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'The Win Is Not Just For India, But For All The Women Out There'

June 03, 2024 12:22 IST
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'If there is an artiste somewhere in India or in the world who wants to express her art, I hoped that this award would inspire them and add meaning to their journey.'

IMAGE: Kani Kusruti, left, with Chhaya Kadam, second from left, Payal Kapadia, second from right, and Divya Prabha, right, at a photocall after the closing ceremony of the 77th Cannes Film Festival, May 25, 2024. Photograph: Sarah Meyssonnier/Reuters

On May 23, 2024, Payal Kapadia's film All We Imagine as Light received a standing ovation that lasted for eight long minutes at its premiere screening at the Grand Theatre Lumiere in Cannes, France.

This was the first Indian film to be selected in the main competition after a gap of 30 years.

Two days later, on May 25, 2024, the film won the Grand Prix -- the second-highest award presented at the festival.

"Payal had the script eight years ago," reveals Kani Kusruti, one of the first few artistes Payal had first narrated the script to. Kani plays Prabha, one of the nurses in the film.

"Now that Payal has won this recognition, I know a lot of people are like 'Wow, Payal has done it.' But honestly, Payal had the story eight years ago. I mean, she had the vision much earlier. It has taken a lot of time, patience, and hard work to come to fruition," she adds.

Kani who won the Kerala State Award in 2019 for the Malayalam film Biriyani, tells's Divya Nair what the Cannes recognition means for her, why she carried the watermelon handbag, and how winning awards has changed the game for her.

Can you take us through the winning moment at Cannes? What were your thoughts, feelings? What does the win mean for you, personally?

Of course, I am truly happy. Payal deserved every bit of it. Getting the award for the film was the right recognition because Payal and the entire team have worked hard for it.

When she went up there, I was happy and cheering for Payal like everyone else. But the moment she called us all on stage, it suddenly felt like the recognition meant so much for all of us.

There are so many artistes in India who are talented, some who are struggling to make a mark, but don't get the opportunity to showcase their talent.

I felt privileged but honestly, I also felt a bit guilty. Being there, in front of that audience, I had so many thoughts.

At that point, I felt that if there is an artiste somewhere in India or in the world who wants to express her art and is seeking producers and resources, I hoped that this award would inspire them and add meaning to their journey.

I feel the win is also a collective win, not just for India, but especially for all the women out there.

What according to you, helped the film create magic?

When I first read the script, I thought Payal had written it so poetically; it was so gentle, yet so moving. The story stayed with me since then and I always wanted to be a part of it.

Also, when we were working, as an actor, I was worried about how it would turn out to be. I hoped Payal would be able to translate it on screen.

I was more in love with the script than the film. But when I finally saw the film at the premiere, I realised that Payal was able to recreate and capture most of the spirit of the script and the story she had intended to tell.

Even my co-actors were able to experience the same gentleness and subtle epiphanies from the script throughout the film.

Individually, as artists, whatever we all felt when we read the script for the first time, Payal, to a large extent, was able to bring that on screen. And that I feel has worked for the film and everyone who has been a part of it.


IMAGE: Kani Kusruti in All We Imagine as Light.

How did you become a part of the film?

When Payal approached me with the story eight years ago, she wanted me to play a different character named Anu, which is now played by Divya in the film. Payal had seen some of my films and had written and developed the character keeping me in mind.

Back then, I was younger in my early 30s and it made sense to play a 24-year-old young woman (Anu). However, the film got delayed and when we started shooting, I was 38, so Payal wanted me to audition for Prabha, a slightly older character, but someone closer to my current age.

Even Divya had auditioned for Prabha's role. I auditioned twice for the role (Prabha). Then Payal asked Divya if she wanted to audition for Anu, which again, many other people auditioned for. So Payal really takes her time.

How would you describe your experience of working with Payal?

As a director, Payal is very gentle. During rehearsals, she would allow us to collaborate, and express our feelings.

For example, if she was making any changes, she would always ask, 'Would you be angry if I asked you to do this instead?' And I would have the liberty to tell her, 'Yes, how can you do this now?'

And then she would explain how certain things are not possible because of time or budget constraints or because something/someone was not available.

I know, as a director, she would take the final call. But she always gave us the freedom to express what we felt while we were shooting.

I felt very passionate working with Payal. I was married to her script and there were times when as an artiste, I threw tantrums on the set just to fight for the script or the character. And Payal was very receptive to all of it.

She is very accommodating and democratic to the crew, which I think is a huge quality, as a director. At the same time, Payal is well aware of the hierarchy and knows how to call the shots.

As a person, Payal is also very kind. Post Cannes, I think I have called her twice. I told her that I already miss her and I was crying over the phone. That's the relationship Payal has built over the years.

Now that Payal has won this recognition, I know a lot of people are like 'Wow, Payal has done it.' But honestly, Payal had the story eight years ago. I mean, she had the vision much earlier. It has taken a lot of time and hard work to come to fruition.

