When it comes to cinema in India, Bollywood indefinitely grabs the limelight. Bigger than its films are its actors, making headlines for the number of big-budget movies they sign, their carefully styled airport looks, the ‘thumkas’ of their latest item song, the cuteness radar of their kids and in-between it all, perhaps a fleeting mention of their acting skills. That’s because barring a few exceptions and some sporadic performances, actors of commercial Hindi cinema are stars and not necessarily actors cultivating their craft. Though a look beyond the lens of Bollywood to regional, independent or parallel Indian cinema, flips the coin completely.
One such powerhouse of talent is South Indian actress Kani Kusruti who majorly features in Malayalam and Tamil films. This dusky, slender-boned beauty with eyes that can speak volumes (yes, there is a certain likeness to Smita Patil) is as enigmatic to watch on screen as she is engaging.
Whether it’s her performance in short-film Memories Of A Machine (2016) where her character takes a bold stand on child sexuality or her playing the middle-class mother to a teenage pregnant daughter in another short Maa (2018), Kusruti’s choice of roles is bold, unapologetic and even revolutionary, so to speak. All of them are played with nuance, complexity and naturalism in ways which are rarely seen in the present generation of Indian actors on the silver screen.
Like many great actors, Kusruti started her acting tryst with theatre and went on to study it with the indigenous theatre school Adishakti in Pondicherry after which she pursued a two-year course at the L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq - a globally celebrated institution of physical theatre in Paris. She went on to work with some of the greatest thespians and even performed at the mecca of English theatre - Shakespeare’s Globe in London. As for cinema, she’s been making ripples in the industry for a while - her short film Counterfeit Kunkoo, in which she plays the lead was screened at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this year.
Though when we spoke to Kusruti, she was refreshingly untouched by her daunting body of work. With an articulate clarity of thought and infectious laughter, she chatted with us about the art of acting, her greatest influences and why you haven’t seen her in Bollywood.
HG: What have been some of the major factors that have influenced your acting craft?
KK: “To be honest, I don’t think I really have cultivated my acting craft anywhere close to where I want it to be. As for the influences on my acting, the biggest would be of course theatre which I began to practice since I was fourteen-years-old. However, the school of acting which I credit most if not all of whatever craft I have (if I have any at all!) would be to the practice of Navarasa Sadhana - an ancient Indian art form that I learnt in Thrissur, Kerala.
It’s different from any improvisational, voice or body exercises in theatre. Nor does it involve any character analysis. Navarasa Sadhana though taught particularly to the performers of Kutiyatam, prepares the actor for acting as a whole and not just a particular role. Taught to me by the excellent Venu G, Navarasa Sadhana answered a very pertinent question for my acting career - how does an actor practice acting every day without a script, a role or any other external factor. In Navarasa Sadhana, which is part of my weekly routine I found all the answers. Today, its a globally renowned acting methodology that sees actors from all parts of the world coming to learn it.
Having said, that I still feel that for an actor to truly hone their craft they must expose themselves to multiple schools of learning. If you are going to be a professional actor and just be dependent on one skill you have, even if that’s naturalism, I think that’s an act of pure laziness.”
HG: You have given multiple, critically acclaimed performances in regional cinema. What for you has been the turning point of your career?
KK: “I can think of such projects and moments in theatre, as for cinema, I haven’t been fortunate enough to be part of any film that made me feel this way.”
HG: The films you do are few and the characters you choose to play are unconventional, to say the least. What informs your sensibilities when choosing such roles?
KK: “I never give unconventionality a thought when taking up roles, because I feel that if a character is real then like real people he or she will be unconventional in their own intimate space - that space where you let all your quirks loose. Though more than my connection with a role what makes me take up film projects is my connection with the director. The director must be convinced of the script, so if and when I falter they can help the story flow. If I see this with my director I can do roles even if I am sceptical of them, if not then even roles that resonate with me I let them go. My way of approaching cinema is such because in theatre actors still have some autonomy, while in the cinema I personally feel the filmmaker is the main story-teller and the actors a medium to tell the story.”
HG: Has staying away from Bollywood been a conscious choice?
KK: “Quite honestly I don’t think I have a place in Bollywood. They don’t really cast dark-skinned women with my kind of features in commercial films, do they? Also, I can’t speak Hindi fluently. So unless I have sufficient time to rehearse for the film, I can’t play a part in Bollywood anyway. To be in Bollywood one requires to actively network, make a professional portfolio, hire an agent - I am not saying these are bad things, I just haven’t made the effort to do them, so that’s one more reason. I usually get cast in independent films through the credit of my previous work.”
HG: What are some of the films we can look forward to seeing you this year?
KK: “There is Shaji N Karun’s ‘Olu’ that has just gone to the Cannes. Apart from that, there are a couple of other films in the pipeline but nothing else has been finalised.”
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