“Expect everything” was a line from a perfume ad, and it so suits Kalki Koechlin — because she has brought a strong whiff of freedom into the cliché-ridden world of Bollywood
If there were a crown for the Bollywood equivalent of an ‘indie queen’, Kalki Koechlin would wear it. She is something of a phenomenon, though she wears the mantle very lightly. In an industry traditionally dominated at two levels — at one, by powerhouse actresses like Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi; at another, by full-on sex symbols such as Zeenat Aman in the ‘80s, Madhuri Dixit in the ‘90s, Aishwarya Rai in the Noughties, and the Katrina-Kareena combo in this decade — this French girl born in Pondicherry, near Tamil Nadu, is nothing like Indian cinema has seen before. She is stunning, sensuous and supremely talented — but until Kalki appeared, this description would have come with a readymade mould into which an actress would
have to fit.
Not any more. Both
she and her films inhabit a free zone between the dark, art-house cinema where wealth meant the unreal, and the purely commercial ventures whose plots
were a patchwork of previously successful films. In Kalki’s world, anything
is possible, and all of it
is eyeball-grabbing good. She has played a young sex worker in love with
an alcoholic (Dev D); an
expat sucked into a massage parlour racket while searching for her father (That Girl in the Yellow Boots); a girl who engineers her own kidnapping (Shaitan); and now, in her forthcoming release Shanghai (June 8), a woman wracked by a death that could be a political murder in a small town gearing up to be as glitzy as the Chinese megacity.
It is her theatre background, perhaps, that lets her slip into any character with such ease; she studied drama and acted on stage in England and has also performed in plays in India. There is one role that would be a challenge, even for Kalki — sweetly batting her eyelashes at the hero just before breaking into a synchronised song-and-dance routine. While we wait for one of those to come along, here is a chat with the actress about cinema, style and me-time.
What does your character in Shanghai go
through that your previous characters have not? What common thread runs through the roles you choose?
Shalini is a very passionate, honest, idealistic and angry young girl. I don’t think I’ve played a character that strives for idealism in the same way that this one does, nor one who is politically aware and passionate about changing the system. But I guess most of my characters follow a certain thread of vulnerability and humanity. None of them are perfect. When I find an interesting character in a script, they are usually full of complexes and emotions, they are never fully sorted people — that conflict in a person really attracts me.
Shanghai director Dibakar Banerjee’s best-known films (Khosla Ka Ghosla, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye) had a huge comic element. Is there any of that in this film, which is billed as a ‘dark political thriller’? What is your comment on the place comedy has in our everyday lives?
Shanghai is definitely a very hard-hitting film and colder than some of his previous work, but throughout the film there is humour — it is just a more satirical and cynical kind of humour. I think comedy is very much a part of life; in some of the saddest situations, you find a streak of comedy. I don’t try to be funny in real life but somehow it always happens. Laughing at my own problems has become a defence mechanism.
Have you been offered a ‘running-around-the park/beach/Disneyland with hero in tow doing synchronised moves’ role? Would you do one for a lark, just to tell your grandkids about it?
I’ve never been offered a full-on romantic Disney-dreamy film. I totally would love to go through that experience. I actually think it would be a real challenge for me to do those sweet, shy glances convincingly!
All these Amitabh Bachchan films are being remade now. Is there one role you would have loved to do, or would want to do if the film came up for a remake?
Generally, I am not a fan of remakes because I feel if a film was great, then a remake will never match it; and if a film was bad, why would you want to remake it? However, if a film personally touches you very much and you feel the story has been forgotten and needs to be retold, then I would want to be in the remake of Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957).
You have a kissing scene with Prosenjit in Shanghai. Much is being written about this ‘wild lip-lock’. Why do you think the Indian media become hyper-excited about every screen kiss when Devika Rani had done it as far back as in 1933?
Well, the reason for lip-locks becoming so controversial is because there was a ban on kissing based on the British censorship code in the 1960s. Although this was lifted in the ‘80s, we still suffer from a moral hangover of what was labelled for a long time as ‘indecency’ in cinema. I have stopped getting bothered by it, mostly because I stop reading news about myself, but I do feel we have quite a few more years to go before we are more comfortable with sexuality on screen again. On a scale of 1 to 10, I think we’re probably scraping a 6 as far as our receptiveness goes right now.
Various political leaders are apparently trying to turn Mumbai into Shanghai, Gurgaon into Dubai, and Kolkata into London. If you could transform something about all of India, what would it be?
Difficult question, because I don’t think we can use any other country as a model for India. India is unique in its historical, cultural and political journey... I suppose more than tranform, I would want to conserve what has been neglected, like most of our historical sites, folklore, and philosophies.
You are now officially a style icon, with full-scale fashion shoots and fashion advice pages in magazines headlined ‘Get Kalki’s style’, etc. Have you begun to feel under any pressure to be ‘styled’ at all times, not repeating outfits?
I don’t have a stylist. There are some designers that I am a fan of, such as Sabyasachi (Mukherjee), Preeti S Kapoor and Nimish Shah and I wear their clothes regularly, but I feel very strongly about being my own product, and dressing the way I want (even if I get it wrong sometimes!) because I think clothes should be an extension of your personality and not vice versa. I have worn the same clothes more than once, I have worn what someone else has worn, and if I meet someone wearing the same outfit as me, I’m likely to say, “Wow, what a great sense of style you have!”
Who is Kalki Koechlin in her downtime? Tell us about your favourite books, music genre, hobby, anything you plan to learn.
Music from the ‘60s and ‘70s — my favourite album is Joni Mitchell’s Blue. I’m a lover of classics — all of Oscar Wilde’s works, Catcher in the Rye, The Age of Innocence, The Little Prince, these are some of my favourites. I also love to be in nature, I love trekking and being out in the wilderness for weeks at a time, to stop, think and breathe. I am learning the guitar at the moment, it is a slow and painful process!