On a breezy night in November, Kalki Koechlin walked out of the greenroom at Kamani Auditorium in New Delhi. Dressed in a simple black tank-top and pants and her hair ruthlessly tied into a ponytail, she suggested that we sit outside, in the backyard of the auditorium. She settled down on an iron bench, politely requesting a visibly awestruck young man to vacate the seat and began to talk about her then upcoming film, Margarita With A Straw, which had received quite a “promising” response at the Toronto Film Festival.
While many considered the film’s subject brave — a differently-abled woman exploring her sexuality —, Koechlin was confident that the film would do quite well in India despite its unconventional plot. “We have intelligent audiences, but we just don’t have the market for intelligent cinema. When you see a film, and all seven screens are playing that film, there’s no other choice for people,” she added, a tad exasperated, revealing perhaps her nervousness for the fate of the film.
She need not have worried. The film, which was made on a budget of about Rs 6 crore, has grossed approximately Rs 5 crore since its release two weeks ago. In all probability, it will end up with a neat profit.
Koechlin, who was in Delhi to perform in Rajat Kapoor’s play, Hamlet — The Clown Prince, spoke fondly of her tryst with theatre. “Theatre happened way before films. I even attended theatre workshops when I was in Puducherry,” she added with a nostalgic smile.
Born to French parents, Koechlin grew up in Puducherry and attributes a lot of who she is today to her time in Puducherry. “‘Pondy’ and Hebron School helped me because creativity and performance were encouraged as a means of expression.” But, she added, Puducherry was also the place where she got used to the clichés with which people view her today.
“I was the kid that Aditi was in the first half of Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, and the look that Naina’s mother gave me in the film is exactly the kind of reaction I got from people,” she said with a smile. “I didn’t do any films for one-and-a-half years after Dev.D because I was only getting roles of a prostitute. I didn’t want to be typecast just because I have this whole disturbed teenage thing going for me.”
She said that she has consciously tried to step out of the mould. “It’s important for me as an actor to push boundaries,” she explained.
In Margarita With A Straw, Koechlin shines as Laila, a young woman with cerebral palsy, a definite step “out of the mould”. “The film is about family and love and has resonated well with our audiences,” she says, over an email interview after the film released.
Kalki KoechlinKoechlin’s ex-husband, director Anurag Kashyap, shares a window into her acting process. “She’s grown as an actor since Dev.D, especially with Margarita With A Straw, which has been a dream role for her,” he says. According to Kashyap, Koechlin and he were married and living together when she started preparing for the role, and when he would come home after work, she would be Laila. “She would speak to me as Laila, and I would have to figure out what she’s saying. She would make me carry her down to the dining table,” he reminisces.
“Even when she was preparing for films like Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani and she wouldn’t be so comfortable with the Bollywood dance steps she had to do in the film, she’d keep practising. She’s an actor who lives with her characters,” he adds.
The actor also brings a certain sensitive quality to her work, especially considering certain recent performances where she came forward to speak about women’s rights. She featured in a video by AIB, a group of stand-up comedians, titled It’s My Fault, against gender violence. The Truths of Womanhood, a monologue that she scripted and acted out at the India Today Conclave in 2014, was widely shared and applauded on social media platforms.
Koechlin says that she’s not consciously choosing women-centric roles. “I’m an activist only with my personal, creative work. Those are the things I can control. But it is very different when you’re performing in someone else’s work,” she says. For Koechlin, it all boils down to authenticity. “Beyond that, a film is a director’s medium. I can’t go around telling the director how he must construct my dialogues for the rest of the film — that’s not my domain.”
Earlier when she was in Delhi, she had said, with her eyebrow raised in irony, that if she were to portray only “strong” women on screen, it would be creating its own stereotype. “I want to do every genre, and have the opportunity to stretch myself as an actor as long as the script grips me,” she adds firmly. This seems to explain her choices for somewhat clichéd roles in Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani, Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara and, more recently, Happy Ending.
She adds that she is somewhat tired of these “lofty” expectations from Indian cinema. “I do, of course, want to be socially responsible to a certain degree in my work but I also don’t believe that every film has to have a social message. It can just be a comment on life, not necessarily a solution to problems.”
“Her commitment as an actor is relentless,” says Atul Kumar, founder of The Company Theatre and her co-star in Hamlet. “One of the most inspiring things about her is that before every performance, she is the first one to put on her makeup and costume and get ready. Then she spends 30-45 minutes in front of the mirror practising and going over her act.”
Kapoor, in whose Hamlet Koechlin performed Ophelia’s role, speaks of her as a “director’s actor”. But more importantly, he says, it is her sensitivity and understanding of filmmaking (and theatre) as team play that sets her apart from others in her milieu. While she may have stolen the show in Margarita With A Straw, Kapoor says that “she never tries to stand out, or look for personal glory. Rather, she chooses to get lost in the ensemble.”
Shonali Bose, the director of Margarita With A Straw, too, says Koechlin was able to give perfect single takes for the film because of the “intense hard work that she put into the preparation of her role”. “We formed a bond of trust early on that was integral to her delivering this performance.”
Koechlin has a pragmatic approach to work. “I’m not marketable and I can’t pull in money. It’s frustrating, of course, but one has to work with it,” she shrugs. But with TV commercials, like the one for Olay, and a fashion feature for designer Gaurav Gupta, in her kitty, it seems that Koechlin may, after all, have turned this tide in her favour. The actor, though, attributes some of her recent fame to curiosity from her audience. “People used to think that I represented everything that Anurag (Kashyap) was. After our split, people want to know what I think.”
The actor will debut as a director for a comedy on death that she’s written for the stage. She’s also working on films such as Waiting with director Anu Menon and Love Affair with Soni Razdan. Koechlin hopes to fashion herself as a full-fledged writer someday. “My mother has kept silly rhymes on flowers as well as the darker stuff that I’ve written since I was a child,” she says. “Writing has always been therapy for me. I’ve written plays and yes, maybe, I’ll write for films someday.”