After finding acclaim for her lead performance in the Malayalam film Biriyaani in 2019, Kani Kusruti’s stock continues to rise with back-to-back roles in the Hindi web series OK Computer and Maharani.
The Kerala-born theatre actor had been appearing in feature-length Malayalam productions since 2009’s Kerala Cafe. She attracted warm notices for the short films Memories of a Machine (2016) and Sundance selection Counterfeit Kunkoo (2018).
Sajin Baabu’s Biriyaani starred Kusruti as a Muslim woman abandoned by her husband and ostracised because of her brother’s involvement with the Islamic State. The role offered her “an opportunity to play a character with a beginning, middle, and end”, Kusruti told Scroll.in.
Trained in physical theatre in Paris, Kusruti got a chance to let her hair down in the sci-fi series OK Computer, in which she played police constable Monalisa Paul. In the fiction series Maharani, the 35-year-old actor played the administrative aide of Rani, Bihar’s female chief minister. Excerpts from an interview.
Your weakness in Hindi has been worked into both characters in ‘OK Computer’ and ‘Maharani’.
Yes, that was a plus for Maharani, because the character is supposed to be from the South, either Tamil Nadu or Kerala. Monalisa in OK Computer is also Malayali. I actually say no to many Hindi things that come my way because I don’t speak the language.
For Counterfeit Kunkoo, I had to speak bits of both Hindi and Marathi, and I had to mug up dialogue for months. In Maharani, I often missed out the nuance of certain moments and scenes because of the language, so I had to keep asking what this or that means.
And yet, your acting feels effortless.
There’s always effort, but the effort shouldn’t be seen. Sometimes, my effort doesn’t land, like with the short film The Discreet Charm of the Savarnas. I hadn’t been around people like the ones in the film, so I think my work was half-cooked. In contrast, some characters are easy because you have thought of them, or seen them, or read about them, throughout life. If I know such people exist, I can get their rhythm.
Talent alone doesn’t help. You need practice, which will help you control your craft and be diverse. So even if you are typecast as househelp, you can do multiple househelps in different ways.
What have you found yourself typecast as?
I have noticed directors want me to maintain a certain sthayi bhava, meaning a state of mind, which they have seen me be in some previous work. I was asked to maintain a Biriyaani state of mind in a recent Malayalam film.
Usually, I am approached for what are called “bold characters”, ones who smoke, drink, have sex. Or I am asked to play women who suffer in life. Apparently, I have that look.
Are you asked to play ‘bold characters’ because you are vocal about your progressive politics?
It’s not because of something I said in any interview. I have been told that because of my skin tone, I can never be seen as a “normal person”. I don’t understand why I can’t be like any other character.
Also, I think it could be because I am known for being ready to do anything on-screen for a role, although I may have disagreements at a political level or even aesthetic level with several of my films, including Biriyaani. But I don’t know how important it is for an actor to like everything they do. One has to take up work and survive.
You are quite fun in ‘OK Computer’ and the Malayalam film ‘Masala Republic’.
I would really love to do more comedy. Physical theatre is what I am trained in, so I really want to do more physical acting, slapstick. That’s where I feel comfortable, it’s my space.
I have done comedy on stage in the past, like the play A Very Normal Family, directed by Roshan Mathew. I play a 75-80-year-old woman there.
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