Thursday, June 13, 2024

At Cannes, we share a common artistic language that transcends borders: “All we imagine as light” actor Kani Kusruti

Payal Kapadia’s “All We Imagine as Light” is the first Indian film to compete at the Cannes Film Festival in 30 years. This fiction feature follows two nurses, actors Kani Kusruti and Divya Prabha, from Kerala who are roommates in Mumbai. A trip to a beach town allows them to find a space for their desires to manifest.

Kani speaks to Maktoob’s Nikita Ramanarayanan.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Nikita Ramanarayanan: How do you think the film ‘All we imagine as light’, contributes to the representation of Indian Cinema on the global stage, especially in its themes and storytelling?

Kani Kusruti: Given India’s extraordinary diversity, with its myriad regional films, capturing the essence of Indian cinema in its entirety is a formidable task. It’s actually challenging to represent Indian cinema as a whole. Each region boasts its own distinct language, culture, and narrative style. This film showcases just one such storytelling approach.

In terms of themes, the story revolves around characters from various parts of India who converge in Bombay for work. They are starkly removed from their native regions, grappling with differences in language, culture, and socio-economic status, as they strive to carve out a living in the city. This phenomenon is quite common in India. Despite being from the same country, adapting to life in another state can feel almost like relocating to a different country. The film poignantly captures this experience.

This cultural phenomenon is a recurrent theme in India. Thematically, the film underscores our diversity and the challenges of inclusivity regarding religion, caste, and class. It chronicles the journeys of characters striving for inclusivity, depicting their transitions, failures, and transformations by the film’s end.

Contemporary, experimental, and independent films from various regions of India that do not get released in theaters can often be viewed at film festivals like IFFK, MAMI and all. However, to learn about our mainstream regional films and their storytelling and language, one must actively seek out. Now, with the advent of OTT platforms, we can watch the films more conveniently. Despite this, it’s still challenging to fully grasp how these films represent Indian storytelling as a whole. And I’m unaware of some aspects, so it’s hard to make a definitive statement.

Nikita: What was your initial reaction when you learned that the film was selected to compete for the prestigious palm d’Or award at Cannes?

Kani: When I get to know that our film was selected to compete for the prestigious Palme d’Or award at Cannes, it wasn’t a moment of euphoric happiness. Instead, the news slowly sunk in, and we all genuinely felt very happy about it. The way we all worked together and the catharsis we felt when the film was finally complete was immensely fulfilling. Personally,I was excited at the prospect of watching the film and seeing how it turned out.

For Indian cinema, it’s been a while since we’ve had a film in this category at the Cannes Film Festival. As a film enthusiast, I believe there have been Indian films in past years that were equally deserving of this recognition. I don’t know why they weren’t selected, but I am glad that our film made it. At the same time, I recognize that some Indian films could have also been in this category, and I don’t understand why they weren’t. This is exactly how I felt.

Nikita: As an artist, how do you perceive the role of film festivals like Cannes in promoting global understanding and appreciation of cinema?

Kani: As an artist, I perceive film festivals like Cannes as crucial platforms for promoting global understanding and appreciation of cinema. These festivals offer a unique opportunity to witness the diverse cinematic expressions happening around the world. As artists, while we create films for theatrical release, we also yearn to experiment and push the boundaries of storytelling.

At Cannes, we engage in dialogues with fellow artists from different countries, each bringing their unique cultural, linguistic, and national perspectives. Despite our differences, we share a common artistic language that transcends borders. Festivals like Cannes allow us to explore how our storytelling has evolved and to discuss contemporary cinema’s trends and innovations.

Such events foster an environment where we can freely exchange ideas, watch diverse films, and engage in open discussions. This exchange helps us understand and appreciate the nuances of different cultures, politics, and artistic expressions. Cannes, therefore, plays an essential role in helping us understand our place in the global cinematic landscape and appreciate cinema as an evolving art form. It is through this cross cultural dialogue and exposure that we, as artists, can grow and continue to innovate in our craft. This is how I see the importance of film fest like Cannes.

Nikita: Can you share any memorable moments from your time filming “All we imagine as light” with Co- star Divya prabha and your experience of working with the Director Payal Kapadiya?

Kani: Filming “All We Imagine as Light” was an unforgettable journey, brimming with so much life. Divya Prabha, and I first met on the set of a soap opera, where our friendship blossomed over time. I vividly recall her telling me about Ratnagiri, a place she adored and urged me to visit. I often dreamt of experiencing it firsthand. So, when we auditioned for this film and discovered that the second shooting schedule was in Ratnagiri, our excitement was boundless. It felt incredibly personal and fulfilling to finally explore the place we had talked about so much.

