If need arises, I might do a 'Biriyaani' again, says Kani Kusruti

In an engaging conversation with TNIE, actor Kani Kusruti, whose movie 'All We Imagine As Light' made headlines at Cannes, opens up about her career, politics and ‘unconventional’ upbringing
Actor Kani Kusruti
Actor Kani KusrutiPhoto | Express

It hasn’t yet sunk in for Kani Kusruti. Two of her films — the Grand Prix Winner 'All We Imagine As Light (AWIAL)' by Payal Kapadia and Shuchi Talati’s 'Girls Will Be Girls' — were screened at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, catapulting her into an actor who has crossed many invisible borders. While discussions and debates are raging about the lack of opportunities for women in Malayalam cinema, Kani, along with her co-star Divya Prabha, was at Cannes for the premiere of their film about two Malayali nurses working in Mumbai.

The actor is now back from the French coastal town to the tinseltown of Kerala, and is busy shooting for a web series. Though well wishes and congratulatory messages are pouring in, amid her bright laughter, Kani says she hasn’t yet been able to return many calls or reply to texts. “I didn’t get time to sit with it and take it all in,” she smiles.

In a free-wheeling chat with TNIE, Kani opens up about her life, acting career and childhood which was always a topic of discussion among Malayalis.  


Two of your films were recently screened at Cannes with one even bagging a coveted award. How has life changed since then?

There hasn’t been any drastic change, but I feel happy and proud about being a part of these films. The audience at Cannes could connect well with both films. ‘Girls Will Be Girls’ was screened among a younger audience, followed by a Q&A session, which was fun and interactive.

Was your performance also lauded at Cannes?

Yes, of course. Typically, at any event related to the film, it’s actors who receive the most attention and they tend to overshadow the work done by those behind the scenes.

But in Cannes, it was appreciable that there was an equal spotlight on other crew members as well. In most of the films I’ve worked on, the pillars have always been the scriptwriters and directors. I also really enjoy getting opinions from other actors when they carefully observe my performance and share their thoughts.

You moved to France at a young age to study theatre and went back there again for work. With your biggest achievement yet as an actor has also come there, do you feel like life has come full circle?

I don’t believe this is my biggest achievement. As an actor, I just feel happy since I got the opportunity to work with a good script and a great team. It’s still a great feeling to be recognised at Cannes. Payal winning an award on a global stage might encourage producers to invest in films with such strong scripts.

Regarding France, I do consider it my second home. Even before studying in Paris, I had spent a month and a half there to perform in the Avignon Festival. My student days were tough as it was financially challenging, and the school’s culture was very competitive. Students were sent off if they didn’t perform well, and it was difficult to make friends. Thankfully, when I returned in 2012 to work, I was earning enough to live comfortably.

Your red carpet entry and your watermelon bag that symbolised solidarity with Palestine were all widely discussed...

I didn’t think it would make so much noise. There were a lot of other statements being made at the festival. For example, there were gestures against the harassment faced by women in workspaces, among other issues. Also, actor Cate Blanchett creatively expressed her solidarity with Palestine. I think I got such attention maybe because the clutch was prominent in photos. I wanted to propose this idea to my team when we were preparing for the festival.

But since the festival had made it clear that they don’t encourage political statements, I decided to do it myself and not pressurise others in the team. I was willing to take the responsibility. But as it turned out, our producers later felt it was important to express solidarity with Palestine on the red carpet. They distributed Palestine stickers, and a lot of our crew wore them on their bodies and phones. That, however, did not gain much attention. Almost everyone in our team was supportive and interested. So I don’t consider it a personal statement, but rather, on behalf of all of us.

You’ve often utilised platforms to express your political statements. Recently at the Cannes Film Festival for Palestine and earlier at the Kerala State Awards ceremony for PK Rosy...

I don’t think I always make statements. During the State Awards, I felt like the award could have been named in honour of PK Rosy. I’ve heard her story long back, but at some point, I forgot it. I was reminded of her legacy when some members of the PK Rosy Film Society attended a WCC meeting. Similarly, if I could make someone else think of PK Rosy because of my statement, that would be a moment of success for me. Her history is quite significant, especially since the reality of it is still relevant. Even with regard to Palestine, we all watch the atrocities every day. A lot of things are happening around us, but some affect us with more vigour than others.

Why do you think the issues in Palestine affect you so much?

I think in terms of colonisation, we always stand against the coloniser. But, essentially, I hate war. Powerful countries in the world supporting the war and allowing it to continue affect me a lot. When you learn about the history and politics of the issue, you understand why it is important to stand with Palestine. It doesn’t sit well with me that powerful countries are complicit in this. I think they’re responsible for why it is still ongoing. If the powerful countries decide to end it, they can. But I do not condone terrorism in the name of it or in any way as such. I am against killing, which includes even capital punishment.

Shortly after you expressed solidarity for Palestine, people started discussing your film 'Biriyaani'. You had also spoken about your disagreements with the film...

