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Interview Malayalam

Do not stereotype a face or look: Kani Kusruti on the bias in Malayalam cinema

The award-winning Biriyaani (2019) actress talks about her love for theatre, her journey into films and the ways in which the industry needs to change.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Kani Kusruti, winner of the Kerala State award for Best Actress for her portrayal of a young Muslim woman who fights against patriarchal and religious norms in Sajin Baabu’s film Biriyaani (2019), has been on a roll. Last month, she won the Best Actress award at the BRICS competition at the Moscow film festival.

Biriyaani marks the first lead role for the actress who veered into cinema after a long stint in theatre. In a candid conversation, Kusruti, who chose her last name (meaning mischievous), spoke about her love for theatre, her journey into films and the ways in which the Malayalam industry needs to improve.

The process of making a play, rather than a passion for acting, was what drew Kusruti to theatre and that remains her abiding love. “I have recently found more passion in acting because earlier it was theatre all together rather than acting [that was important]," she told Cinestaan.com. "Now I have started liking acting as well, so I would probably like to do it in theatre or film or any other medium.

"But the process of making a play is far more intense and creative and contributes to your own mind space. Hence, I still like the process of theatre over making a film because very few films in India have the resources or make a choice for rehearsals. Those films I like as much as theatre, but otherwise, in terms of acting, I like all platforms.”

Speaking about her move to cinema and the roles that attracted her, Kusruti said, “I cannot really say I had a choice to say I love this character and want to be part of this project. There have been only one or two projects like that in film for me. Everything else that I did was because it came to me.

"In any case, there is discrimination on the basis of your skin colour, or the way you look, or your features," she continued. "It is a glamorous industry at the end of the day and discrimination exists. [But] it’s my dream to be in a position to pick roles that I am excited about.”

Interestingly, before taking up the role of Khadeeja in Biriyaani, Kusruti had turned it down. “When it [Biriyaani] came to me, I had my doubts and concerns about the story, which I shared with Sajin [Baabu]," she said. "Coming to the character of Khadeeja, I had some disagreement with Sajin and felt that he was looking at her through the male gaze and that he had a slightly peripheral idea of women, maybe because of being a man, but these things did occur to me when I read the script and so I told him he should find an actress who is excited about doing this [role].”

But Sajin Baabu persisted and asked her to read the script again. “He had an open mind to listen to my concerns and doubts and aesthetically how he was shooting it," Kani Kusruti continued. "There were certain scenes where I felt it was the male gaze instead of the person’s point of view. Such things were there, but I felt that as long as he would accept my disagreement with certain things, we could work to make his film."

She said an actress may not be "fully convinced or super-excited" about how a film should be made or how her character thinks, "and this happens with every actress for every [role]" to varying degrees. "I don’t think you ever find some [character] whom you are 100% convinced about, because at the end of the day, the director and the writer are the authors of the film,” she explained.

Kani Kusruti in a still from Biriyaani (2019)

Her portrayal of Khadeeja won her wide appreciation, but the idea of winning an award for it was farthest from her mind. “When the edit of the film was finished, Sajin called me and said I think you are going to get some awards," she recalled. That comment irritated her and she told her director not to tell her such things because "since childhood I was taught to not be competitive and to participate in things. I never think of what award I will get, no such thought comes to me unless someone mentions it. So when Sajin said this, I said I am not looking for such things." She did not see the final cut of the film either and then forgot all about the conversation.

But Sajin was right. Kusruti won the second Best Actress award at The ImagineIndia International Film Festival followed by other laurels.

The actress has dedicated her Kerala State award to PK Rosy, the first Malayalam film actress, who was a Dalit.

The spirit of PK Posy took hold of me, says Vinu Abraham on Malayalam cinema's first actress

Discussing the changes in Malayalam cinema and the concerns about it being a deeply patriarchal industry, like many others across the world, Kusruti said, “In the past seven or eight years I have been seeing some change creatively or in the screenplays. There have been really good screenplays and some characters have been written better and casting has not been only with mainstream stars."

She believes, however, that this change is too small "because you still do not see people from backward castes and classes. A few more brown-skinned people may have come, but you won’t see a dark-skinned person. And if you look at caste, there is no representation from any other castes as the hero and heroine. Maybe in some comedic characters here and there. I am never going to believe there is no talent coming from [other castes]. We have a long way to go.”

Elaborating on the bias in the industry, she said people who do not fit a certain image are not even called for auditions, never mind being cast for important roles. “Why are certain kinds of faces not getting auditioned?" she said. "Even for established actors like me or others whom I know, [casting directors] say you have a certain image so we don’t want to do an audition. I’m not saying cast us, but can you at least let us audition? Do not stereotype a certain type of face or look.”

To remedy gender discrimination in the industry, she suggested that more women be brought into filmmaking crews and the government support them with scholarships so that they can learn their craft at leading international institutes.

As for the roles she would love to perform, Kusruti said, “I would love to be part of a comedy film, different kinds of comedy, absurd, slapstick, like how Monty Python used to be. That is my dream, to be part of a world like that!”