Kalki Koechlin: The power of one


Kalki Koechlin: The power of one

Kalki Koechlin is learning to go it alone, and is pulling zero punches

By Cheryl-Ann Couto  January 7th, 2015

Death and endings are on Kalki Koechlin’s mind. “Though not in a sad way,” she laughs. Her faint, friendly voice over the telephone has a touch of resignation. “You’ve gone through all the depression and crying, and now what to do? You joke about it.” She is talking about an “intense but fantastic” indie she’s currently filming, called Waiting, about two people (she stars opposite Naseeruddin Shah) stuck in a hospital, “at a very uncertain time in their lives”, and their unlikely friendship. Koechlin’s been writing a play, a satirical comedy about death that she wants to direct next year, too. “It’s about how we all live life as if death does not exist and actually it’s the most common, definite thing that’s going to happen to us all”. The piece’s working title is A Play On Death. “Not very good!” she says. I actually like it. It feels very Kalki: direct, simple, wrenching.

I decide to go with my favourite state-of-mind-this-minute question — it’s the keyboard shortcut I use  for myself whenever things start to get away from me. “You’ve got a little theme going there,” I venture, carefully, not really much of a question. She chuckles again. “Yeah, why am I obsessed with death! No, but that’s the state of mind I’m in. Especially as I watch my parents get older and see the roles reverse. Now I tell them how to be: ‘Mama, don’t do this’, ‘Papa, don’t do that’. I think I’ve grown up.”

It might have to do with the sobering couple of years she’s had. Between giving herself over completely to a film that looks slated to be a career best — she already has the festival circuit jumping to its feet applauding her performance as a young woman with cerebral palsy and a sex drive in Shonali Bose’s Margarita, With A Straw (out in April), emerging as a creative and serious voice in the country’s conversation about women — all while dealing with the end of love, she’s had every square inch of her emotional bandwidth stretched taut. 

At the time of her last cover story with ELLE in April 2013, she was imbibing all nutrition through a straw while sitting in a wheelchair for six hours a day in preparation for the role, and talking about eking out an individual professional identity for herself that didn’t need her then-husband, film-maker Anurag Kashyap’s, blessings. To the onlooker, he had seemed for a long time like a doting manager to this unusual beauty with the feral talent. Right from her luminescent debut in his revolutionary Dev.D (2009), to putting her directly in the path of interesting projects (Shaitan, 2011) or fashioning new projects (That Girl In Yellow Boots, 2011) to play to her strengths. The perception had begun to piss her off, she’d told me, and as she gradually cut loose and began to evolve her own little circle of influence (playing sticky characters in commercial whoppers like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, 2011, and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, 2013), the balances started to tip between them too. She’d joked to me, “Now he says ‘Baby, don’t leave me!’ and I’m like ‘Well, then, you better behave’.” Seven months later, they announced their separation amidst rumours of Kashyap’s infidelity.  

“It was very difficult,” she says of the time. “I was uprooted. You suddenly feel like you don’t know where home is.” And finding a new home — not emotionally, the actual brick-and-mortar thing — was a different kind of sock in the gut. “Finding a house in Bombay as a single woman was a struggle,” she says. For a famous single woman, too? “Oh, that was even more difficult. The fact that I’m an actor didn’t go down well with most housing societies.” But now that she’s settled in, she’s made a home for herself with her ginger tabby, Dosa. “My best friend is my cat,” she laughs. “It feels great to come back to him after a 15-hour day, to have this other creature moving around in your home, beside you.”

The place is pretty raw still, she admits, because her days are sucked up by work. “Work’s been my solace,” she says. And heartbreak, it seems, has been great for productivity. This month, she begins shooting for Nicholas Kharkongor’s indie Mantra, about the fall of an Indian snack food company at the hands of a multinational in the early aughties, as the country goes through a corporate and political do-over. Next, she tackles Soni Razdan’s more commercial Love Affair, based on the true story of KM Nanavati, the infamous naval commander who murdered his English wife’s lover. When she can steal time, she workshops her play with theatre friends even as she continues to write it. And she says she’s going to keep lending her voice to causes she cares about, provided “she has something substantial to contribute to them”.

