The actor on two of her films that made it to the Cannes Film Festival — Payal Kapadia’s Grand Prix-winning ‘All We Imagine As Light’, and Shuchi Talati’s ‘Girls will Be Girls’ — and much more

The first thing that strikes you about Kani Kusruti, one of the lead actors in Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine As Light, when you connect with her for a video interview, is her infectious laughter. Fresh from her whirlwind trip to the Cannes Film Festival, Kusruti has dived straight back into filming a series in Kerala, her home state. Her last name, Kusruti, which means ‘mischievous’ in Malayalam, seems to be a fitting moniker; there is a glint in her eyes that betrays a sense of the actor’s diablerie. When she speaks, her conversation, punctuated with laughs, carries a sparkle of its own. And she is riotously candid. “It hasn’t fully sunk in yet. The trip was so short that it almost feels like a dream,” she tells The Federal, reflecting on her joyful revelry, along with Kapadia, Divya Prabha, Chhhaya Kadam and Hridhu Haroon at the red carpet, and her response to the precise moment when their film was announced as the winner of Grand Prix.

“We were all genuinely happy, especially because I believe Kapadia truly deserved it. Not because I was a part of her film but because she has a voice of her own,” gushes Kusruti, who plays the older Malayali nurse, Prabha (a woman bound by duty, yet yearning for freedom, weathered by life, yet harbouring a fragile hope), in All We Imagine As Light. Set in Mumbai and Ratnagiri, the film explores the quiet moments of beauty that emerge in the face of everyday struggles and Kusruti essays the character with quiet grace. She recalls when she read the script, she found it to be subtle and poetic: “At the same time, it gently makes us feel larger than the expression of the film, which is very difficult to do sometimes.”

A win for the women in India

Even before it was announced as the winner, Kusruti, who got to watch the film — like her co-stars — only at the festival, was glad at the film’s selection at Cannes. “When a festival like Cannes selects a film in a certain category, I have an expectation that the film may have something to offer that is new or unique, something that I’ll take back home. I was also curious to know whether the direction captured the essence of the script. And I was surprised to see that it managed to grasp the essence of the script,” she says.

What made her moment at the Cannes special was the fact that Kapadia called the film’s actors on the stage. The significance of the occasion was not lost on Kusruti. An independent film had achieved what no other Indian film had in the last 30 years. It was also a big deal that the Indian entourage largely comprised women. “It was a strange feeling. I felt like it was for all of us — all the women I have known from the past, present, and future. It felt like the win was an extension of the victory of all the women in India; it was as if we had all invited ourselves there, like we were all part of this moment.”

The film charts the journeys of three female characters and brings into dazzling, sharp relief their solidarity, their shared struggle with love and marriage, and the hardships of surviving in a new city. I ask her if a male director would have handled these nuances equally well. Kani, who doesn’t want to limit herself to working only with women directors, restrains from bringing in gender here as she thinks even a male director can have a female gaze (and vice versa). She says she has been fortunate to work with a lot of different female actors and directors in the past few years. On the sets of All We Imagine As Light, it was mostly women.

“In Payal’s film, the journeys of women characters become inclusive of each other. Theirs is a kind of female friendship. Then, there is romance, too. Basically, the film is about all kinds of bonds that are formed when you’re far away from where you were born, working in a city that offers a lot of freedom.” These relationships also include the ones in which you are “willing to listen to the other and let go of your old beliefs or some socially constructed belief system that you probably should let go so that you can make a choice of your own.”

Kusruti underlines how the film adeptly captures the contrasting experiences of its characters. “For some, it is amazing to be in a place with more freedom than where they were before. For others, it can be too overwhelming; you need a lot of money to live and survive in the city. Then, the whole system itself may push some people back to their villages; they are not allowed to stay in the city,” she says.

Displacement is a central element: “It’s not just the female characters, but most main characters are displaced. They are all working somewhere else, trying to find their own way to survive. Some are unable to cope and go back. Others grow together through friendship, romantic relationships, and everything they have, learning to be inclusive of each other.” During the shoot, there was a certain camaraderie that developed between the women. Kapadia, she says, is able to weave all these strands in a subtle manner, and not make any of them “in-your-face.”

On Biriyaani, being trolled and cancel culture

Even before All We Imagine As Light was declared the winner, Kusruti had hogged the headlines for sporting a watermelon clutch, designed by Kochi-based Divya John, to show her solidarity for Palestine. “I didn’t think I was doing anything bold because there were other artists who had shown solidarity in different ways, not just for Palestine, but also to protest violence against women in the workplace, and the crew not getting paid adequately,” she says. While her producers, and the media, were all praise for what was seen as an overtly political act, she was also trolled for her ‘selective activism’.

