Kalki Koechlin talks Films, Feminism & Finding Shangrila

Invited by the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival held in Thimphu in August 2015 , critically acclaimed Bollywood star Kalki Koechlin sits with Yeewong and Bhutan Street Fashion to discuss her work, passion, and the place of women in Indian cinema.

“I love it. Can I wear it the whole day?” asks Kalki candidly as we carefully wrap the kira around her tall slim body. Her body type is perfect for the attire as the weaves comfortably hug her silhouette as if very much at home. And wear it the entire day, she did, despite our warning that the koma (shoulder brooches) might make an effort to puncture her shoulders. “It’s fine. I’m good” is her casual answer. “You look so beautiful…like a Bhutanese Princess”, cries the hotel staff who was helping us dress up Kalki, not long before she hurriedly asks for a photo with the actress and disappears to show off in front of her colleagues. And she is absolutely right. The kira is not usually kind to foreign faces, but this time it made a special exception.

It wouldn’t be fair to tag Kalki Koechlin as just a “Bollywood actress” because she is a lot more than that. The Indian film industry may have put the talented French-Indian beauty on the map but this starlet’s made a long journey since her days of doing theatre, writing her own plays, selling weight-loss machines on Tele Shopping, to landing award winning roles in some of India’s critically-acclaimed films. “I started by moving to Bombay to do theatre. I joined a theatre group at that time that was doing a project, ‘Contacting the World’; it was an international theatre project. I found Kalkimyself in Bombay doing theatre but not making enough money so I was doing auditions all the time…every week i was doing two to three auditions. I did a lot of these Tele Shopping ads…advertising machines that make you lose fat but actually don’t. I was doing all of those things to pay the rent and I did auditions for films as well. Dev D was the film that I got. It was an audition that I did in English because my Hindi was very weak at the time as I grew up in the South. I spoke Tamil and I didn’t learn Hindi till I got to Bombay. So at the audition they said, “Can you learn Hindi in two months?” They gave me two months and I got a tutor and went back and they were happy with it so that was the beginning.”

In an industry that is very restrictive to outsiders, one can’t help but wonder how a caucasian newbie actually made it in Bollywood. But that’s also one of the many things fascinating about Kalki: breaking stereotypes. “People did think I was an outsider in the beginning. Thankfully it’s going away now because people understand my background- that I was born and brought up in India. I’m of French descent and my parents have been here for forty years and I’ve never lived in France. I’ve always lived in India. So I say my skin is white but my heart is brown. In the beginning of course people didn’t know my background so they would always ask me, “Do you like India? Do you like Indian food? Are you Russian?” They really didn’t know where I was from. So after a lot of repetitions in interviews telling them, now I think they’ve pretty much accepted me and also now my hindi is very fluent and that immediately breaks down the barrier between you and your audience. So now I’m at a point where nobody explains my racial background in films. I’m just Aditi from Delhi. Bollywood still is very restrictive when it comes to outsiders but it is opening up but more in alternative Independent Cinema than in mainstream Bollywood.”

From being viewed as an outsider to finding a place in both independent and commercial cinema, Kalki believes she loves both sides of the fence in different ways. “Of course I enjoy meaty roles which I get more of in independent cinema and I get more of the sidekick roles in commercial cinema. I love independent cinema for the fact that you can get a lot more into the character and prepare for it. But commercial cinema has its own challenges of still making itbelievable when it’s so larger than life. We still have to make the character very real for people to connect to it. And commercial cinema in India is changing now. I think there’s more requirement for plot and requirement for it to be more content-driven than before. So that’s a really good sign, I think, for actors and for writers to go forward.”

When you talk about Bollywood with Kalki, you cannot help but ask how ironic her situation can be especially when she’s known for being vocal about feminism and women’s situation in India. “It’s a tough situation because part of bollywood is patriarchal and men are ruling the industry. Most top film stars, directors and producers are male but I’ve realized people respect who you are if you’re clear about it. I’ve been clear from the beginning about what I want to do and how I want to do it so nobody has really bothered me. As long as you have a strong personality, you know what you want and you’re talented, you have to work hard too and give them what they need, then you’re fine.

