I hope theatre artistes get the respect and opportunities they deserve: Kani Kusruti
Kanthari is the name of a type of chilli indigenous to the land of Kerala and is known for its fiery spice. People there lovingly call mischievous little girls by that name. Kanmani is another affectionate pet name used to address someone precious or beloved. Incidentally, there seems to be no better way to describe Kani Kusruti, the nonchalant and charming, yet often called unpredictable actor who’s Instagram name happens to be Kantari Kanmani.
It did not come as a surprise when Kani bagged the Kerala State Best Actress Award this year, for playing Khadeeja in Sajin Babu’s Biriyaani — for the 35-year-old’s versatility and calibre is not unknown to those who have followed her work. With a solid background in physical theatre, Kani, who was also recently honoured as the Best Actress at the Moscow International Festival, hardly ever fails to leave a striking impression with her immersive performances, be it on-screen or on stage. Starting from her lead role as Vasantsena in Baudhayana’s Bhagavadajjukam (2000 to 2006) that went on to grace various theatre festivals, Kani’s (an alumna of L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq) two-decade-long acting career has seen some unforgettable characters like Zeba in Kerala Café (2009), Elsa in Cocktail (2010), Clara in Burma (2014), Padma Iyer in The Notion (2018), alongside several theatrical productions like MG Jyothish’s adaptation of Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, Elia’s Cohen’s Las Indias, Footsbarn’s adaptation of Tempest (2013) that opened at Shakespeare’s Globe — to name a few.
“The Kerala State Film Award, particularly, has a special place in my heart. The international festivals and juries have been generous with their praise and I’m grateful for that but no other award has made me so profoundly happy. It is something I hadn’t expected and so it made me feel very different. Perhaps it’s because it’s recognition from home, by your own people,” says the actress who’s now based out of Goa.
In a candid conversation, Kani, who’s now spending her lockdown days learning the sitar, watching movies and reading, tells us about her career choices, love for theatre, and the changes she wishes to see in the industry.
You said you were dedicating this award to PK Rosy. Why so?
PK Rosy is Malayalam’s first heroine. She had portrayed the role of an upper-caste woman in the film Vigathakumaran. Many people, who watched the film, were disturbed because she herself was from the Pulaya caste. They burned her house down, and she had to run away. In a way, such discrimination still continues. We hardly see any actors from the backward castes as stars or actors, who get a lot of offers in the Indian cinema. Another reason is that violence and abuse against women — be it in the film industry or anywhere for that matter — still continues. People have attacked PK Rosy very brutally — such things happen even now. So there are all these aspects why I’m reminded of her every day as an actor. Also, there has always been a request to have the Best Actress Award called the PK Rosy Award but that never happened. So this is also a reminder.
You recently appeared in a short film, The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas, which was a satirical take on discrimination against Dalits. Do you consciously choose to be part of socially relevant films?
I won’t say art has to always be socially relevant. I have become part of such projects and the other kind also. Be it films or any form of art, anything you do invariably becomes relevant because, after all, you are having a discourse with the people. This short film was done not just because of its message but also because I was thrilled to do something in comedy. As an actor, I think comedy is one of the most difficult acts to do. To make people laugh is the hardest job for an actor.
Tell us how you landed Biriyaani
When director Sajin Babu approached me with the script, to be honest, I was a bit doubtful about doing it. So I told him that I felt the character did not resonate with me. I asked him to go to other actors as well and see if something else works out. Meanwhile, I said I will think about it. He did go to other actors but came back to me again, and said I was on his mind while writing the story. So I took my time and decided to take it up. I still have my doubts if this was the way the character would have behaved or if that’s how the story should have been told. As an actor, you don’t have a lot of choices there. The filmmaker/writer has a lot more authority on the story. I don’t think I will ever get a 100 per cent conviction about doing something.
What draws you into a script?
As an actor, the characters that have not previously been offered to me are what generally attracts me to the story. Other than that, there are different reasons. Sometimes you may like the story even though you didn’t like the character that much. Other times, you like to work with a particular director because of their previous works, and very strangely, sometimes even locations have attracted me to scripts (laughs). It sounds unprofessional, but it’s true. So there are multiple reasons. But mostly, it’s the story, and also if the character is new to you. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have been offered enough projects for me to actually feel the need to choose. I have mostly done whatever has come my way. I have also been a part of stories that I’m not proud of.
I did act in commercial films like Kerala Cafe, Cocktail, Shikkar, 24 North Kaatham in Malayalam and Tamil and Telugu films like Burma, Spider etc. I haven’t been offered characters in a commercial film where I can showcase my potential fully. That’s my disappointment with such films. I hope I will be able to be a part of commercial films where I can excel.
How has your background in physical theatre helped you approach acting in a different way?
I don’t know if the approach is different, but it certainly helps you in acting. With respect to actors who don’t have the experience, maybe yes. Theatre actors and students are constantly studying how to act. They will have a lot more experience and more tools in their hand to approach a certain character. I have observed that actors who have only done films often get tired after having to do multiple takes. They sometimes feel that it becomes mechanical after a few takes. But, a theatre actor never gets tired of repeating an act. They are used to practising and fine-tuning the enactment. Physical theatre is my passion because I love to dance and move my body. And it helps us to attribute a certain kind of physical language to the character. Actors who are not trained can also bring these things but probably not consciously. Theatre artistes who are dedicating their lives to learn will have a lot more control over their craft than others.
