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

The Malayalam actor gets candid about 'All We Imagine As Light', her Cannes experience, women in cinema, etc.

ByArjun Ramachandran

Published May 28, 2024 | 1:10 PMUpdatedMay 28, 2024 | 1:13 PM

Kani Kusruti of All We Imagine As Life fame

Malayalam actor Kani Kusruti has been in the industry for quite some time now. She is not part of mainstream cinema but is pretty active in Indie films and web series.

She received the Best Actress Award in 2019 for her role in the critically acclaimed movie Biriyani, written and directed by Sajin Baabu.

The actor grabbed the eyeballs last week when she walked the 77th Cannes Film Festival red carpet with a watermelon clutch. The bag apparently represented the Palestinian struggle against Israeli oppression.

Kani Kusruti was at Cannes to attend the premiere of her film All We Imagine As Light, directed by Payal Kapadia.

On Sunday, 26 May, the movie made the headlines by winning the Grand Prix Award (the second most prestigious prize at Cannes after the Palme d’Or).

A Malayalam-Hindi feature film, All We Imagine As Light revolves around Prabha (played by Kani Kusruti), a nurse, who receives an unexpected gift from her long-estranged husband. The incident throws her life into disarray.

Back to work in India now, Kani Kusruti gets candid with South First about All We Imagine As Light, her Cannes experience, women in mainstream cinema, and a lot more.

Excerpts from the freewheeling chat:

Q. You made a bold statement at the Cannes red carpet with your watermelon clutch. What made you do that?

A. It’s not just me; many of us are in solidarity with various struggles happening across the world. Every day, some of us engage in various protests for survival, and some of us are standing up in their own capacity.

When I heard about our film (All We Imagine As Light) being selected for the Cannes, I thought I should show my solidarity with Palestine. So, it’s not about what made me do it; I have always been like this.


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Q. Your selection of films and web series is unique. You are part of Indie films and haven’t done many mainstream films. Could you explain?

A. Honestly, I don’t pick projects. I take up whatever comes my way. It’s not that I get plenty of options and can choose. Rarely do I end up not doing a project.

But being a freelance actor for financial freedom, I have mostly been taking up the work that comes to me. There is no selection process as such.

Check out gallery: Kani Kusruti makes a bold statement with her clutch at Cannes

Q. What made you say yes to All We Imagine As Light?

A. Payal Kapadia reached out to me seven or eight years ago when she started writing the script. She wanted me to play the character of Anu (which Divya Prabha portrayed in the film). However, Payal got busy with her documentaries and I was occupied with my work. So, the project got postponed.

Finally, two years ago, she said it was ready.

After reading the script, I felt I should be a part of it. It touched me. I couldn’t believe that Payal could write something so poetic and subtle.

But, given my age, I could only play the other character. I auditioned for it and was selected.

Also, after knowing Payal for many years, I have always felt like working with her. So, I couldn’t say no to this venture. Again, the film is also in Malayalam, which encouraged me to be part of it.

A collage of stills from All We Imagine As Light

A collage of stills from ‘All We Imagine As Light’. (Instagram)

Q. What was your initial reaction to the selection of your movie at Cannes?

A. Well, it took some time to sink in. But I was overjoyed. I was like, “Oh, this is happening..!”

More than anything, we (team All We Imagine As Light) were curious to see the outcome.

Most of the cast watched the film only at the Cannes premiere and were happy to attend it as a team.

Q. How do you find Payal Kapadia as a filmmaker?

A. She is definitely one of my favourite directors. We became good friends after working together.

Payal is kind, gentle, and democratic to everyone on set. She initiates a collaborative approach to storytelling and is receptive to other’s ideas and thoughts.

She is also open to our thoughts in the storytelling process. However, if it deviates from her story, she will stick to her vision.

She takes her time and conducts many rehearsals. Even in rehearsals, she wants to see how it would come and commences the shoot only if satisfied.

I have never worked with any director who makes actors rehearse so extensively.

Every day, I felt like I had taken home a friend. That made working with Payal particularly special for me.

Related: Payal Kapadia’s ‘All We Imagine as Light’ wins Grand Prix award at Cannes 2024

Q. There was a standing ovation at Cannes when your team entered. How was the whole experience, particularly after receiving the Grand Prix Award?

Kani Kusruti wonders why women in cinema don't represent the variety of women in real life

Kani Kusruti wonders why women in cinema don’t represent the variety of women in real life. (Instagram)

A. The standing ovation was spellbinding. I studied in France and worked there for a theater group. So, I know that the French give a standing ovation only if they are really impressed with the work.

But it was new for me to be on a prestigious stage like Cannes, be surrounded by film lovers, and watch the premiere of my for the first time at an international film festival along with my crew.

Payal Kapadia winning the Grand Prix was an amazing moment. She truly deserves it, and I’m happy for her.

When the award was announced and Payal went onto the stage to receive it, I felt like it belonged to all of us. It was a victory for every Indian woman who was, is and would be denied an opportunity to showcase her talent.

Further, I’m extremely satisfied that our film got due recognition in the form of the wide appreciation it received at Cannes.

Q. There is a serious discussion happening about the recent Malayalam hits — Manjummel Boys and Aavesham — not having women characters. What is your take on it?

A. I do agree that certain stories (like Manjummel Boys and Aavesham) don’t require women. And for me, it’s not about those two particular films. It is about the bigger picture.

When you check all the releases in a year, how many films have strong female characters? Do these women in cinema truly reflect the wide variety of women in real life? Do they represent femininity (not through the male gaze) in the right way and true sense? I’m not sure if it’s happening.

The actual problem is about how we are shaping and projecting women in cinema. Do the scriptwriters and storytellers think and care about it? What about the other genders? What about inclusivity?

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

Q. You and your co-actor Divya Prabha are being praised for making Kerala proud (after the Grand Prix win). How do you consider this achievement?

Divy Prabha Payal Kapadia and Kani Kusruti

Divy Prabha, Payal Kapadia. and Kani Kusruti. (Instagram)

A. I am really happy that Divya and I are from Kerala. I love Malayalam movies.

Malayalam films are my favourite in terms of content and how amazingly the actors perform. I love everything about Malayalam cinema.

I also feel proud of the other films happening in Kerala.

To be able to not just be in the mainstream but also express our excellence in independent cinema is an amazing job a true actor could dream of. So, I am proud that Divya and I could do it.

However, if not we, two other female actors would have been there (at Cannes). It was fortunate that we got the opportunity to be part of this.

Q. Your parents were serious film buffs. How have they ever influenced your career?

A. I don’t know how serious my parents were about it (films). I don’t know if I can call them film buffs but they used to watch all movies and attend the film festivals.

They also used to take me along, but as a kid, I rarely enjoyed films. I must say, I am not a film enthusiast. I would fall asleep watching a movie. Very rarely do I would watch a film in one go.

I am more into dance and music performances. I’m happy watching and attending them.

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