Kani Kusruti: Every co-actor I work with makes me learn something

Kani Kusruti: Every co-actor I work with makes me learn something

Actor Kani Kusruti, whose All We Imagine As Light is all set to compete for Palme d’Or at Cannes, speaks about working with female directors, her favourite character that she played, and more

It’s not yet six months into 2024 and already the year appears to belong to actor Kani Kusruti. Her film Girls Will Be Girls, directed by Shuchi Talati, premiered in the World Dramatic section at Sundance and walked away with the audience award. Now, Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine As Light is set to compete for Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

Then there have been popular series like Killer Soup, Poacher, and Maharani Season 3 on OTT, which have taken her to living rooms across India and made her a familiar face in ordinary households. CE caught up with the maverick actor whose roots lie in theatre and who gained recognition in cinema with Kerala Cafe in 2009. Is it the best year in her life as an artist so far? In the middle of a shoot in Kerala, Kani spoke about her Cannes tryst and more.

Excerpts:

Q

Girls Will Be Girls (GWBG) at Sundance, All We Imagine As Light (AWIAL) at Cannes. Did you see it coming?

A

I am very happy for both films. I knew they were going to be sent to festivals but didn’t know where. Both have been special in their own way, and I am fortunate to have been a part of them.

Q

Both GWBG and AWIAL are by female filmmakers, Shuchi Talati and Payal Kapadia, respectively. Does gender determine the way people work on a film? Does it impact you as an actor?

A

I have been very fortunate to have worked with Tara Ramanujan (Nishiddho), Shuchi, Payal. I have also worked with Reema Maya on her short film, Counterfeit Kunkoo. Pooja Shetty co-directed OK Computer with Neil Pagedar. I don’t know if it’s to do with gender or if it’s about these individuals, who have a certain way of working with the entire team. All I can say is that they have brought in a very positive working environment. Girls had more than 50% female crew. It was amazing to be surrounded by so many women. There was no shouting, no chaos in the workspaces of the female filmmakers I have worked with. Everyone was calmer, gentler. It felt very democratic and collaborative. It was their conscious decision and they have worked hard to create such an environment for everyone. I want to give them credit for their work ethic. I feel more comfortable in an environment with an equal representation of women. When one goes through certain challenges at the shoot, it becomes easier for me as an actor if more women are around.

Q

How was it working with Payal and Shuchi?

A

Payal and Shuchi are very different in their creative processes. With Girls initially I wasn’t sure if I was understanding the story. I was a little confused. But after my first conversation with Shuchi I felt like working with her. She is a very open-minded director, open to all kinds of possibilities, all kinds of interpretations that can emerge out of a script. She is a great listener yet knows exactly what she wants. She will shoot a scene a certain way and then do it again and again as per the interpretation of each of the actors. She takes all the permutations and combinations into account even beyond the script. It may not be the way she wrote it. It may change on the editing table. She keeps that space quite open. We’d rehearse a scene and discuss it with all the departments before shooting it. It was an ideal environment for filmmaking.

I immediately connected to Light on reading the script. I so want to do this—that’s what I felt. Payal had narrated the brief to me many years ago while she was in FTII (Film and Television Institute of India, Pune). My co-actor Divya Prabha has done the role of Anu that she wanted me to play. I was younger back then [laughs]. Years passed, we couldn’t make it then, so I am now playing the other character Prabha. I did an audition for Light. Payal took her own time to be sure about the actors.

Payal’s is the first film on which I have rehearsed excessively, way before the shoot. For Girls we rehearsed while we were shooting and a week or so before the shoot Shuchi worked with me on the physique, walk and body language of the character.

For the first schedule of Light we rehearsed for a long time. When we reached the location, we already knew what was going to happen. We understood all the possibilities; also, what was not working.

Both Shuchi and Payal helped me understand my characters. Half of my acting credit goes to the directors for navigating me in their own way. Both are very collaborative. Both are very different but in their involvement with their films, they both have the same intensity.

Q

What’s your character in Light like and how did you relate/or not relate to it?

A

I don’t relate to Prabha at all. Her beliefs, how she reacts; there’s not one thing about her which is like me. I don’t like her [laughs]. I wouldn’t want women to be like her. But there’s an arc to her, in terms of how she changes

Q

In both films, your character’s dynamic with another woman seems to be crucial.