 

Is she looking for someone to cramp Dosa’s style? Kashyap, who she’s cordial with, has publicly moved on. “Nooo, I’m not there yet at all. I’m really not looking for a man. I’m enjoying how I am right now,” she says. Part of her modus operandi for “learning to be okay with herself” is to reconnect with friends and family from whom she had become cut off, socially. “Married people stop being seen as individuals — you go everywhere together, you get invited to parties together, it’s sad,” she says. “I’ve sort of started going out on my own now.” She’s been spending much of her time with the nearly all-woman crew of Waiting — “it’s so much fun, we talk about eyebrows and sex” — and going to select parties “where I know some people, usually Zoya [Akhtar]or Ayan [Mukerji]. Earlier this year, “neighbours and 3.00am friends” actor Gulshan Devaiah and his Greek wife, theatre actor Kalliroi Tziafeta, whisked her off on a backpacking trip to Crete where she “drank too much raki [the local wine]”. Before that, she took a ski break with the family in Kashmir, and is learning to enjoy her prim French mother’s company. 

“We have a very fiery, up-and-down relationship,” she says, “but as she gets older, she’s not as angry and wants to talk about happy things. Plus, she’s the one who’s seen me through my best and worst.” Her mother’s advice to her is simple: “Sort yourself out, get yourself a house, and then worry about a man and babies.” Great advice if I heard it, but what have been her own learnings now that she’s close to the other end of the tunnel? “Honesty — in any relationship — above all. After that, any kind of person is fine. I’ve never had much of a bullshit tolerance — I find it easy to sniff out. And I’m not interested.”

Photographs: Abhay Singh; Styling: Nidhi Jacob; Art direction Reshma Rajiwdekar; Make-up and hair: George P Kritikos/Anima Creative Management; Assisted by: Neha Salvi, Siddhali Doshi; Production: Parul Menezes; Location courtesy: The Nutcracker, Mumbai

Death and endings are on Kalki Koechlin’s mind. “Though not in a sad way,” she laughs. Her faint, friendly voice over the telephone has a touch of resignation. “You’ve gone through all the depression and crying, and now what to do? You joke about it.” She is talking about an “intense but fantastic” indie she’s currently filming, called Waiting, about two people (she stars opposite Naseeruddin Shah) stuck in a hospital, “at a very uncertain time in their lives”, and their unlikely friendship. Koechlin’s been writing a play, a satirical comedy about death that she wants to direct next year, too. “It’s about how we all live life as if death does not exist and actually it’s the most common, definite thing that’s going to happen to us all”. The piece’s working title is A Play On Death. “Not very good!” she says. I actually like it. It feels very Kalki: direct, simple, wrenching.

I decide to go with my favourite state-of-mind-this-minute question — it’s the keyboard shortcut I use  for myself whenever things start to get away from me. “You’ve got a little theme going there,” I venture, carefully, not really much of a question. She chuckles again. “Yeah, why am I obsessed with death! No, but that’s the state of mind I’m in. Especially as I watch my parents get older and see the roles reverse. Now I tell them how to be: ‘Mama, don’t do this’, ‘Papa, don’t do that’. I think I’ve grown up.”

It might have to do with the sobering couple of years she’s had. Between giving herself over completely to a film that looks slated to be a career best — she already has the festival circuit jumping to its feet applauding her performance as a young woman with cerebral palsy and a sex drive in Shonali Bose’s Margarita, With A Straw (out in April), emerging as a creative and serious voice in the country’s conversation about women — all while dealing with the end of love, she’s had every square inch of her emotional bandwidth stretched taut. 