Many on social media lambasted her for her role in Sajin Baabu’s ‘Islamophpbic’ film, Biriyaani (2020), in which she plays Khadeeja, a married Muslim woman confined and constricted within the four walls of her house, who is forced to give up all her desires. Kusruti has also been targeted for doing the nude scenes in the film. “To avoid male gaze, you need to learn the craft well so that you don’t indulge in it even unknowingly. Even some female directors have shown the male gaze in their films in order to titillate the audience,” says Kusruti. “I had some justification to do Biriyaani. It was the lack of options that made me take it up. If I had something else in hand, perhaps I would have never done it,” adds Kusruti, who had done two more films before Biriyaani, but they could not never see the light of day.

The offer had come to her after a long time, and she wanted to test if she could shoulder the role well. “Sajin said it was his life story. I felt I didn’t have the right to tell him that what he insinuated in the film was not the case. I didn’t like the film’s political positioning and its aesthetics. I was not in awe of the way the film’s script was written. Moreover, Sajin didn’t see it as a film that fomented Islamophobia. I have done other problematic films, but this one was noticed because of its politics,” says the actor, who was also approached by Kerala Story director Sudipto Sen to audition for his yet-to-release film, but she refused because she didn’t want to work with him.

“I am against cancel culture. it’s not something I appreciate unless someone is a serious oppressor of many kinds. If some people regret what they have done wrong and want to course-correct, I would like to give them a chance in trying to better themselves,” she says. One of the reasons she had done Biriyaani had to do with her financial state at the time. “In the last two or three years, I have had certain financial freedom and I can at least choose not to take up some offers just for the sake of money. An actor doesn't have to take up the responsibility for whatever roles they do. Others don’t know the circumstances they work in. For instance, we don’t even have proper contracts in Kerala,” laments the actor, who has no qualms in admitting that she ends up doing most of the things that come her way.

On her favourite actors, and Girls Will Be Girls

Kusruti is currently shooting for a Malayalam webseries for SonyLiv, Eyes, directed by Manu Ashokan, known for films like Uyare (on acid attack survivors) and Kaanekaane (a thriller). Like scores of cinebuffs in Kerala, she has grown up with cinema. When she started out as a theatre actor, she wanted to work with iconic Malayalam directors like KG George (Swapnadanam, Ulkkadal, Mela, Yavanika, Lekhayude Maranam Oru Flashback, Adaminte Vaariyellu, Panchavadi Palam, Irakal, Mattoral, etc), who passed away last year, and P. Padmarajan (Kaikeyi, Ozhivukalam, Eenum, Moonnam Pakkam, Innale, and many others). “Even though some of the latter’s films are misogynistic, I still like his characters,” she says with a sheepish smile.

“His films have a lot of problems, but I like his storytelling. As an actor, I’d have liked to play some of his characters,” says Kusruti, who also counts Mammooty, Mohanlal, Mamukkoya, Thilakan, Kuthiravattam Pappu, Urvashi and Meena among her favourite actors. She looks up to the French actor Deni Lavant (Holy Motors). “I love his form,” she chirps. She is fascinated by the style of acting of actors like Charlie Chaplin, Jim Carrey, and Jagathy Sreekumar. “There is something crazy about the way they perform. They are stylised actors who’d surprise you because they are not going to play safe. They’d just do it,” she says. Actors like Innocent are doing their own thing which she finds interesting.

Kusruti had another film, Shuchi Talati’s debut feature, Girls will Be Girls — Richa Chadha and Ali Fazal’s first production — which was screened at Cannes. Like All We Imagine As Light, this too has feminist overtones. She plays Anila, a young mother who competes with her 16-year-old daughter, Mira, for the attention of the latter’s boyfriend, Srinivas (Kesav Binoy Kiran). Reflecting on her initial reaction to the script, Kusruti admits, “When I read the script, I didn’t quite get it. I spoke to the casting director who said, ‘Shuchi really likes you.’ But I was confused because I interpreted it in my own way.” Speaking to Shuchi over the phone changed her perspective: “The moment I spoke to her, I felt it was something different. I realised there is infinite possibility for me to grow as an actor; Shuchi is quite open-minded to try out different things.”

When Kusruti met Preeti Panigrahi, who plays her daughter Mira, the head prefect of her Himalayan boarding school, she was struck by Panigrahi’s acting chops. “She was doing it for the first time, but she was amazing,” Kusruti notes, reminiscing the dynamic between the two characters and the new dimensions it brought to her own performance. She has not watched the film yet and is quite curious to know about her character in the film. She hopes they — the film’s (predominantly) women cast and crew — will watch it together. When they do, they can raise a toast to woman power. And Indian cinema.

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