I spoke about it long back, but guess people have started taking me seriously only after Cannes.

When Sajin Baabu approached me with 'Biriyaani’s script, I didn’t think he was trying to be Islamophobic, but I did feel that the audience might interpret Islam in a negative way. When I shared my concerns, he said this was his story and that his intention was to oppose patriarchy. Though I was aware of his intentions, I wasn’t pleased with the film release in the country’s current political climate. I was also unhappy with my character; she was continuously facing hurdles and I didn’t feel right about it. I told Sajin that aesthetically and politically, this isn’t my kind of film.

He might not have consciously intended it to be Islamophobic, but the way it was written and shot, just like many others, I too felt like it could be interpreted as such. But some people also view it from a different lens. He is the filmmaker and I, as an artist, only had the choice of whether to be a part of it or not. Irrespective of the actor, Sajin was going to present it in his own way.

I’ve had similar problems — either moral or personal conflicts — with most of my projects, except maybe a couple. Since 'Biriyaani' was being made on a small scale, I was hoping that it wouldn’t reach a wide audience. Regarding criticism, I think it came at the wrong time. However, I believe that we should take accountability for our actions. I know a lot of artists who protect their integrity and I look up to them with respect. But as an actor, if I work based on my integrity, I might not get projects regularly. If the need arises, I might do it again, but if I’m financially stable enough to be choosy, then I might not do it.

In one of our recent interviews, J Devika compared your decision to act in 'Biriyaani' with actors taking up propaganda films in 'Nazi Germany'. What’s your response?

I don’t know how to respond to this (laughs). As an actor, I have my interpretations and doubts while listening to a story. However, in the end, my conviction is based on the script and the director’s vision. Any work of art is open to the audience’s interpretations. If I had watched Biriyaani just as an audience, I would have interpreted it differently. But it’s still not right to consider my interpretation as perfect. Having worked with Sajin, I’m clear that he didn’t have any propaganda. This is not solely based on how he conveyed the story to me but based on our general discussions about various topics.

‘We hardly see women characters like rangan annan’

Rumour has it that you rejected the audition for 'The Kerala Story'...

This is a total misinterpretation. I don’t know how people came up with such a narrative. I never received any call for 'The Kerala Story' audition. It was after the film’s release that I was contacted to audition for director Sudipto Sen’s next. But I told them I was not interested because the call came shortly after the film’s release and the slew of controversies which followed. That was one reason. The next is, I have a handful of works in the pipeline and I’m now in a position to reject offers. But this was not the situation some years back.

Do you think creators nowadays are bound by political correctness?

As an artist, I wish we were part of a developed society so that creators had the freedom to be creative without being bothered about political correctness. Developed countries like France know how to film nuanced stories carefully. They are given space as creators and the audience are also welcoming of such stories. Sadly, we are not. Our society is still not ready to differentiate films from reality.

At the same time, as an audience, I cannot watch somebody fighting, being killed or raped on screen. I think the first time I saw a fight scene was recently in 'Aavesham'. We as a society are still not okay with what a person wears, so we still have to go a long way.

When and how did your interest in acting begin?

My parents got a call from a theatre group requesting them to let me act because only very few female actors were active at that time.

Though I wasn’t really interested, I went ahead because my parents were willing and it was a comedy-drama where I could dance. I gradually started doing more plays. In theatre, there was a lot of constructive criticism and rare appreciation, which helped me grow as an actor and build my character. I used to try learning what acting is by observing it from a distance; not exactly how to act but learning the process of it. It is very recently that I started putting thought into my craft.

Do you ever feel like you are on the wrong career path?

Yes, always. I don’t enjoy acting in films. Theatre and cinema are two different processes. Working with Payal was fun because she made us rehearse continuously until we became thorough with each scene. It is exactly what we used to do in theatre. I never get satisfied when I am acting in a film because it’s a much faster process. I don’t like travelling either. I always feel out of place in this career.

In 2019, you had decided to quit acting...

I don’t remember the context now, but I meant that I should not have acted in films. It was mainly because of the work environment in the early 2010s. People were often passing lame jokes and comments, and I felt I should not have worked with them. But in the last 10 years, I don’t get any such vibe from the shooting location. There is a change. Now, people are more conscious about what to say.

You mentioned that films like 'Biriyaani' and 'AWIAL' do not align with your aesthetics. So what exactly are your aesthetics?

I am not interested in films that offer easy answers and nothing to ponder over. I lean more towards seeing and enjoying absurdity on screen. It might be too abstract to grasp with its grotesque visual language and all, but the way films in that genre provide food for thought has always fascinated me. Yorgos Lanthimos, who made 'Dogtooth' (2009) and The Killing of a 'Sacred Deer' (2017), is my favourite filmmaker in this regard. Then there’s Paolo Sorrentino. Among Indian filmmakers, even though it is not exactly what I seek, I like some of Lijo Jose Pellissery’s and Sriram Raghavan’s works. Most people do not like 'Double Barrel' (2015), but I love that film and fancy being a part of such films or plays. I also believe there is more possibility of bringing absurdity into the medium of theatre than films.

