Kalki Koechlin on politics, acting and sex
by Deepa Menon
Most of the time, 32-year-old Kalki Koechlin feels like an old lady. Her joys are sedate ones: a cup of tea, a long soak with a nice book, craft projects for the house. She can’t bear to sit idle for long and wonders at people who have time to argue all day on Twitter. She tends to forget things and has deep conversations with her cat. When she does feel the tug of FOMO, it’s over something drama-geeky, like Shakespeare’s 400th death anniversary, a year-long, worldwide celebration that’s further complicating her manager’s already tricky job. “I can’t resist so many things,” she sighs.
Any mellow vibe Koechlin projects dissipates when you consider the pace at which she lives. Like any Hindi film actor of discerning tastes, she has dry spells; she uses that time to drift onto another stage. Last year, she took six months off to write and direct a play, The Living Room. “I feel like I don’t exist if I’m not working. I can’t lie on a beach for three days. More than two days and I’m like, what am I doing? There are so many things wrong with the world, I need to do something!” Among her major film projects currently are Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, A Death In The Gunj, and Soni Razdan’s Love Affair, based on the Nanavati murder case of 1959. For the Bard, she’s writing an essay on Ophelia for the British Council, shooting a reimagining of Romeo & Juliet with Adil Husain in Delhi and touring with Rajat Kapoor’s version of Macbeth in the US. Then, there’s Azmaish, a crowd-funded documentary she’s working on with Pakistani filmmaker Sabiha Sumar.
In her twenties, Koechlin says, she would experience weeks of hyperactivity followed by weeks of lethargy. But she’s getting better at balancing the two sides of her personality: the one that’s constantly in motion and the one that longs to be still. The thirties are kinder in this regard (even if turning up to work hungover is no longer an option). Her relationships—with work, fame, her body, even her mother—have all gotten better with time. So while she pegs her mental age as switching from a goofy 15 to a dotty 80, it seems like she’s found her sweet spot somewhere in between.
When she was 21 or 22, Koechlin performed nude before a theatre audience in London. It was for a play by David Hare that examined relationships in bed. “That took nerves, just to be in front of an audience and forget myself. But once you’re in your character it’s almost like, that’s not me on stage. My body is actually the least naked part of me.” From her first film (Dev.D, 2009), where she played Indian literature’s most romanticised prostitute, Chandramukhi, to her most celebrated last (Margarita With A Straw, 2014) where she was Laila, a bi-curious girl with cerebral palsy, Koechlin has sought to be as fearless as the script would allow. As her skill has grown, she’s been able to take bigger risks—and not just at work. It’s only recently that she’s gotten comfortable enough to walk around her own kitchen naked.
“I found it really hard when I left Anurag [Kashyap, her ex-husband]. The first year… it was tough. I grew up in boarding school and then shared houses with people, so I had never lived alone. But it’s something I really needed to learn how to do.” Now, she says, she can go about two weeks with guests in the house before she really starts to miss naked kitchen time.
Recently, Koechlin made the tough decision of moving her cat Dosa to her mother’s house in Pondicherry. She hated leaving him alone when she travelled so frequently for work. He’s thriving at the Aurobindo ashram, although he remains unmoved by its message of world peace (“He’s become muscular and the dogs are scared of him.”) She misses her former flatmate, especially at bedtime, when he’d curl up purring on her left shoulder, or when she’s having a rough day. “He knows when I’m upset; he’ll sit in my lap and put his paw on my knee.”
