For someone who has grown up in the mountains and run barefoot on beach sand, living in Mumbai can be horrifying. Traffic, noise, pollution, gossip… these were what Kalki Koechlin had a problem with in her initial days in the city. Now there is one more grouse added to that list. “Building societies,” says Koechlin, with disappointment writ large on her child-like face. The 32-year-old actor, who recently separated from her husband, filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, found it “almost impossible” to find herself a new house in Mumbai. “It is so tough to be in my spot of being a ‘separated, married but single’ woman in Mumbai,” she says. “They [societies] are like what category do you belong to? Nobody wants to keep a single woman in their flat so there are all these questions I have to answer. I find it very ridiculous. What is a woman supposed to do if she is single, working and has a legitimate life? It is discrimination in a huge way.” She had to put up a good fight before the residents association of her current pad in Yari Road finally gave in. Happy to have finally put a roof over her head, she is at ease now. There is minimal furniture, no TV and just a few books to give her company in her house. Koechlin excuses herself to remove her retainers, but not before warning me that it wouldn’t be a pretty sight to look at. As she struggles with the metal in her mouth, one realises how different she is from the typical Bollywood belle. There is no trace of make up on her face and she kicks off her flats the moment she hits the couch. The only thing dressy about her is her cotton jumpsuit, which she claims her manager arm-twisted her into wearing for a bite for a TV channel reporter. She sips on her black coffee and is all set to talk. “The one thing I have a problem with the media is that sometimes they are very patronising,” says Koechlin, who has a degree in drama from the University of London. “They treat actors like circus monkeys.”
Koechlin is finishing work on three films and apart from being kicked about touring the USA with Rajat Kapoor’s gibberish take on Shakespeare, Hamlet—The Clown Prince, she is also reading a few scripts. A few weeks ago, she was busy attending events and finishing work commitments, but now she has got the luxury of a short break. “Every day is different,” she says. “Some days it is so crazy that I wake up early in the morning and get back home really late at night. But now I am getting some time to do yoga, read a book and be by myself. I have just switched off my phone and am concentrating on the scripts that are coming to me.” There are times when Mumbai gets to her, which arrives after every fourth week here, and then she heads either to her mother’s house in Pondicherry or to some other “far-off remote place where people actually look at each other and talk to each other”. She eventually wants to settle down in a such a place and start a theatre residency there.
Koechlin claims to be a complete book slave, with her favourites ranging from poems of e.e. cummings and Jacques Prévert and prose of Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, Sylvia Plath and Antione de Saint-Exupéry to the philosophical works of Swami Vivekananda, J. Krishnamurti and Aurobindo. In her free time, it is always either books or writing. A ritual she doesn’t compromise on, however busy her schedule may be, is her annual skiing trip to Kashmir. She is planning to club her US tour with a trip to Paris to check out the film scene there.
How Koechlin, born to French parents settled in Pondicherry, came to Bollywood, hit the bull’s eye with her first film Dev.D and went on to marry Kashyap, who directed it, is now part of tinsel town folklore. Her portrayal of Chanda, the prostitute in Kashyap’s version of Bollywood’s most remade tragedy, led to her landing her next big role of a psychotic drug addict in Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan. But just when it looked like she was going to get sucked in by Bollywood’s whirlpool of stereotypes, she emerged with her first mainstream film by playing a spoilt brat in Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. “I can’t say that there was no typecasting,” she says. “After Dev.D, I got three films in which I had to play a prostitute. It was kinda silly. And after Shaitan, people would come to me saying, Kalki, you will love this character as she is a psycho and she is messed up.”
However, Koechlin followed this up with a balance of both small, independent films and big budget mainstream ones. While she did gritty stuff like That Girl In Yellow Boots (which she co-wrote with Kashyap) and Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai, she also made it a point to do an occasional Ek Thi Daayan and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. This mix of new and different stories is what keeps her going, she says.