Similarly, I am seeing a lot of women film-makers who have the talent and the vision like Payal, but are yet to see this kind of recognition. So yes, I am happy and proud for Payal who had the vision and determination to see through it all.

At the same time, we must also thank the producers and artistes, everyone in the team who believed in her and were able to support her through these years.

IMAGE: Payal Kapadia, Chhaya Kadam, Hridhu Haroon, Divya Prabha and Kani Kusruti pose on the red carpet before the screening of All We Imagine as Light at the Cannes Film Festival. Photograph: Yara Nardi/Reuters

You are not new to making bold statements or speaking your heart on a public platform. What was your idea behind the watermelon handbag?

There are so many fights happening in the world and a lot of them affect me. But currently, the war in Palestine is affecting me the most. There are other things that I am probably not aware of. As people would know, I don't really pay attention to whataboutery questions.

My parents are feminists. As a child, growing up, I attended strikes and hunger strikes. But I am not an activist. I don't intend to make this my sole purpose in life. But whatever I am aware of, I try to express my solidarity.

I don't dedicate my life to fight or make things better. I am against any war or killings that are happening to women, kids, or basically anyone for that matter. We are talking about basic human rights.

The genocide in Palestine is not the only one that affected me. There are so many different types of genocides happening around the world, but I felt strongly about what is happening in Palestine. I couldn't imagine that all this is happening in our times. I know I am nobody.

At Cannes, I noticed that there were so many artistes who were showing solidarity for so many different causes, including violence against women in the workplace. I think it's just all of us trying in our own little way to express our support and put our voice out there.

A friend of mine, a film critic, once mentioned how there have been very few male film-makers (Satyajit Ray and K G George may be two exceptions) who have depicted well how women speak to one another or interact when no men are present. As a rule, do you think women's stories better are told by women?

I'd say, yes, I have been fortunate enough to experience that. I don't think patriarchy or the male gaze comes only from men. It can also come from women.

One must work hard to undo or deconstruct any preconceived notions that we may have about the male gaze. Just because someone is from a female gender, it doesn't change anything. It's also not fair to generalise.

But I agree, whatever little experience I have had working with female directors -- be it for short films, films, or Web series -- they were able to portray women differently, maybe do justice to the role. I don't know if I have enough data to make a statement. So I'd say it's my personal opinion.

IMAGE: Kani Kusruti and Manoj Bajpayee in Killer Soup.

In our last interaction, you mentioned how you'd like to do a dark comedy. Can we expect more of you like we saw in Killer Soup? Is there another dream role/character that you have in mind?

(Laughs) I don't think I have been fortunate yet to do a good dark comedy.

I mean, even in OK Computer where I played this goofy, weird character, which I had so much fun shooting, had such a niche audience. I don't think many people have even watched it yet. But last year, I did a small role in a Malayalam mini-series, which is yet to release.

If you ask me, I've always wanted to do comedy. I don't think I have fulfilled my dream of doing a good slapstick or goofy comedy where I could give my best.

For me to play such a role, someone has to write the role, which I'd love to do. I am in awe of Malayalam artists like Urvashi, Philomena or K P A C Lalita who had the rare opportunity to work in films that had an interesting comic element. I'd love to do a film like that if it comes my way.

Does winning an international award help an actor choose better projects?

This is the first international recognition for me. So it's too early for me to comment. But I have received the State Award and two Filmfare other awards and personally, it hasn't made much difference.

However, I felt that the respect an artiste could or should get has definitely improved.

In Malayalam, I am not getting so many opportunities. But in Hindi, after OK Computer, I got to work in Maharani, then Poacher</> So people can now see my work.

The other difference is, that when I work in Malayalam, I now get a contract, which again, is the minimum respect an artiste should get.

I have friends who are artistes. And they would agree to this. Because, there was a time (before winning the State award) we were struggling to get paid, because there was no proper contract.

The payments were delayed, there were communication issues, etc. But after the award, now I can at least negotiate the contract or the terms.

Also, in terms of work, I got OK Computer much earlier. Any work that is coming to me from non-Malayalam projects is not stereotyped, which I feel is a good thing.

I don't know if international recognition will open up new doors for me.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Kani Kusruti/Instagram

We are seeing a new wave where Malayalam films are being appreciated by a pan Indian audience. What do you attribute this success to?

I am very happy for what is happening to Malayalam cinema. We have a lot of amazing mainstream films in Malayalam, but unfortunately, they never reached the audience because of the language barrier. Even if someone wanted to watch it, there were no subtitles.

Finally, the world can see Malayalam cinema, also thanks to OTT platforms.

I remember there was a period in between when Malayalam cinema had lost its artistic expression. I am glad things are changing for good now.

After Bollywood, are you keen to work in other languages?

(laughs) I'll be honest. I am bad at learning other languages. I am barely managing Hindi.

What are the interesting projects you are working on?

There are some projects I have already shot, that are yet to release. Payal's film, then there is Girls Will Be Girls. It is all happening at once now. There is one Malayalam Web series.

I am shooting another film in Malayalam.

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