Kani Kusruti, on her own terms: Actress discusses how theatre shaped her craft, and why her social media is promotion-free
The work and achievements of many people go unnoticed every day. To be heard in the film industry, you need to be a certain type of celebrity or have a certain stature, says Kani Kusruti.
When I call her a few days after her win at the Kerala State Film Awards, Kani Kusruti answers the phone with a kind of gusto and enthusiasm that seems to be missing from telephonic conversations in the lockdown. She received the Best Actress Award for her role in Biriyaani, directed by Sajin Baabu, where she plays Khadeeja, a married Muslim woman who deals with the aftermath of her brother's radicalisation, and who suppresses her desires due to the society she lives in. The week before, she won the Best Actress Award at the 42nd Moscow Film Festival, but the State Award remains special.
“Whenever I’ve received an award, happiness has accompanied it, as well as the validation that I’ve done a good job. It was good, but I would have been okay without it too – this is how I used to feel about awards. But the Kerala State Awards evoked something else in me: this is probably because I’m from Kerala, so it felt like recognition from my own people, it felt personal. It lifted my spirits,” she says in an interview to Firstpost.
Kani says awards are also significant because they put the spotlight on the artist, making it a moment when many are paying attention to what the artist has to say. If you want to engage with society, this is the moment to do it, she says. Kani used the opportunity to talk about PK Rosy, who is regarded as the first Malayalam heroine and first Dalit actress in India, who was maligned for playing an upper caste character on screen, and pushed into obscurity. But she insists that she isn’t the first to mention PK Rosy.
“Many have campaigned to rename the Best Actress Award to the PK Rosy Award, for a long time. A few films have been made about her too. The point I wanted to make is that the work and achievements of many people go unnoticed every day. To be heard, you need to be a certain type of celebrity or have a certain stature. Along with PK Rosy I wanted to also address the issue of unequal opportunity: I see a lot of people in the industry who don’t get equal opportunities because of their caste. There’s discrimination on the lines of gender and skin colour too, in Kerala. Just look at the example of the Malayalam actress who was abducted and assaulted – this is how an artist from a privileged background is treated,” she asserts.
Kani’s filmography is marked by many noteworthy roles: Memories of a Machine; Maa (a mother whose teenage daughter becomes pregnant), Counterfeit Kunkoo (a woman who faces barriers while hunting for a home in Mumbai, because she is unmarried), and among her latest, The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas (a 'feminist', caste-blind filmmaker).
What drives her choice of characters? “I don’t actually mind doing any kind of character. My choices haven’t been driven by ideology or creativity, but rather logic. Sometimes it was about whether I needed money. I never had the chance to say, 'should I pick this role over this one?' I hope one day I get the chance to pick roles keeping in mind my creative choices,” she clarifies.
She says she doesn’t have biases against working with newer directors, or directors who aren’t considered experienced. Simultaneously, she has found that having worked in the industry for a considerable number of years means that some opportunities aren’t open to her. On more than one occasion, when she has come across an audition call online and emailed the director telling them she’d like to send a tape, she was told that she doesn’t need to audition. “They say, ‘We’ll let you know if we’d like to cast you.’ I find this hurtful, and I’m not the only one to experience it. Some of my peers have faced this, too. Why are you denying us a chance at an audition?” she asks.
The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas interested her in particular because the film is a comedy, and a lot of roles she has been offered in the past have had more 'serious' shades. Does she feel like she is being typecast? Kani says her notion of typecasting is less about the details of the character – profession, social background – and more about the character’s state of mind. “I’m okay with being cast as a teacher more than once if I’m given the opportunity to play a different kind of teacher each time. What happens is that people cast you to play a certain state of mind, a certain kind of emotion or expression. They’re only looking for this particular element – that’s when typecasting takes place. ‘You know how you did this in the last film, do something like that.’ This is limiting for an actor,” she says.
I ask about whether the progressive label given to the Malayalam film industry is justified in her eyes; she says it is, and it isn’t, in some ways. Growing up, when she watched films in the '80s and '90s, Kani was of the opinion that Malayalam cinema was better than the work produced by other industries, script- and story-wise, even if the stories were problematic. “In the 2000s, Malayalam cinema began to suffer. These films, headlined by stars, ran in the theatres for days, but I found that they did not invoke anything in me. I didn’t even find them funny, and I stopped going to theatres,” she says.