As of now, Koechlin has completed work on one of her most ambitious acting projects—Shonali Bose’s Margarita, With A Straw. “I play Laila, a wheelchair-bound cerebral palsy-affected teenager,” she says. “It is about being trapped completely in your physical body, but having a mind of your own. It is not a film about somebody who is depressed or feeling sorry for themselves because of their state. It is more about Laila’s struggle to express herself despite her physical limitations.” She trained for six months for her character and shadowed Malini Bose, the director’s cousin who has cerebral palsy, and was the inspiration for the film. A 47-year-old Oxford graduate, Malini runs a centre for differently abled people in Bandra.
Unlike most other films on differently abled people, Margarita, With A Straw explores Laila’s sexual side, too. “It is a refreshing change because whenever we talk about disabled people in films, we tend to think that they have no sexuality,” she says. “While preparing for the film, I came across so many people with cerebral palsy who are married and have kids. There is this whole reality which we don’t even look at in films.”
As she is married to Kashyap, a lot of people would assume that she would only be interested in dark films, says Koechlin. Although having been exposed to a lot of French classics and alternative cinema by her “arty, intellectual” parents, she found solace in films of Charlie Chaplin and Meg Ryan, Tamil masala films like Kaakha Kaakha and “mind-blowing big budget Hollywood flicks like Jurassic Park”. She secretly nurtured a wish to act in a rom-com and it has come true with Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K.’s Happy Ending. There is also a Thelma and Louise-like road movie called Jiah aur Jiah coming up, in which she is paired with Richa Chadda. “Thelma and Louise belongs to a much darker space, but Jiah aur Jiah will be like a Dil Chahta Hai or Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara for women,” says Koechlin. “It is about two very opposite people who come together and learn to love life and to live it to the fullest.”
That sounds very much like the story of her marriage. Although they are taking time off their relationship, Kashyap still blushes at the mention of Koechlin’s name. “She was the best thing that happened to me and I am still not done with whatever it is between us,” he said in a recent interview. Being married to Kashyap, however, sometimes worked against her, says Koechlin. “Initially everyone had a problem that I acted only in his movies, then his friends’ movies and then his friends’ friends’ movies,” she says. “It bothered me a lot then because people thought I was getting these roles only because of Anurag.” Koechlin, who didn’t know even a word of Hindi when she started out in the industry, now spews expletives that would find themselves beeped in Kashyap’s films. This rage is directed at those who said that the play that won her The Hindu’s Metro Plus Playwright Award in 2009 was written by Kashyap. “He doesn’t even have the time to come and read my play, leave alone writing it,” she says, with a laugh. “Anurag has never pushed me and in fact we never used to take an interest in each other’s work.” Also, despite his interest in Margarita, With A Straw, Kashyap decided not to produce it because he didn’t want to be slotted as “the husband who produces films so that his wife can act in it”.
After That Girl In Yellow Boots, Koechlin says they had an overdose of each other. And, to all those who think now that they are separated the couple will not work together, Koechlin says otherwise. “When there is some character that fits me, I know for sure that he will call me,” she says. “And if I, one day, have a script that I want to tell him about, of course I will take it to him.”
Of late, Koechlin has also been seen as the poster girl of feminism—a result of the “viral” video she appeared in called “It Is Your Fault” and a monologue she wrote and performed on being a woman in India. “I am not an activist, I am an actor,” she says. “I do not like being called a feminist because the word has been bastardised. I believe in the equality of human beings, be it men or women or otherwise.” What really got her actively involved in the public discourse against rape post the horrific December 16 Delhi gangrape was the fact that she was in Delhi that very day. “I was training for my film and like anyone else was travelling by rickshaw and cabs. I knew what Delhi was like and I had to plan every time I went out at night, about how I would get home and all that,” she says. “So when this happened, the fear, the gut inside me just knotted up. I was so disgusted and scared. With those people going out on the streets, you know, I was right there.”
So when Tanmay Bhat of All India Bakchod came to her with the script of “It Is Not Your Fault”, Koechlin jumped at it. But she has also faced criticism that her work only scratches the surface and doesn’t take the message to the real rapists. “The point is that it is a dialogue. Even if you are only confirming it to the people who already know it, it gives that person the strength to talk about it,” she says. “It may not change everything, but it should give people the knowledge that it is important to talk about it and stand up for each other.”