Your upcoming projects?

Currently, I am shooting for Manu Ashokan’s web series, which also stars Nikhila Vimal and Shruti Ramachandran. I did another web series last year, directed by Nithin Renji Panicker, which is yet to be released. Additionally, I have a film each in Malayalam and Tamil coming up.

Since you have a newfound recognition after the Cannes win, do you feel it will improve your prospects of getting more projects?

I can only comment on that after some time. It was only after the State Award win did I have the privilege of demanding a contract for a film, even though that should be a basic right. Of course, such recognition gains you more respect, even if I am not sure it can reflect on the offers.

After the formation of WCC and recommendations from the Hema Commission report, do you feel there has been a significant change to improve women’s safety in Malayalam cinema?

Maybe it has improved, but I am not the right person to answer this question as I rarely work in the Malayalam industry these days.

It is quite surprising that you are not getting enough work even after a State Award...

I have no explanation for that. Maybe it is because we have a wide pool of talent to choose from. Usually, I request for auditions to directors whom I’m interested to work with, and that is how I get cast most of the time, including for Manu’s web series. Only for Nithin’s web series did it happen otherwise.

Lately, you have been doing a variety of roles in Hindi. Did that make you feel stereotyped in Malayalam cinema?

Yes. Firstly, I get audition calls for all kinds of roles in Hindi, but not in Malayalam. But if I’m getting typecast, I think it’s also because of my inefficiency. I believe that everybody is unique and even if it’s a similar character, you can give a different shade and make it stand out. It also depends on the director. Some want me to repeat my previous performance, which leads to the characters looking similar.

Following your win at Cannes, we feel a strong sense of sisterhood among your peers in Malayalam. While male friendships often result in projects, it’s not the same with women. Do you feel like blaming the system for it?

Women are still behind in almost every walk of life and are still fighting for their rightful place in society. Irrespective of gender, there might be more talented people than the ones currently in the spotlight, who are stuck doing conventional jobs. Another aspect is that we do not have enough writers, and when the successful ones are predominantly male, producers will naturally lean towards them. We still have a long way to go before bridging that gap. Nowadays, we hardly see women characters leaving a lasting impression even after the film is over, such as Ranga annan in 'Aavesham'. Urvashi ma’am used to get such characters, even if the films were questionable in their totality. Whereas, male actors have always enjoyed good stories and characters. Take the case of Mohanlal or Sreenivasan, even today, we enjoy their films. There is a disproportionality in the industry. Also, there are no stories of transgender people yet. We also don’t see stories about different age groups. It’s mostly about people between 20-40. If you watch international cinema, you’d know that all ages are well represented. I feel this kind of foray is missing in the Malayalam industry.

Would you say your unconventional upbringing shaped your success in this field?

If you have passion, you can find success in this field, and for that matter, any field. My upbringing helped me deal with all that happens on the periphery of acting. My conservative neighbours were peeved about my interactions with the men in my theatre group, but my parents would just laugh it off. They were very chill and had clarity. This kept me buoyed as I pursued my hobbies.

My upbringing taught me how to shake off negativity and dismiss naysayers.

But that said, I don’t think parenting plays a big part in shaping up an artist. If someone is passionate about acting, they will dedicate their body and voice to it.

However, your upbringing was perceived differently by society. Did it ever affect you?

It did affect me in my childhood, especially comments from people I was fond of. At that time, Maithreyan and Jayasree chechi were working for the rights of sex workers and the LGBTQ community. Naturally, we had many visitors at home, which our neighbours were sceptical about. Many offensive stories were circulated about us during my school days. Some of my teachers and friends who might have seen this maintained a distance from me. But I always had a sense of clarity because of the regular discussions with my parents. I have experienced much more negativity and backlash than what we see on social media today. In those days, people were not ready to accept any change, but now, it is beautiful to see these diversities being embraced.

Girls Will Be Girls has a female-oriented crew. Did you feel anything different while working with such a team?

I’ve worked with Rima Sen and many other female directors. I’d say that the working experience with female directors is not always the same. Shuchi’s set was calm without any shouting. I had the same experience while working with Manu (Ashokan) also. The women I’ve worked with are gentle and stress-free, but there are some who are also toxic. In men, I have seen both. The women I have seen are also conscious about the environment. I have come across a few such men as well, who speak and interact respectfully.

As a creative space, do such women-centric spaces offer anything more?

I cannot say that based on gender. For instance, it was relaxing while working with Abhishek Chaubey on 'Killer Soup'. It was a better experience than working with female directors. So, I cannot bracket it to a particular gender. The male gaze is involved even if female directors do a film. It depends on the artistic awareness. They need to have supporting producers and peers as well. If the producer is not supportive or there is a lack of resources, they may not be able to create a healthy environment. We cannot compare Shuchi and Abhishek as their journeys are different. Women still need more effort to get there.

Related Stories

No stories found.

The New Indian Express