‘I get overwhelmed in crowds’: Kani Kusruti on Cannes selection for ‘All We Imagine as Light’

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Kani Kusruti was under the weather, bracing for another work trip to Kerala when the news broke. Her forthcoming film, Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine as Light, had been selected in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s the first time in 30 years that an Indian film will be vying for the prestigious Palme d’Or.

The slate includes the illustrious likes of Francis Ford Coppola’s Megapolis, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kinds of Kindness, Andrea Arnold’s Bird, Jia Zhang-Ke’s Caught By the Tides amongst others. American filmmaker Greta Gerwig is presiding over the main jury for the 77th Cannes, set to take place from May 14 to 25 on the French Riviera.

Another Indian film, Santosh, by British-Indian director Sandhya Suri, will compete in the Un Certain Regard sidebar.

“I was at home in Goa, where I currently live, when the messages started pouring in,” Kani says. “I was busy packing for a shoot in Kerala, and a little tired and sick, or else I would’ve responded to each text.”

All We Imagine…’s selection marks a big occasion for Indian cinema. The country has, in recent years, risen in profile and visibility at Cannes. Yet, despite films like Masaan and All That Breathes bringing home top honours, we have rarely basked in main competition glory. The only Indian film to ever win the Palme d’Or — then known as Grand Prix du Festival International du Film — is Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (1946). Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen’s films were fitfully nominated, with Sen’s 1982 domestic help drama Kharij winning the Jury Prize. In 1994, Malayalam director Shaji N Karun’s rural-set classic Swaham was the last film from India to compete for the Palme d’Or.

Serendipitously, All We Imagine as Light is the story of two Kerala nurses working in Mumbai, and both its leads, Kani and Ariyippu actor Divya Prabha, are Malayalis. In all, it has been an ecstatic few weeks for Kerala film fans, with the tidings from Cannes and movies like Manjummel Boys, Aadujeevitham and Aavesham breaking out wide.

Kani Kusruti

Kani Kusruti

“I feel the more regional the treatment of a film is, the more it speaks an international language,” observes Kani, who remembers watching Swaham in a theatre as a child. “My parents were serious film buffs and they had taken me to its screening. Years later, I worked with Shaji sir in Oolu (2018).”

In All We Imagine as Light, Kani plays Prabha, the head nurse at a Mumbai hospital. She rooms with Anu, another nurse, who is younger. Prabha is estranged from her husband, while Anu is seeking privacy in the big city with her boyfriend. “One day, the two nurses go on a road trip to a beach town where the mystical forest becomes a space for their dreams to manifest,” reads a plotline. Marathi actor Chhaya Kadam plays a pivotal role in the film.

Kapadia’s previous feature, the documentary A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021), won the Golden Eye at Cannes. Before that, her student short, Afternoon Clouds (2017), also about the shared vulnerabilities and complex inner worlds of two women in a house, was selected in the cinéfondation category at the fest.

Kani says she was initially approached by Kapadia to play the younger nurse. But the project took years to get off the ground, and she winded up with the role of Prabha.

“Prabha is not someone I relate to,” Kani states. “She is someone who carries a lot of baggage due to social expectations. Although she has found economic independence, her conscience is torn between her desires and what others want her to do.” Aspects of the character, she adds, were drawn from a real person. “Payal told me that she had met someone — a nurse — that triggered some questions in her and inspired her to write this film. We also workshopped with working nurses to get an understanding of their lives.”

Kani Kusruti

Kani Kusruti

The first half of All We Imagine as Light was filmed during the monsoons in Mumbai last year. The cast and crew camped out in a non-functioning hospital in Dahisar, in the northern suburbs. “We were shooting in really congested places with sync sound. We could not start the fan or open a window.” The second, more liberated half of the film was shot in Ratnagiri, a port town on the Konkan coast. “It was hot and dry but much calmer.”

Kani is a rockstar on the Indian indie circuit. Her 2020 Malayalam film Biriyaani won a host of awards; more recently, her film Girls Will Be Girls premiered at Sundance. She has an equally prolific streaming career; this year alone, she has featured in high-profile shows like Killer Soup, Poacher and Maharani Season 3. So it is a surprise when she admits that, circumstances permitting, she avoids attending jazzy festival premieres or red carpets. “I get easily overwhelmed in crowds,” she laughs. “It’s just my personality… I’m not very outgoing.”

Will she attend Cannes, though? “I am shooting on those days. If it’s possible, I will go. I understand it’s a humongous deal, India competing at Cannes and all that. But more than anything, I would want to watch this film with the entire cast and crew that worked on it. The joy of creating something special together is still alive.”

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