In the space she’s carved consciously where mainstream cinema, indie films and theatre overlap, Koechlin works often with other pros who are also adept at walking that line, including Naseeruddin Shah (That Girl In Yellow Boots, Waiting), Rajat Kapoor (the play What Is Done Is Done!, upcoming film Mantra) and Konkona Sensharma. It’s a creative comfort zone. Of her experience with first-time director Sensharma she says, “You feel like you can trust her, you don’t need to see your takes. She knows exactly what she’s looking for.” These collaborations sustain the artist in her while blockbusters like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) have made her a commercially viable star with endorsement deals from fashion, beauty and vodka brands. Heck, there’s something very balanced even about the assortment of people she’s rumouredly having an affair with: one mainstream star (Farhan Akhtar), one from theatre (Jim Sarbh) and one woman (Sayani Gupta). Feel free to keep guessing. “What I’ve learned with time, when it comes to the media, is that I have to keep my personal life very personal. I was so candid about it earlier, but that part of my life is not public property.”
“Hindi is still hard for me to improvise with, and I have a problem with glamour.” Koechlin isn’t talking fashion here; if her Instagram feed is anything to go by, she quite enjoys her red-carpet moments. She’s referring to the intrusive quality of Bollywood’s star machine, responsible for keeping that illusion of perfection. “When I’m on set, I don’t like someone coming and poking my face or fixing my hair every two minutes. Being able to stay in character and letting all this noise and stuff just come and go—that’s something I still struggle with. Backstage in theatre, it’s just you and the butterflies in your stomach.” Film actors are also treated with kid gloves, another practice she could happily live without. “People feel like they can’t criticise you. They’ll be like, [the shot] was wonderful, just great, but could you just do it slightly differently? And I’m like, you didn’t like it—just say that, na!”
On and off this year, as funds trickle in, Koechlin’s been filming a documentary for Vidhi Films, producer of the Oscar-winning film Saving Face on acid attacks in Pakistan. She and film-maker Sabiha Sumar have been travelling extensively in both countries to tell a very personal sort of story about religion. “It’s more about the human perspective. But I think everything you do is, to a certain extent, political.” While she’s outspoken and clearly liberal in her politics, Koechlin stays well clear of controversy both inside the industry and out. (In Bollywood, she says, “there are lots of secrets that you are expected to keep.”) So when she raises an issue, she does it by telling her own story, like she did in 2014 when she spoke about the consequences of being sexually abused as a nine-year-old in an interview with NDTV.
“Sex is better in my thirties; I’m less inhibited with my body. In your twenties, you’re very worried about how people perceive you. I’ve become more selfish in bed now. And I’m much more fussy (about partners), my bullshit tolerance is a lot less. I don’t just like someone because they like me, which was the case usually.” But, then again, she admits, “As you get older, you’re just grateful to be getting some.” Stars—they’re just like you and me.
Among Kalki Koechlin’s very first screen credits is one that’s an insane teleshopping commercial for Steam Spa, a portable tent-like contraption with a hole for your head to pop out of (‘Lose up to one pound in just 30 minutes or your money back!’). These days, she prefers less exciting ways to stay fit, like jogging or Latin dance workouts on YouTube. She’s also that rare person who drinks green tea for pleasure. Blame it on the hippie-dippie Pondi influence, which keeps her supplied with all the organic jam, spirulina and chia seeds she could possibly desire. I must have looked suspicious when she said she also loves her biryani and lamb chops. “I know I don’t look it, but I eat!”
Bringing Up Mother
Koechlin’s mother is a big influence even though they’re very different personalities. “She’s insane! If we spend a lot of time together, we have to fight. She is a very intellectual and smart woman, but she’s also extremely negative and paranoid. And I’m like, ‘Chill mom, smoke a J.’ With time, I’ve learnt to let it in from one ear and out through the other. And I find a sense of humour helps. We’re fine when we’re discussing films or ideas but when it comes to personal stuff… very bad.” Well, it’s some comfort to know that even with all the hectic personal growth that comes with age, some things never change.
Photographs: Bikramjit Bose. Styling: Nidhi Jacob. Assisted By Veronna Parikh, Tanvi Pinjarkar (Styling). Art Direction: Reshma Rajiwdekar. Make-Up And Hair: Angelina Joseph. Production: Parul Menezes