The theatre and film actor won the Kerala State award for her performance in the film ‘Biriyaani’, dedicates it to PK Rosy.

Black and white photo of Kani in a kurthi wearing a bindi and her long straight her tied and thrown to one side
Flix Interview Wednesday, October 14, 2020 - 18:25

The sound of an apple bite comes through the phone as she picks up an afternoon call. In 24 hours, Kani Kusruti has hardly eaten. There has not been a moment to think about the Kerala State Award she’s won the day before – for best female actor. Biriyaani, the film that won her the award, comes about 20 years after she began acting. That first time had been on a stage, when she was a school going teenager. There have been hundreds of stages after that, and much less frequently, a film.

“Something I missed telling in interviews is about the many theatre actors who have always taken acting so seriously. These are people who have gone to acting schools, trained themselves and dedicated whole lives to acting. The award is definitely a motivation. And it puts you in the limelight. But there are so many really talented and trained people who are little recognised,” Kani says.

People may be talented but like all talents, grooming an actor helps. Even those who don’t go to an acting school may have their own methods of learning – observation of others or else home schooling, Kani says.

Surabhi Lakshmi, who won the 2016 National Award for best female actor, too came from theatre. In recent years there have been more theatre actors gaining recognition. Anil Nedumangad, Sujith Shankar, etc. are often spotted playing character roles in films of Dileesh Pothan, Rajeev Ravi and others.

Kani points out that there is a certain typecasting of these actors. But she can’t say so for sure if it is only for theatre actors. “If a certain role clicks, there is a tendency to give an actor the same kind of role again. This does not mean if you play a teacher once, it is typecasting to play a teacher again. No, I don’t mean the role of the character, but how they are presented in the film. I have often been offered ‘avasha aaya’ (tired) characters. But I like doing comedy and I rarely get offered to do that, there was a bit in Cocktail. In theatre, you get all sorts of character,” she says.

Besides Cocktail, she acted in a segment of Kerala CafeNorth 24 KaathamOru Indian Pranayakatha, and most recently as a woman with mental illness in Oolu, among other films. There have been some Tamil films too.

But it is for the first time that a full length character is out there, through Biriyaani, she says.

In 2010 she had got a full length character in a film by Baburaj. There was also an offer from a Srilankan Tamil film some time ago. But the first to finally materialise is Biriyaani.

The film premiered last year at the Asiatica Festival in Rome. After winning awards at various festivals it was featured at the Imagine Film Festival in Spain, where too Kani won the Best (Female) Actor award.

The film is about a young woman and her mother who have to leave their hometown and go to live in another place due to certain difficulties. Kani plays the young woman called Khadija. “I didn’t have the conviction that Sajin Baabu (the director) did. I was on a personal break when he first told me about the film and I had suggested that maybe he should look for other actors. He did but then we met again after a few days and decided to do the film together,” Kani says.

She has famously dedicated the award to PK Rosy, the first woman actor of Malayalam cinema who was chased away for being a Dalit woman playing a dominant caste character. “She’s an actor we have disrespected so much that nothing will make up for the humiliation she was put through. I dedicated the award to her since even now equal opportunities are not coming to everyone, despite there being a lot of talented artistes. Caste discrimination still exists,” Kani says.

Read: PK Rosy's story: How Malayalam cinema's first woman actor was forced to leave the state

In her moment of recognition Kani also thinks of the woman actor who survived an assault three and a half years ago in Kochi. “She’s on my mind,” Kani says.

She had recently played a prominent character in Rajesh Rajamani’s short film The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas which also takes on the issue of caste. She and two other men play filmmakers of privileged castes looking for an actor to play a Dalit character. It is important to them that the actor ‘looks like’ a Dalit character.

Read: ‘The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas’: A funny and incisive take on caste stereotyping

“There have always been fights against caste discrimination. So many people wrote about it, held strikes against it and spent their whole lives fighting it. The reason we are able to have this phone conversation is fruit of the work that they had all put in. But films taking on this cause get more attention because of the popularity of the medium. Such fights always existed, it is not a recent phenomenon,” Kani says.

Watch: Interview of team behind The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas

Show us some love! Support our journalism by becoming a TNM Member - Click here.