Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha’s journey to Cannes glory

As the Malayalam actors made waves at Cannes, South First traces their inspirational journey from Kerala to the French Riviera.

ByS Subhakeerthana | Arjun Ramachandran

Published May 29, 2024 | 6:40 PMUpdatedMay 29, 2024 | 7:00 PM

Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha's journey to Cannes is an inspiring one

Malayalam actors Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha have brought honour to Kerala with their Malayalam-Hindi feature film All We Imagine As Light (2024). The movie received the Grand Prix Award at Cannes—the second-highest accolade.

Director Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine As Light, which portrays the lives of two Kerala nurses residing in Mumbai, marked the first Indian film in three decades to vie in the primary competition at Cannes.

Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha received widespread praise on social media for their achievements on the global platform. Their success is generating significant discussion.

However, this comes at a time when several recent blockbuster Malayalam films released this year—Manjummel Boys, Aadujeevitham, Malayalee From India, Varshangalkku Shesham, and Aavesham—have notably lacked substantial roles for women.

The recent trend of sidelining women in Malayalam cinema marks a departure from the previous decade, during which many films prominently showcased strong female characters.

Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha aren’t newcomers to Malayalam cinema. These actors are receiving growing attention, and their achievements are being acknowledged more prominently.

Nonetheless, their triumph at Cannes played a pivotal role in earning them the respect they rightfully deserved.

The remarkable accomplishments of Divya Prabha and Kani Kusruti underscore their brilliance and determination, while also bringing attention to the struggles faced by numerous other women whose voices and aspirations remain unnoticed until they are acknowledged—often by Western entities.

Let’s delve into the detailed career trajectories of Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha.

All We Imagine As Light: Everything you want to know about Payal Kapadia’s film

Kani Kusruti

Kani Kusruti also has a quirky sense of fashion

Kani Kusruti also has a quirky sense of fashion. (Instagram)

Kani Kusruti opted to lead a life on her terms and resides in Goa. Originally from Thiruvananthapuram, she first ventured into the world of theatre by joining the Abhinaya Theatre Group.

Passionate about the stage, in 2011, Kani embarked on a journey to Paris. There, she became a part of the esteemed touring theatre company Footsbarn and contributed to their new production of William Shakespeare’s Tempest.

Kani Kusruti avoided the stereotypical route, often taken by women actors when selecting roles in films or web series.

Instead of relying solely on acting assignments, she explored alternative avenues of income, such as becoming a brand ambassador for products.

She defies the traditional mould of an actor and embraces a more unconventional approach.

Notably, Kani worked across various languages, including Hindi. What’s intriguing is her lack of differentiation between different film formats.

Kani Kusruti entered the world of cinema through the short film Island Express, featured in the anthology Kerala Cafe (2009).

During the early stages of her acting career, she appeared in minor roles in films like Shikkar (2010), Urumi (2011), North 24 Kaatham (2013), and Hotel California (2013).

Payal Kapadias All We Imagine As Light isn’t the only film, featuring Kani, to garner attention.

The actor portrayed the character of Prabha, a nurse, in All We Imagine As Light. The film has undeniably provided the actor with international exposure, given its growing popularity.

Kani Kusruti is passionate about theater

Kani Kusruti is passionate about theater. (Instagram)

According to Kani Kusruti, collaborating with Payal Kapadia was a positive experience as the latter adopted a democratic approach in considering ideas from the entire crew.

Some of Kani’s other notable projects include Girls Will Be Girls (2024), the web series, Killer Soup (2024), Poacher (2024), and Season 3 of Maharani (2021).

In each of these projects, Kani has taken on challenging roles that showcase a wide range of versatility.

For example, Girls Will Be Girls, the debut production venture of actor couple Richa Chadha and Ali Fazal, premiered at the 2024 edition of the Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Shuchi Talati, the film, was screened under the World Dramatic Feature category.

It was one of the exclusive 16 films chosen to participate in the competition section of the festival.

In Season 3 of Maharani, Kani portrays the role of a secretary-cum-adviser to the protagonist. In Poacher, she embodies the character of a forest officer.

Kani has also played significant roles in parallel cinema productions such as 1956, Central Travancore (2019), Nishiddho (2022), and Vazhakku (2022).

In 2015, Kani gained widespread recognition through her role in the Malayalam serial, Easwaran Sakshiyayi, directed by KK Rajeev. Portraying the character of Advocate Tresa, a lawyer involved in investigating her brother’s murder, she became a familiar face in households across Kerala.

Kani has been involved in several content-driven films that aim for authentic portrayals of women.

Her performance in Biriyaani (2019) exemplifies this approach. Her depiction of a sex worker in the film earned her the Kerala State Best Actress Award in 2019.

Kani Kusruti has also been a part of Tamil short films like Maa (2018) and The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas (2020).

In Maa, her performance is intense, evoking empathy for her character’s difficult circumstances.

Conversely, in The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas, she takes on a quirky role with finesse.

EXCLUSIVE: How we are shaping women in films is more important, says Kani Kusruti

Divya Prabha

Divya Prabha proved her mettle inthe films Malik, Ariyyipu, and Family

Divya Prabha proved her mettle in films like ‘Malik’, ‘Ariyyipu’, and ‘Family’. (Instagram)

Divya Prabha, another talented Malayalam actor, made her mark on the Cannes stage with her role as Anu (a Malayalee murse) in All We Imagine As Light.