At the time of her last cover story with ELLE in April 2013, she was imbibing all nutrition through a straw while sitting in a wheelchair for six hours a day in preparation for the role, and talking about eking out an individual professional identity for herself that didn’t need her then-husband, film-maker Anurag Kashyap’s, blessings. To the onlooker, he had seemed for a long time like a doting manager to this unusual beauty with the feral talent. Right from her luminescent debut in his revolutionary Dev.D (2009), to putting her directly in the path of interesting projects (Shaitan, 2011) or fashioning new projects (That Girl In Yellow Boots, 2011) to play to her strengths. The perception had begun to piss her off, she’d told me, and as she gradually cut loose and began to evolve her own little circle of influence (playing sticky characters in commercial whoppers like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, 2011, and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, 2013), the balances started to tip between them too. She’d joked to me, “Now he says ‘Baby, don’t leave me!’ and I’m like ‘Well, then, you better behave’.” Seven months later, they announced their separation amidst rumours of Kashyap’s infidelity.  

“It was very difficult,” she says of the time. “I was uprooted. You suddenly feel like you don’t know where home is.” And finding a new home — not emotionally, the actual brick-and-mortar thing — was a different kind of sock in the gut. “Finding a house in Bombay as a single woman was a struggle,” she says. For a famous single woman, too? “Oh, that was even more difficult. The fact that I’m an actor didn’t go down well with most housing societies.” But now that she’s settled in, she’s made a home for herself with her ginger tabby, Dosa. “My best friend is my cat,” she laughs. “It feels great to come back to him after a 15-hour day, to have this other creature moving around in your home, beside you.”

The place is pretty raw still, she admits, because her days are sucked up by work. “Work’s been my solace,” she says. And heartbreak, it seems, has been great for productivity. This month, she begins shooting for Nicholas Kharkongor’s indie Mantra, about the fall of an Indian snack food company at the hands of a multinational in the early aughties, as the country goes through a corporate and political do-over. Next, she tackles Soni Razdan’s more commercial Love Affair, based on the true story of KM Nanavati, the infamous naval commander who murdered his English wife’s lover. When she can steal time, she workshops her play with theatre friends even as she continues to write it. And she says she’s going to keep lending her voice to causes she cares about, provided “she has something substantial to contribute to them”.

 

Is she looking for someone to cramp Dosa’s style? Kashyap, who she’s cordial with, has publicly moved on. “Nooo, I’m not there yet at all. I’m really not looking for a man. I’m enjoying how I am right now,” she says. Part of her modus operandi for “learning to be okay with herself” is to reconnect with friends and family from whom she had become cut off, socially. “Married people stop being seen as individuals — you go everywhere together, you get invited to parties together, it’s sad,” she says. “I’ve sort of started going out on my own now.” She’s been spending much of her time with the nearly all-woman crew of Waiting — “it’s so much fun, we talk about eyebrows and sex” — and going to select parties “where I know some people, usually Zoya [Akhtar]or Ayan [Mukerji]. Earlier this year, “neighbours and 3.00am friends” actor Gulshan Devaiah and his Greek wife, theatre actor Kalliroi Tziafeta, whisked her off on a backpacking trip to Crete where she “drank too much raki [the local wine]”. Before that, she took a ski break with the family in Kashmir, and is learning to enjoy her prim French mother’s company. 

“We have a very fiery, up-and-down relationship,” she says, “but as she gets older, she’s not as angry and wants to talk about happy things. Plus, she’s the one who’s seen me through my best and worst.” Her mother’s advice to her is simple: “Sort yourself out, get yourself a house, and then worry about a man and babies.” Great advice if I heard it, but what have been her own learnings now that she’s close to the other end of the tunnel? “Honesty — in any relationship — above all. After that, any kind of person is fine. I’ve never had much of a bullshit tolerance — I find it easy to sniff out. And I’m not interested.”

Photographs: Abhay Singh; Styling: Nidhi Jacob; Art direction Reshma Rajiwdekar; Make-up and hair: George P Kritikos/Anima Creative Management; Assisted by: Neha Salvi, Siddhali Doshi; Production: Parul Menezes; Location courtesy: The Nutcracker, Mumbai