Women are usually sidekick of the hero…a lot of the time. They are the baby dolls who have to look pretty and don’t really drive the plot. I’m generalizing here, this is not the truth for every film out there. But that is changing. There are more and more character-driven commercial films and more ensemble films where it’s about a bunch of people and not just one hero. ‘Queen’ of course is a great example of a heroine being the hero. It’s funny I always get asked what film I’m doing and that time was doing ‘Margarita with a straw’ and they would ask, “Who is the hero?” I said “It’s me” and they’re like “WHAT?”. So it’s a very new concept but it’s happening more and more. I just did a film with Richha Chhada which is about two women on a road trip, bonding, meeting men…so it’s really nice to have that flip side beginning.”

photo by Bhutan Street Fashion

photo by Bhutan Street Fashion

Even for a small film industry, many Bhutanese films do very little in showcasing strong female characters, and Kalki describes how easy it can be to turn into a Bollywood masala film. “I think all you have to be wary of is knowing where the concept of Bollywood came from? It came from making formula films. It means one film became a hit and then people make 10 films like that. That breaks the spontaneity of filmmaking because you’re repeating the same thing over and over again. So that has been squeezed out so much so that people are sick of watching it. I think what you need to do is that even if you’re making a commercial concept whether it’s a love story or any other…don’t repeat it. Go out and find an original plot. I have nothing against wanting to make commercial films or wanting to make big films but I think the originality of the plot is important.”

From playing strong female characters to voicing issues on feminism, Kalki comes across as the new generation of female actors that spring hope for an evolving entertainment industry. And much of her approach to scripts and films source from a strong gender consciousness. “Being a woman, anywhere in the world, you are conscious to gender because you become a victim of it in some way or the other…especially in India where being a woman you are sexualized from an early age. You’re stared at, you’re eve teased or pinched on the bum. So you learn to protect yourself and fight against it. So I was no different in that sense.

My first theatre play that I wrote was called ‘The Skeleton Woman’ and is based on the feminist book called ‘Women who run with the Wolves’. It’s a book about the folktales and fairy tales about women and one of them is the Skeleton Woman. And I was really influenced by it. I was feminist then as well but nobody at that time paid attention because I wasn’t so famous. Now they’re discovering that I speak about these things. And then of course, I was deeply affected by Jyoti Singh’s rape, the Nirbhaya case. I was Delhi at that time, shooting for a film. When this happened everybody was watching the news everyday, going out and protesting on the streets. It was really disturbing to know that in the middle of a capital city, not even very late at night, in a very ordinary situation, something like this would take place. It has awakened the nation to this situation that we have. I wrote a blog about it which went viral. We also did that AIB video ‘It’s Your Fault’ which went viral too because women are always blamed. Why was she going out late? Why was she wearing a mini skirt? Why was she drinking? Why was she with boys?Blah Blah Blah. And the truth is, none of it really matters because there are women in burkhas getting raped, there older women and young girls as young as 4 getting raped. So it’s really about asserting power and dominance over women. It bothered me a lot because it affects our safety, our daily life and how we live it. Women end up doing things subconsciously like how to dress up based on the need to protect ourselves.” With her versatile experience and award-winning performance streak, Kalki also shares her dreams of portraying empowering historical women.

Kalki is yet to explore the land of the Thunder Dragon. With a very tight schedule in place during the Mountain Echoes Literary Festival, she hardly had time to go sight-seeing in Thimphu. “I’m definitely coming back to Bhutan for a holiday. I am a very adventurous person so I’m really looking forward to trekking in Bhutan. The country has amazing landscapes and I’m excited about coming back for a holiday.”

In collaboration with Bhutan Street Fashion and Mountain Echoes Literary Festival

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