The progressiveness behind the camera is up for debate too, in terms of discrimination and the way artists are treated. She highlights a phenomenon whereby a male actor finds himself cast over and over by the same core team, but the team will look for a new female face for each project. “Which is good in a way because more women get opportunities. But why does the choice of the male actor remain constant? I have doubts along these lines,” she says.
She found that at the beginning of her film career, something as simple as whether a character should or should not wear make-up wasn’t a conversation that could be had openly. “When I was starting out, if I suggested that my character could do without makeup, I would be judged. I came from a background of theatre and I had a sense of what I was saying – my perspective wasn’t coming from nothing. Make-up people would insist on shaping the eyebrows of an actor who has a scene in a hospital ICU too! This is among the worst creative limitations an artist can have, and even directors have this attitude,” she says.
Now, it feels as though the opposite is happening, she says, that those who don’t wear make-up are celebrated. “Sometimes it feels more like a trend, a fad, than an attempt to deeply understand an issue. For example, I’m celebrated for not wearing make-up in my everyday life. Why is that? Wearing make-up is not wrong,” she says.
On sets, sometimes, the food offered to people can depend on the stature they hold, she adds, but clarifies that this issue is less in Kerala than other film industries. She also believes that in projects by newer teams, the environment on sets is more democratic.
Overall, it would seem that while progress has been made in many quarters, some older issues do persist. “I get the sense that there has been a change, especially among the newer generation of writers and directors. The working culture and attitude is far better, but we still have a long way to go.”
More than anything else, what has shaped Kani’s craft is her background in theatre, which began nearly 20 years ago when she was a teenager. She enjoyed dancing, but acting wasn’t part of her interests. The other thing holding her back was the perception of theatre artists – female actresses are still pejoratively termed sex workers – and how her friends may have judged her. But after having done a comedy play and realising how much joy it gave her, Kani gave theatre a chance.
“It was during my second play – a realist, social one – where the director made us go through intense emotional theatre exercises that I was hooked. I discovered what I liked and wanted to do, I learnt things about myself… In India it is believed that acting is solely based on talent – I don’t believe this. Any talent needs practice and honing,” she explains.
Her personhood is shaped a great deal by her upbringing; her parents are activists Jayasree AK and Maitreya Maitreyan. The letter Maitreya wrote to her on her 18th birthday, which she posted on her Instagram account, resonated with many. "I know you are capable of loving sensitively. Love profoundly too," he wrote in it.
“My parents aren’t married. My mother is an agnostic and my father an atheist, and they’re both rationalists. They have a scientific temper – this is the sort of family I come from… My parents never forced me to be what they believed in. They enabled me to think and develop a conscience of my own, to make my own understanding of what is right and what is wrong from an early age. There have been times where they may not have agreed with my life decisions – when I was very young, I was religious! – but they’ve never told me how to be. They motivated me to think of diversity instead of one way of being,” she says.
I have to confess that before I discovered Kani as an actress, I knew her as a person with an alluring social media presence. It was a time when being ‘unfiltered’ or ‘real’ on Instagram and Facebook was in vogue. I learnt then that her surname is self-assigned, and translates to "mischievous".
Today, Kani is among those rare artists who don’t engage in promotional content on their social media platforms. (Her bio on Instagram says "I AM NOT AN INFLUENCER NOR INTO PAID ADS on SOCIAL MEDIA.") She seems to use it more as a mode of expression. Her principle about this is very simple: she will endorse the things she takes a personal interest in, or finds intriguing.
“I like to use my social media to connect with amazing women in India – and this is not just artists – to understand and learn from each other. It’s also a personal space which is open to public, in a sense. If you have a certain following or blue tick, people come with requests to do paid or promoted posts. I’m not interested in this. And it’s not like I don’t do ads or commercials. I also don’t criticise those who do promotional collaborations – it’s just that I personally don’t want to do them. I want my social media to remain a space that I curate,” she explains.
Kani’s allure and realism – which seemingly stems from a way of being rather than a statement or proclamation – has more than endured over half a decade.
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