Many are the stories of the Indian diaspora and the travails of Indians trying to adjust in foreign lands. Authors have made careers of such topics. Knowing the angst and loneliness of the first generation of immigrants and the schizophrenia of the second, it’s a welcome change to talk to someone of European descent who was born and brought up in “a little fishing village outside Pondicherry”.
Madame Kalki Koechlin, born to French parents, and who burst into our collective consciousness as Chanda in Dev D in 2009, has no sad or traumatic tales of racism to recount. Her expression tells you that even the mention is almost out of place. “For the longest time, I didn’t know I was white. I was a fair Tamilian running around with a bunch of kids,” she says. Later, as a student at the Hebron School in Ooty, she was one of several foreigners, ranging from Japanese to Russian. “I never felt different. If you want to put it like that, everybody there was different,” she says. The neighbourhood kids, the Aurobindo Ashram, and the sea and the sand were her world. “I grew up without religion, with friends of different upbringing and spirituality, reading Sister Nivedita and Vivekananda, speaking French at home, English at school and Tamil with my friends,” she says. It’s this sort of exposure to diversity that makes her see the world as a beautiful place without a bias of ‘the other’. “There is no right or wrong, we are constantly evolving,” she says. And, she sure is evolving.
For the longest time, I didn’t know I was white. I thought I was a fair Tamilian running around with a bunch of kids.
From ads and theatre to web series and endorsements, she is all over the place and always injects an element of realism to the roles she plays. “The most important thing for an actor is spontaneity. Acting is reacting,” she says. “You have to react to the person in front of you. A lot of actors don’t do that, they act in a bubble according to what they have planned. It doesn’t work like that. It’s important to react to the person in front of you, that’s what makes your reaction believable to the audience. You cannot act in a set way, you’d end up playing yourself over and over again.” A keen observer of ‘life’ and ‘people’, she is not hesitant about the need to have formal training in theatre. Doing a course in drama is essential because “it gives you a toolkit, a bag of tricks to dip into when you are not getting a scene right”. Her training was at Goldsmith in London and Adishakti in Pondicherry, where they teach you how to emote through breathing techniques, to evoke emotion, and all the navarasas. She admits she is an emotional actor and uses these physical and learned techniques only when she can’t get the emotions right. “It’s nice to have something to fall back on, like the skills you learned,” she says.
It’s this drive to make it real each time that helps her give memorable performances. What also works for her is that she loves the whole process, particularly the prep that gets you into that moment, “the magic moment” when it all comes together. “It can take you by surprise sometimes,” she says. “You rehearse in a certain way and then suddenly, at the last moment, you deliver the scene differently. That is so satisfying.”
Talk to people. Take responsibility for yourself. Why expect anything from anyone? Find happiness in yourself, by yourself. Why should the burden of your happiness fall on anyone else?
It took six months of prep for Margarita with a Straw. “When Shonali approached me for it, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull it off. I actually refused. She wanted me to take six months to prepare for it. We agreed that if it was not looking authentic even after all that prep, I wouldn’t do it.” Kalki spent that time with Malini, who has cerebral palsy and on whom the story is based. “It’s important to understand people’s daily life and their everyday frustrations. How else can you give a convincing performance?” she asks. It’s this focus that made her interact with mothers when she had to do the role of a young mother juggling various aspects of home and career for Ribbon. “I saw first hand how women juggle so many things, jobs and babies and husbands and household chores. It is so tough. These experiences matter to me,” she says.
Dev D was memorable because it was her first film and won her a Filmfare Award for best supporting actor, female. It was as if she’d been working for this all her life. Not necessarily in Bollywood, but acting in some form certainly. A lot of songs were shot in the Botanical Gardens in Ooty when she was studying at the Hebron School there and she’d try and copy them. “I was always clowning around as a child,” she says. She grew up watching a lot of Tamil and indie cinema. Suriya and Revathi were her favourites. And then she got to play a modern interpretation of Chanda. Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani was most satisfying and what brought her to the attention of children and the masala-movie-watching public. She admits she doesn’t normally do child-friendly cinema, and with this film, she became visible to a wider audience.
As with anybody who has worked with Anurag Kashyap, Kalki is all praise for her first Bollywood director (Dev D). “He becomes invisible and lets you do what you want,” she says. “On his sets, the camera will follow you; you don’t have to stand at a certain spot or at a certain angle for the light to fall in a certain way. With the liberty to move about the set as you please, you can lose yourself in the scene.” Dibakar Banerjee is the opposite. “He’s very specific about what he wants, very calculated. Coming from an ad background he’s used to story-boarding—it’s all very precise. And yet, at the last moment, just before a take, he whispers something random in your ear, like—’see that guy’s moustache’. That throws you off and loosens the nerves you’ve been building up for the scene.”
Discussions are important, but not on the set. “When I’m reading the script there are all sorts of questions and arguments and discussions,” she says. “I need to understand the character. But once I’m on the set, there is no point. Franky, there’s no time to get into philosophical discussions. At that stage, it’s all about getting on with it. I believe firmly that it’s the director’s vision that I’m interpreting. He’s lived with the story long before I came into the picture.”