A

Shuchi auditioned many for the role of Mira, my daughter in Girls. When Preeti Panigrahi did it, it immediately clicked. She brought something to it, interpreted it in the most accurate way. It was while rehearsing with her, that I understood the nuances of the story. It all came to light for me while watching Preeti interpret her character. I was very moved by it. She made everything clear, filled all the blanks for me. This was her first, she will grow even more. But she is already amongst the best.

Divya Prabha and I have known each other for a long time. Personally, even more than professionally. We have worked together earlier but in Payal’s film it was more about learning together.

Every co-actor I work with makes me learn something. The better craft they have in them, the easier it makes my job [and of other actors].

Q

Do you consider any role or film as a turning point or dealbreaker for you?

A

My most favourite character so far has been Monalisa in OK Computer. It’s a turning point in my internal journey as an actor. I like to do comedies but rarely get them.

The fact that Biriyaani was so well received and won many awards gave me a lot more opportunities than before. People started taking me more seriously. I wouldn’t say that it is my kind of film, but it brought me a lot of visibility.

Q

You seem to like working from the periphery rather than being at the centre of the film industry…

A

I started doing theatre in 2000 when I was in school. Until 2010 I didn’t go for films. I thought it was a medium in which I wouldn’t be able to excel or be able to contribute to. Cinema didn't resonate with me. Then I realised that the money I can make will only come from films. I couldn’t support myself financially with theatre. I began taking any film that came my way. Then, I went to France (where I had studied theatre earlier) in 2012, and was working there in a theatre group called Footsbarn. I came back to India and worked in a few films here and there but was more focused on learning the sitar. I have never chased films. I haven’t put myself out there. I have done whatever has come to me. Only in the past three years have I reached out to people, when I have liked their work.

Q

How far has the liberal, rationalist, activist environment you’ve grown up in moulded you as an actor?

A

Basically, to be an actor all you need to know is acting. You will be a great actor if you are a great actor. You will be a mediocre actor if you are a mediocre actor. You can learn to better your craft. An actor who is aware of things can create a very healthy environment at work. Being intelligent and smart helps you take a leap in how you approach something. As for myself, as an actor from Kerala, I didn’t have the baggage of any social expectations. The way I was brought up by my parents (Jayasree AK and Maitreya Maitreyan), I never had issues like ‘what people would think if I did this’. I am my own judge. I make my own choices. All credit goes to my parents for being so open-minded. The agency has always been within me. It wasn’t determined by people’s opinion.

Q

What makes you pick or reject a role?

A

Till now I have done what has come my way. I am not yet in a place where I have plenty of choices. In an ideal situation I’d have the story connect to me. Then the director, genre and the entire team. But it's not always in the order that I’d want it to be.

Q

The most rewarding and the most frustrating thing about being an actor?

A

I don’t like travelling, going to new places, or being with new people. All this happens while making a film. I like to be in the same place, same routine, my home. Shoots in India can also be unpredictable—sometimes day, at times night. But the rewarding aspect of all this is that you learn to adapt. What frustrates me also helps me grow as a person.

Q

A quality an actor must possess…

A

The willingness to constantly learn a craft and better it, to challenge yourself and introspect. No matter how many Oscars you get, it’s a constant process of learning, unlearning and bettering. Great actors get better with age. One should not stagnate. Actors should have discipline to not abuse their body, mind or voice. It might take away from some pleasures of life but that’s a sacrifice you must make.

Q

Is an actor a director in progress? Are you? If yes, is there any actor you’d like to direct?

A

I have not thought of myself as a director, but I do think of screenplays and stories and brainstorming with Anand (Gandhi) and my friends and family.

There are some actors I love and would like to have directed if I was a filmmaker. In Malayalam cinema I love Grace Antony, then there is Ashwathy, Darshana, Sai Pallavi. We are lucky to have been from a generation that saw such marvellous work from Urvashi. There are male actors too. We have plenty of talent in acting.

Q

You didn’t go to Sundance. Are you going to be in Cannes? Any films you’d want to watch there?

A

I don’t like going to super crowded places but just to share the happiness itself I must go to Cannes. I have studied and worked in France. It's my second home. Two of my favourite directors are in Cannes this year—Yorgos Lanthimos and Paolo Sorrentino. If possible, I’d like to see what they’ve made.

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