Working with director Payal Kapadia was equally rewarding. Payal didn’t just direct; she became a friend. In the film industry, it’s rare to form such genuine bonds, and I was thrilled to bring home a true friend after we wrapped up the shoot. Payal is a kind hearted individual, deeply respectful of herself and others, especially in her artistic endeavors. Her openness to criticism and her constant quest for personal growth are qualities I greatly admire.

What struck me most about Payal was her egalitarian approach on set. There was no hierarchy, no power play, everyone was treated with equal respect. This inclusive environment fostered a collaborative spirit that made the filmmaking process even more enriching. Payal’s dedication to becoming a better person and artist is truly inspiring, and I am grateful for the friendship we forged during this incredible project.

Nikita: Could you share any insights into your approach to portraying complex characters, particularly in films like ‘All we imagine as light’?

Kani: My approach to portraying characters is deeply collaborative and director focused. I consider myself more of a director’s actor, adapting my performance to align with the director’s vision rather than relying solely on my own interpretation. In this film, Payal was instrumental in guiding my understanding and portrayal of the character. Her direction was crucial in helping me navigate and embody the role as she envisioned it. Therefore, the character you see on screen is not an independent interpretation of mine, but rather a reflection of Payal’s vision, realized through my performance.

Nikita: How do you balance your personal beliefs and political views with the roles you choose to take on in your acting career?

Kani: I’m unable to balance my personal views and political views with the roles I choose. As a woman living in India, my primary concern has been survival and the support necessary to thrive in this country. Often, this means I’m unable to choose roles that align with my personal or political beliefs.

There have been times when I’ve been part of stories that I do not fundamentally believe. This conflict is something I grapple with regularly. Ideally, I would love to be in a position where I can select projects that resonate with my beliefs, particularly my political views.

However, there have been moments when financial necessity has forced me to accept roles that don’t sit well with my conscience. When resources were scarce, my priority was to survive, so I could continue to speak and live. Thus, I’ve sometimes made choices that didn’t align with my inner convictions.

In the future, I hope to reach a place where my art can fully reflect my personal and political beliefs. Until then, I navigate these compromises as best as I can, always striving to maintain my integrity while ensuring my survival.

Nikita: In your opinion, what role does cinema play in addressing the social and political issues and do you believe it’s important for artists to engage with these themes?

Kani: Cinema is a powerful art form that undeniably has the capacity to address social and political issues. While it’s important for artists to engage with these themes, I don’t believe that all artists must do so. There are various ways to communicate and some artists operate in a highly abstract realm. Their work may be deeply engaged, but not easily understood or accessible to everyone.

As long as an artist is genuinely immersed in their thoughts and creative process, their work is valid, whether or not it directly addresses social and political issues. The diversity of artistic expression means that sometimes the message can be lost in translation. Ultimately, it’s a matter of personal freedom for an artist to choose whether to engage with these themes. For me, the honesty and authenticity in an artist’s work are what truly matter.

Nikita: Given the film’s exploration of love and pain, what insights or reflections did you gain about the human experience while working on this project?

Kani: I often find that stories rarely offer me new insights or reflections. However, what truly enriches my experience is working with diverse people. This interaction continuously shapes my behavior as an actor and offers valuable lessons on how I could have responded differently in various situations. These experiences prompt me to course correct, reflect on my actions, and ponder whether I made the right choices or how I might have approached things better.

Nikita: Transitioning from theatre to movies can be challenging. How did you find the experience, and what did you learn along the way? I mean, looking back on your journey from theatre to film, how you read it, tell us about that?

Kani: My journey in front of the camera began even before my foray into theatre. Initially, I didn’t enjoy working in films because I disliked the filmmaking process of the projects I was involved in at the time. My heart belonged to the theatre, its production process, the demands it placed on an actor, and the profound rewards it offered. In contrast, the films I worked on back then required very little from me, which left me disheartened.

However, over the past few years, particularly within the Malayalam cinema, I have noticed a shift. There is now a greater sense of involvement, a feeling of being truly part of the storytelling process. This change is largely attributable to directors who foster a collaborative environment. I vividly recall my experience with Payal’s film, where the process was fulfilling, and we all felt deeply engaged with the story. It was a refreshing departure from the usual routine of merely showing up,doing your part, and leaving.

I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy films where I can immerse myself more fully. Otherwise, I find theatre demands more from an actor, and personally, I find acting in films slightly easier.

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