It might be fair to say that the general interest in Victoria Ocampo was never as high as in early October. As people queued up outside Stein auditorium in India Habitat Centre, Delhi, snippets of conversation could be heard about the life and times of Ms Ocampo.
So who is Victoria Ocampo? A certain Argentine writer/intellectual with whom the poet Rabindranath Tagore shared a brief, and much publicised in the years to come, relationship. And why the sudden surge of interest in her? Because Kalki Koechlin was playing her part in the Manav Kaul production, Colour Blind.
Many are likewise drawn to Koechlin, the actor who has carved a cosy niche for herself in Bollywood but remains surprisingly accessible to fans. We meet off stage for the interview and she gives a full, radiant smile as she sinks into a lounge chair and crosses her feet.
She looks at the recorder and says, "point it this way, there's too much background noise". I nod an agreement and as we start talking I'm reminded of what Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the Koechlin-starrer That Girl in Yellow Boots: She is a figure of instant enigma. A young white woman in Mumbai, speaking Hindi, living alone... consumed by an obsession...we learn she is half-Indian.
Koechlin was born in a small village outside Puducherry to parents of French descent, Joel and Françoise, devotees of Sri Aurobindo. Growing up Kalki dealt with her share of confusion, primarily related to her own identity as a white-skinned woman growing up in Tamil Nadu.
"It was bizarre because in every photograph you could see this one white kid amidst a group of dark south Indian kids!" laughs Koechlin as she recounts her childhood: "At that age you aren't aware of any superficial differences. I remember staring at foreigners with my friends, fascinated by white people."
Koechlin was sent off to Hebron School in Ooty where she says her love for acting really took shape. "I was the class clown as well," says Koechlin with an impish smile. Next came Goldsmith's College, London, ("a very left wing, arty college known for its wackos like Damien Hirst and the like") where Koechlin studied drama and theatre.
"I was actually quite intimidated when I first got there. Everyone had some defined identity. Some had a gothic look, some had purple hair, some had 'I am a lesbian' written t-shirt. On the other hand, I was too shy. I was too normal and that scared me initially," says Koechlin. But she is equally effusive in her praise for the college, saying that she learned some of the most crucial lessons of theatre from there. She also learned that sometimes it's okay to not fit in with the crowd.
Given that Dev D took the role of Chandramukhi and dramatically remodelled it to suit contemporary sensibilities, how exactly did she go about reparing? "Anurag had told me to not watch the Sanjay Leela Bhansali version nor read anything about it. Instead he gave me a bunch of DVDs to watch, mostly about prostitutes who negotiate different life situations."
Koechlin did see the Bhansali version much later. Did she find any difference in the portrayal of 'Chanda'? "Totally," she says with a laugh. Next up was the Bejoy Nambiar directed Shaitan where Koechlin played Amy, yet another edgy role for which she received further recognition and critical acclaim.
However, as is the case with celebrity images in Bollywood, Koechlin started to receive similary 'dark' roles from directors: "I only started getting roles of prostitutes or those I-am-a-disturbed-teenager kind of roles! It takes time for people to warm up to the idea that actors can cover a wide gamut of emotions."
One of Koechlin's films which dealt with the issue of CSA was That Girl in Yellow Boots - directed by Kashyap. The film though, didn't garner as much commercial success. Koechlin co-wrote the film ("sadly," she says and looks down sheepishly) but wasn't as creatively happy with the outcome.
Kashyap, says Koechlin, wanted a woman's perspective and hence asked her to write the script. But Koechlin voices her suspicion rather bluntly: "I think Anurag was just feeling sorry for me because I was unemployed at the time and he gave me this job!"
But what exactly does she feel is wrong with the movie? "It was Anurag's idea and thus it was difficult for me to tackle because it wasn't my story at all -- also, my dad is not the person who abused me sexually, just to let you know because that's what Ruth's story is about in the film!" says Koechlin and adds that she wanted the ending of the film to be quite different.
Love, of stage and off stage
"As soon as Anurag and I started dating we spoke about it. We didn't want to use the 'we're only friends' line," laughs Koechlin but says that she now regrets being so transparent about her personal life. "It just takes centre stage instead of your work, which is what you should be in the limelight for," she says.
Koechlin though, doesn't need to worry about lack of films. At least not now. Her upcoming film
Margarita, with a Straw
is slated for an early 2015 release. Directed by Shonali Bose, the film is about the life of a young woman with cerebral palsy - the film takes a lot of cues from Bose's own cousin Malini, who was born with cerebral palsy. It's already gained a lot of positive attention at film festivals abroad and looks set to be one of Koechlin's most powerful performance yet.
To play the role of someone who is differently abled is a huge challenge and Koechlin ensured she was prepared. She spent a lot of time with Malini: "I lived with her, hung out, went drinking, dancing, did everything to understand what I needed to do myself in the film." Koechlin says she took to using the wheelchair as well, right from when she woke up in the morning. Making breakfast, she says, was never easy.
Explaining the minute physicalities that the role demanded, Koechlin says, "Even breathing in such a condition is different. Your lungs take in less air and by the time you can finish a sentence, you're out of breath. So you finish it in another breath. The body muscles collapse in a lot of ways."
Next is what
Koechlin is also set to star in a Raj-DK film called Happy Ending, scheduled to release in November. It is a comedy, a genre that Koechlin says she loves. Another film that is in the pipeline waiting for a release is Jiah aur Jiah, directed by Howard Rosemeyer. Koechlin is also going to share screen space with Naseeruddin Shah in an upcoming Anu Menon film titled Waiting.
Ask her about her ideal directors that she would love to work with, Koechlin's eyes light up: "I feel so greedy! But I guess Lars Von Trier and Michel Gondry will make it to my ideal directors list!"
With her films making their presence felt on the global stage so much, one wonders if the list is to remain 'ideal' for long. As I wish her goodnight, she smiles her full smile once more and I remember a character in That Girl in Yellow Boots describing Ruth as "sort of like Bugs Bunny meets Julia Roberts." Koechlin could fit that description nicely.
From HT Brunch, November 9
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