At the tender age of 10, Divya embarked on a journey to Mumbai alongside her late father.

They were invited by his director-friend Priyanandanan to participate in the shooting of his debut film Neythukaran (2002) starring Murali.

After completing her graduation, Divya moved to Kochi, where she worked as a counsellor at an education consultancy while simultaneously pursuing an MBA.

In the 2014 movie Ithihasa, she landed a substantial role, paving the way for offers in television serials.

Divya Prabha gained recognition for her role in KK Rajeev’s serial, Eshwaran Sakshiyayi (2015), where she starred alongside Kani Kusruti.

Divya’s compelling performance in the serial earned her the state award for the second-best actress.

The Malayalam actor received widespread acclaim for her portrayal of Jincy in Take Off (2017). She received significant appreciation from the industry. The film was pivotal in shaping her career.

In Take Off, Divya played the role of Jincy, a nurse alongside the female lead played by Parvathy Thiruvothu. Jincy’s character was strong and supportive, as she stood by her friend—a single mother navigating their survival in war-torn Tikrit, Iraq.

Further, Divya Prabha gained recognition in Malayalam cinema with her role in Ariyippu (2022), directed by Mahesh Narayanan. Her portrayal of Reshmi, an employee in a glove manufacturing unit in Noida, was widely appreciated.

Divya Prabha’s performance in Ariyippu also earned her laurels at the 53rd Kerala State Film Awards in 2023.

Ariyippu and Take Off are significant milestones in Divya’s career, as these two films presented her, with challenging roles.

Divya Prabha also acted in television serials

Divya Prabha also acted in television serials. (Instagram)

In an interview, Divya Prabha mentioned that she often received offers for stereotypical characters portraying pain or despair. She expressed her desire to explore roles that exude happiness instead.

She collaborated with Don Palathara in Family (2023), a film rooted in a Christian background.

In the movie, Divya’s character bears witness to a truth, yet society refuses to believe her. Through her performances in films like Malik (2021), Ariyippu, and Family, the actor has showcased her talent and versatility.

Both Family and Ariyippu shed light on the silencing of women who are victims and witnesses by society.

In Family, Divya’s character is silenced after discovering the protagonist’s involvement in child abuse.

Similarly, in Ariyippu, her character is silenced by her husband, portrayed by Kunchako Boban.

These instances reflect the harsh realities faced by women even in the modern era.

In 2018, she appeared in Dileep’s Kammara Sambhavam as his sister. However, when Dileep was reinstated into the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) despite being involved in a high-profile sexual harassment case, Divya Prabha—also a member of the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC)—protested against this decision.

Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha are exceptionally talented actors capable of portraying diverse roles, as evident from their performances.

While Kani has already showcased versatility through various roles, Divya is eagerly seeking out more opportunities to expand her repertoire.

With Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine As Light gaining recognition at Cannes, Divya Prabha is overjoyed.

Also Read: All We Imagine As Light—A beacon of hope for Indian cinema

What industry insiders have to say

Team All We Imagine As Light at the Cannes Film Festival

Team ‘All We Imagine As Light’ at the Cannes Film Festival. (Instagram)

Filmmaker Indhu VS, known for her acclaimed 2022 film 19(1)(a) starring Nithya Menen and Vijay Sethupathi, describes Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha as contemporary actors.

She reflects on their journey from small roles in the cinema to the proud moment of their movie winning the Grand Prix at Cannes.

Indhu feels Divya Prabha’s journey, particularly after her performance-oriented role in Ariyippu, has elevated to another level with All We Imagine As Light. “It’s truly admirable and deserving of respect.”

The director also believes that Kani Kusruti has effectively broadened her influence beyond Kerala, leaving a significant impact on various international film festivals.

“Both Divya and Kani have thus far opted for roles that complement their abilities. It’s vital for opportunities to keep coming their way. Recognising and using their talents is essential for mainstream cinema,” Indhu tells South First.

Indhu, in addition, expresses her immense pride as a friend, having closely followed the progress of All We Imagine as Light, from its inception to Divya’s involvement and even during her visit to France for the Cannes Film Festival.

Along with others, the filmmaker eagerly anticipates seeing Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha take on more diverse and impactful characters in the future.

Meanwhile, award-winning cinematographer Manesh Madhavan underscores the ongoing challenges faced by women actors in the industry.

He points out that their perseverance and dedication have been pivotal in sustaining their careers. “Acknowledging and appreciating this level of commitment holds great importance,” he tells South First.

“Actors with established star power often have an advantage, as they can easily progress through celebrity endorsements and event inaugurations. However, for those without any backing or film industry connections, sustaining a career in the industry can be challenging,” Manesh Madhavan observes.

Further, the cinematographer stresses the importance of backing not only the actors but also the entire crew of All We Imagine as Light, given that their collective efforts led to the film being showcased at Cannes.

“I’m not sure whether the film industry has provided adequate support for these two actors to sustain themselves as artists,” Manesh concludes.

Also Read: Who is ‘All We Imagine As Light’ filmmaker Payal Kapadia and why is she trending?