. He held this candle for those who had gone through their own struggles.”
Growing up, Mr. Srinivasan’s brother, Hari, took on the role of father figure.
“I’m 11 years older, so he started off as my little brother and then slowly became my best friend,” says Hari, who sometimes used Ravi as his mascot of sorts, placing him atop of the Dickie Dee ice-cream cart that he would pedal around during the summer. “We struggled a lot growing up, it was hard for a single mom raising us two, but we leaned on each other.”
After studying film and English literature at Wilfrid Laurier University, Mr. Srinivasan enrolled in a postgraduate program in film and television at Sheridan College. While trying to secure an internship to fulfill Sheridan’s requirements, the cinephile – armed with a passion for film but not a single industry contact to his name – picked up a copy of the TIFF program guide to cold-call dozens of producers and production houses. Which is how he got on the phone with producer Jennifer Jonas, who runs New Real Films with Leonard Farlinger.
“He had this great energy right from the beginning, he was sincere and learned fast,” Ms. Jonas recalls. “And then Gravestock poached him!”
Indeed, after time spent balancing work with New Real and a night gig with the Canadian Opera Company’s call centre, Mr. Srinivasan was hired away by the TIFF team in 2013.
“He had a contagious level of enthusiasm, which can wane over the years, but that’s not what happened with Ravi,” Mr. Gravestock says. “If he liked a film, he went to bat for it. Tracey Deer’s Beans is one that stands out. And he was the first to see Anthony Shim’s Riceboy Sleeps, which won this year’s Platform Award. He anticipated trends and could always predict what TIFF’s Canadian jury would select, which irritated me because I’ve been doing this for four times as long and he was way better at it.”
After joining TIFF, Mr. Srinivasan travelled to festivals around the world, discovering new cinematic voices, and dominating karaoke bars along the way.
“We took over the stage of this random bar at Cannes where, no exaggerating, we brought the house down with our famous duet of Linkin Park’s In the End,” Mr. Cook recalls. “I was Mike Shinoda, he was Chester Bennington. But he had quite the range.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Srinivasan would continue to grow his social circle, to the point where even Ms. Belik – who met Ravi at a Hot Docs party in 2019 – was constantly amazed to discover new people who he was friends with.
“We would go to a party and I asked him, ‘How are you even able to remember everyone?’”
Programming for TIFF can be a draining experience, with Mr. Srinivasan screening upward of 300 films every season. Yet somehow he also found the time to start a film festival of his own, the South Western International Film Festival (SWIFF), which launched in 2015.
“His mission was to bring a culturally diverse experience to Sarnia, he wanted to push people’s boundaries,” says childhood friend Tom Colquhoun, who stayed close with Mr. Srinivasan since they met at the age of five. “It was important to him to bring this experience to his home.”
Since SWIFF’s inaugural edition, the festival has grown to include live concerts, virtual-reality exhibits, and a buzzy industry summit alongside its slate of feature- and short-length films.
“Ravi was like the mayor of Sarnia,” says friend and one-time TIFF programmer Kiva Reardon. “And he convinced a lot of Toronto film people to go there, cramming us four to a room inside the Holiday Inn. Some people grow up and move away and never want to think about where they came from, but Ravi wanted to make Sarnia a place he would have loved growing up.”
After he had helped finalize the schedule for this past September’s TIFF – its first fully in-person edition after two years spent in pandemic-era hybrid mode – Mr. Srinivasan had the pleasure of watching one of his selections, the Pakistani film Joyland, win over festival audiences. And thanks to the platform that TIFF provided, director Saim Sadiq’s drama about a young man’s relationship with a trans woman has been shortlisted for the Best International Feature Film Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards – the first time a Pakistani film has received such an honour.
“Ravi was such a sophisticated viewer and such a passionate advocate that he could articulate both the formal qualities that made it interesting but also why it mattered,” says TIFF’s Mr. Bailey. “Institutions like ours and others can do a lot to help shift conversations, but you need someone like Ravi to advocate for it and talk to audiences about it as well.”
Ms. Belik was with Mr. Srinivasan when he saw Joyland for the first time this past spring, in Cannes.
“He didn’t cry during movies, or ever, but he just broke down at the end,” she says. “He was proud to be able to bring it to TIFF, and then to see it shortlisted for an Oscar. It was a beautiful moment.”
Mr. Srinivasan’s death occurred barely two weeks before TIFF kicks off its Canada’s Top Ten 2022 series, a program that he was intensely involved in organizing.
“For the Canadian cinema community, this is an unfathomable loss,” Mr. Cook says. “Film meant a great deal to him personally. But everything with Ravi was personal.”