Certain co-stars bring out the best in her. “[With] Naseer (Naseeruddin Shah, her co-star in Waiting), there’s isn’t much discussion,” she says. “But he is so in the moment, his eyes don’t lie and if you are distracted for a moment, you feel like a fake. Ranbir (Kapoor) is in the moment in a different way. He pokes fun, is cheeky and plays tricks, and that friendship makes for good chemistry onscreen.”
Being a role model to youth is not a goal, but she takes it in her stride. Kalki is not shy of offering her opinion. She is not doing her bit for feminism. It’s the way she is. So whether it’s talking about rape or gender equality, she is forthright with her opinions. That then brings her the type of roles that reinforce the image. “That’s the way people perceive me. I don’t look for those roles, they are offered to me,” she says. “All I want is a story well told.”
Getting away from it all is what keeps her grounded. During a film schedule, the crew can be living in isolation for months without following the news. Some stars go from one film set to another. That puts them in a bubble and is probably why sometimes they lose touch with reality. “I take time out. It’s important to connect with regular people who are far removed from what I do,” she says. Recently, she learned how to surf. Concentrating to get something right is almost like meditation. You cannot think of anything else; the focus is completely on staying atop the board. Physical exhaustion, sleeping, and being by herself help recharge her batteries. Increasingly, she feels the need to reach out to all those people who knew her before she became a celebrity. That includes her parents and siblings and friends from boarding school and younger years.
As with most actors, Kalki watches a lot of cinema. To her there are many kinds of cinema. “Hollywood and Bollywood are too similar; they have a star system. One has the songs and the other the franchise format. Bollywood is only a small part of that. The Indian (non-Bollywood) approach is to explore different ways to tell a story or to act differently. Korean and Japanese explore different ways of presenting something visually.We have great technology in India, but funding remains a problem. In France, the government supports this kind of cinema. Marathi cinema now has some sort of support and they are coming up with some amazing stuff,” she says.
I take time out. It’s important to connect with regular people who are far removed from what I do.
Acting for her is a kaleidoscopic experience, but the one medium she hasn’t tried is television. Nothing has come her way from there. “The stories on TV are different. I don’t fit the traditional bill,” she says. But, she has done a web series. It’s more hectic, for one thing. “More than that, it’s difficult to keep track of the story graph. The director (and you, too) has to be really alert about the last scene you did,” she says.
With entertainment, there is the impact of social media. Its reach is stupendous, but it’s also short-lived. Relationships are being swept along and certain aspects are changing. “There’s restlessness in the world,” she says. “Politics is changing, there’s extremism everywhere, there’s war, people are questioning independence and yet we want some things to remain the same. The contract of marriage is becoming less and less important. That, however, is not going to stop two people from wanting to be together. So many people get married for the hoopla that comes with it. Anurag (Kashyap) and I were happy living together, but my mum always wanted this big Tam Bram wedding for me. I guess I wanted that, too. Anurag’s parents, who are from from Banaras, wanted it because otherwise how could the cousins call me bhabhi?” It’s interesting to speculate on whether they might have had a longer innings without the tag of marriage. She’s nonchalant about it and shrugs it off with, “Who knows?”
The contract of marriage is becoming less and less important. That, however, is not going to stop two people from wanting to be together.
While there’s no magic mantra to what makes a relationship work, she takes a long moment to give it due consideration. This is a young woman who puts her heart and soul into each moment, even a question other actors usually want to brush off. “Stop expecting everything from one partner,” she says. “That person can’t be your distress call for every situation. It’s about balancing each other’s wants and needs. Cultivate a support group. Talk to people. The other important thing, I would say, is to take responsibility for yourself. Why expect anything from anyone? Find happiness in yourself, by yourself. Why should the burden of your happiness fall on anyone else?”
Her parents separated when she was 13. After all these years, they are still not able to be friends. They talk on mundane matters and only when they must. This saddens her and prompts her to say, “I hope I will always have the strength to reach out to people who are not in my life anymore for various reasons,” she says. She is making an effort in that direction. “My older brother lives in Chennai and I’m trying to meet him more often.” She did a travel programme for a television channel last year with her dad. “It was bonding time for my dad and I. We needed this time together,” she says. “When I go home, it’s for quick visits, where there’s dinner together and conversation is often about essentials like, have you got your medical done? Have you paid your insurance? Stuff like that. So, on this trip, we chatted, really chatted about this and that, about films, books and so much else.”
Maurice Koechlin, one of the engineers who gave the world the famous Eiffel Tower in Paris, was her great grandfather on her father’s side. Her father, Joel Koechlin, makes hang gliders, but she hasn’t inherited anything technical from him. “From my mother, I get my love of reading, writing and theatre,” she says. “From my dad, I guess, I get my love for biking and trekking and my sense of adventure.”
Kalki loves to sing, but isn’t a trained singer. She plays the guitar, which she finds therapeutic, and she unwinds with trekking and surfing. She writes when she can’t articulate something. And, of course, turning off the phone always works.
Photos Rohan Shrestha ❖ Styling Abhilasha Srivastava ❖ Assistant to the Stylist Yashmita Bane
Hair and Make-up Angelina Joseph ❖ Text Rukma Saluja ❖ LOCATION versova, mumbai