Your social media handles show a completely uninhibited and natural self. Where do you draw the line between what’s public and what’s not?
There’s, of course, a line between what’s public and what’s not. My social handle may show a lot of things — whatever I want to communicate with my followers. But it doesn’t mean that is all there is to me. Of course, I’m curating it. I’m making a statement, having a discourse or creating engagement with people around me, through my social media. But that doesn’t mean I’m openly out there, sharing every aspect of my life. It is a conscious choice to show what I want to share. Everyone has that line, but it might be different for each individual.
You have also been vocal about casting couch and online abuse. How important is it for you to speak on such matters?
I have had the fortune of not have been subjected to a “casting couch” explicitly. A lot of my peers and fellow actors did not have the same luck of not having their fundamental rights violated. However, there have been instances where people have approached me for projects and called me late in the night. If I request them to talk about this in the morning, they disappear on me and the project will get done with someone else. Sometimes they would invite me to hotel rooms at odd hours for meetings. I would debate with myself the intention of such invitations, and in my refusal to go along, I would lose the project. I have fellow actors who have gone through really traumatic experiences. There are many who will think of your standing up in defence of your fundamental rights of sexuality and workplace dignity as an act of defiance.
Have you seen any positive changes over the years?
In the past few years, I see there are groups of filmmakers who have brought some change. They care about the work, rather than misusing their privilege to exploit actors and other coworkers. It’s probably small but there’s a visible change. A lot of new filmmakers have a better work culture and they respect women in a much better way than their predecessors. That said, I still feel we have a long way to go. I wish for 50 per cent women presence in the crew of a film. Not just in films, but in legislative assembly or any powerful position. A lot more women employees need to be accommodated. I hope we are on the way to it. Long ago, there used to be hardly any women in the crew. These days, we see a few directors and technicians. But I want to see many more in every department. We need to give more opportunity and security to female artistes.
After the international recognition, what do you feel is going to change?
I just hope that my peers and I get equal opportunities to at least get the auditions. I want to see a better infrastructure in talent representation. I hope it happens to everyone. A lot of theatre actors are not really respected. Even Surabhi (Lakshmi), who won the National Award (Minnaminungu, 2016), is from a theatre background. So, people like us getting recognised this way will probably bring a change in how generally people treat theatre artistes.
What are some of your future plans and projects?
I hope I live healthily. That’s what is most important. As for new projects, there’s a Hindi film called Tryst With Destiny by Prashant Nair that premiered at Tribeca Film Festival. Then there’s a Hindi science fiction comedy series called Ok Computer that’s going to release on Disney+Hotstar, mostly in two months, and another series in Hindi, the shoot of which is going to start soon. There’s also a Malayalam film called Pada by Kamal, plus two other films.
Born to Kerala-based activists and rationalist parents, Jayasree AK and Maitreya Maitreyan, Kani’s progressive upbringing in conservative Kerala is a topic that’s much talked about. Her parents, who never got married, raised her without any caste or religion identifiers and made her address them by their first name. We take a look into a few fascinating snippets from her life that give major life and parenting goals.
Talking about her relationship with her parents, which she describes as more of a friendship than anything else, Kani elaborates, “We are really good friends who care about each other. We have our disagreements but also love and respect. There are absolutely no judgments or intruding into the other’s personal life. For me, it’s my ideal family. They don’t really advice me, we discuss things. They have enabled me to think deeply and have a conscience to see what’s right and wrong. They have raised me to be intelligent, empathetic and to stand up for my rights if I was ever feeling restricted as a woman. We have grown together and have always kept a space between us — where we listened to each other as well as had disagreements. A lot of thoughts that they have shared have stuck with me and those give me epiphanies on random days. And suddenly it all makes sense.”
What’s in a surname?
Kani’s parents never gave her a surname — in order to erase the social hierarchy marker that comes with last names in India. At 15, when she had to fill an application, she invented her own last name, Kusruti, which in Malayalam means mischief. “My parents didn’t want me to have any caste or religion identifiers in my name. Nor did they want me to fill those columns in school applications or mark lists. My mother, when she took me to school, had to really have a debate with the teachers about it. When she had a hard time convincing them, out of the blue, she asked to put K for an initial, which at that moment had no meaning. As I grew up, I had to expand the initial for my passport and other official purposes. So I would come home and ask my parents what this K was and they would joke saying it is short for ‘Kundamandi’ or ‘Kalli’— all random words that start with K which have funny meanings in Malayalam. I was getting a little too annoyed and once when they said ‘Kusruti’, I just went with it and it became my official name. For a long time, no one would call me that because everyone knew me as Kani but when I went to Paris to study, people would address me as Ms Kusruti and it took some time getting used to it. Over time, I have noticed that it amuses people a great deal when they come to know of my full name.”
Letter to a daughter
“Today you complete 18 years of age. According to the Indian constitution, you have become an adult, who has the right to make decisions with freedom,” reads the first lines of a letter that Maitreyan sent to his daughter on her 18th. A demonstration of how children are to be seen as independent individuals once they come of age, the now-viral letter was shared by the actress recently. An introduction to responsible adulting, it came with a set of reminders of women’s rights in the society and a promise to stand by her side in any fight to achieve those. “A few years back, actor Rima Kallingal had edited a book called Raanimar and Padminimar and in that book, I had written a note about this letter. That’s how it got published first. Later many asked me to share it and I thought it might help some people who are going through certain experiences in life. If it supports or motivates them in some way, it’s worth sharing it.”