A lot of times I have had to defend my Indian-ness: Kalki Koechlin

Updated on Nov 09, 2014 12:28 PM IST
She was born in a small village outside Puducherry to Sri Aurobindo devotees of French descent. Here, Kalki talks about growing up in Tamil Nadu as a white woman, about being asked, "How do you like it in India? Do you like spicy food?" and of course about Bollywood.
Hindustan Times | ByAsad Ali

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.

One young man was overheard saying (hopefully, in jest),"I came yesterday to see Kalki perform. She didn't come on stage for half an hour but I thought it must be some experimental role she's playing. But I realised after another half an hour that Kalki's performance is actually today!"

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.

Ebert was describing Ruth, the character Koechlin portrayed in the Anurag Kashyap-directed 2010 film. But it may well be one of the more accurate descriptions of Koechlin herself and the journey she embarked on after coming to Mumbai to try her luck at acting.

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.

Remembering her childhood days again, Koechlin says that, "Growing up I had developed this weird accent because I wanted to blend in with the 'American types' that you encounter in international schools. Outside of school too there were a lot of times I had to defend my Indian-ness," recounts Koechlin as she talks about how, at social gatherings it was assumed she was a firang and was asked, "How do you like it here? Do you like spicy food?"

And in London too she was met with observations like "You don't sound Indian" etc. College, says Kalki, taught her to be more comfortable with who she really was and where she came from.

Mumbai chapter

During her stay in London Koechlin became part of a theatre company called Theatre of Relativity and got an opportunity to hone her acting skills further. Soon though, after finishing her studies Koechlin moved back to India, and started living with her elder brother in Bengaluru.

But there was hardly any stimulating work to be found and Koechlin decided to try out Mumbai. "I was feeling quite stagnant and wanted to look for interesting work. I got in touch with Atul Kumar and Ajay Krishnan who were looking for actors at that point for Contacting the World, a theatre festival held in Liverpool. So that project required me to shift to Mumbai."

Koechlin says she soon realised that Mumbai is her best bet if a career in acting is what she wanted. She was moving in the right circles and also earning some money "on the side" - "I did some terrible teleshopping ads for those useless machines that are supposed to make you lose weight! After Dev D, those ads again popped up with greater frequency!"

Was finding work relatively easy then? Koechlin says no but adds, "Though Bombay makes you feel you're always doing something... even if you're not, with so many auditions happening daily." It wasn't long before Koechlin found herself auditioning for Dev D.

She says she had "no idea" who Anurag Kashyap was. It was only after the auditions that she got a call from him and she researched about his work: "I saw Black Friday and thought that this is definitely work of substance. To be honest I had dismissed Bollywood because of all the jhatkas and matkas. So it was nice to see his work."

Did she anticipate the kind of success Dev D ended up tasting? "Definitely not. It wasn't a big hit when it released. Maybe it was a hit in an indie sort of way and that slowly grew into a full-fledged commercial success."

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."

Koechlin says that when Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara came her way, she was immediately keen on doing it, despite the role being very short, because it was quite different to her previous work.

Running with the wolves

Koechlin in recent times has also emerged as the fresh new face of Bollywood who is vocal about women's equality and gender issues. Earlier this year she spoke at a conference on child sexual abuse (CSA) organised by actor Rahul Bose's NGO H.E.A.L.

"I remember mentioning in passing that I too had faced such trauma as a child. I really didn't know that it would be such a huge deal afterwards," she says adding that, "I got calls saying I should be making TV shows about my CSA. You're not my therapist, I've had one who has dealt with my problems, so I don't need to make headlines or shows out of this."

What did make headlines still, was her monologue on Women's Day at the India Today Conclave. She says the monologue, which talked about the daily wars women have to wage against patriarchy, had bits from her personal diary as well. The video of this 'performance' went viral in no time and the Koechlin was lauded for her poignant lines.

Ask her if all this attention stems from the fact that audiences aren't that used to celebrities voicing informed, intelligent opinions, and Koechlin agrees. She says that, "I've always been outspoken,especially on these issues. But no one really took notice. I guess it's a bit of timing as well. Women's issues are being discussed a lot more now, and in this context maybe my views just gained sudden prominence."

But Koechlin believes that questions around social awareness aren't asked of celebrities as much. Hence if any one makes a strong statement of any kind, it makes headlines. "For example, journalists never asked me about women's issues 3 years ago. They only had the usual dumb questions to ask! Very few people ask me about the process of making the film," she says and adds as an afterthought, "I feel there's also a lot more interviews and promotions these days. These promotional events have become such a whoring of the actor."

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.

Once a power couple: In retrospect, being transparent about her relationship with Anurag Kashyap wasn’t such a great idea, says Kalki.

Speaking of stage, how does she manage to maintain balance between theatre and cinema? "I don't! I'm either doing films or theatre and it's taking a toll on my body," she says. Admitting she can be a bit of a workaholic, Koechlin says, "I love theatre a lot. It just keeps me sharp. But I love the film work I'm doing too," and winks before adding, "it gets me the money which theatre doesn't!"

Lack of money in theatre isn't quite breaking news and Koechlin says that often there is this period of time when one is only doing theatre. And if there isn't any film lined up then it can be difficult to make ends meet. "That's when you suddenly rush for all kinds of ribbon-cutting ceremonies, to pay off bills!" she quips.

Koechlin though, doesn't need to worry about lack of films. At least not now. Her upcoming film Margarita, with a Strawis 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."

Koechlin says that in order to perfect the manner of speaking with a certain lisp, she tried everything - from putting marbles in her mouth to asking her dentist to give her a 'dead tongue' so she could get the enunciation just right.

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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