Her French is flawless. Her teenage crush was a Tamil film star. She holds a Metro Playwright Award in one hand and a Filmfare for Best Supporting Actress in the other. Kalki Koechlin (pronounced Kek-lan--I asked) is an enigma, albeit an adorable and gifted one. As she flashes her trademark contagious grin, I catch up with one of Bollywood’s boldest new talents for a tete-a-tete on her past, her future, and her next release: hubby Anurag Kashyap’s That Girl in Yellow Boots.
You’re what they call a third culture kid: born to French parents, raised in Bangalore, studied and lived in London. What was it like growing up as a minority in India?
You know, I never really thought of myself as “not Indian.” I felt Indian in every way: I spoke Tamil. All my friends were South Indian. And I even used to stare at foreigners with them. It’s only when I started growing up that I started noticing people looking at me a lot more. They assume that I’m a foreigner, and sometimes it can be annoying. They’ll say things like, “do you like spicy food?” Or they’ll rip you off for things and then you speak in their language and they’re like “whoa!” But it is probably better than how it was in the past. And obviously there’s a space for me here, since I’m working in Bollywood.
You later went abroad for university, so was there a reverse culture shock once you left India?
It was strange because suddenly, nobody noticed me! And I realized, “hey, I don’t stand out here.” Also, I was accustomed to a certain kind of lifestyle in India, where people are a lot more open. You can just knock on someone’s door, there’s no appointment, everyone shares food together in the tiffin, stuff like that. London was a very insulated and individualistic world. So that was hard to get used to.
You studied drama and theatre there. Is that where you got into playwriting and screenwriting?
I’ve been writing poems and short stories since I was a kid, for my own pleasure--or therapy, whatever you want to call it! When I studied drama in England, I was always working in theatre groups and we did a lot of devised work. Rather than taking a script and learning the lines, it was taking maybe a news article or a story, and then developing it into a script with other actors. So it was a very organic process. Now, having had more experience, I’m becoming more confident as a writer. For the moment though, my purpose is acting.
Can you tell me a bit about how the idea for That Girl in Yellow Boots began?
It was completely Anurag’s idea, based off totally unrelated stories he found in the newspaper. One was about a German girl looking for her father in India, and the other was about sexual child abuse in India. Then of course there are always the seedy massage parlors all over the city; he wanted to combine all those into one story about this girl’s journey. When he asked me to write it with him, I actually said no at first. I just thought, this is really a difficult subject to write about. And it was only Anurag’s persistence, as usual, that convinced me. (laughs)
Was it tough juggling your marriage with this professional partnership?
The writing process was much easier because I would write, then give the script to him and he would write or criticize and give it back to me. There was no collaborative writing and I think that’s better because you’re allowed to think freely and write what you want. But when we got to shooting it, there were a lot of disagreements. I really had to make a conscious effort to think “Okay, my job is over as a writer and now I’m just acting and I have to focus only on that.” We barely talked to each other--I remember many silent trips back to the house.
Your character, Ruth, is a pretty intense, determined individual, and goes through a lot of physical and emotional turmoil. How much of you is in Ruth?
Yes, there are definitely similarities with her. Being that I am also white-skinned, I’ve also had a lot of experiences with men looking at me differently or flirting. They wouldn’t approach an Indian girl in the same way that they would a foreigner. I’ve had my butt pinched, I’ve been offered drugs. So those things I found easy to write about. Other things have been totally from the imagination, like the young sociability of the character: listening to a lot of heavy metal music, and the way she dresses. So it was a combination of imagination and personal experience. The climax of the film was very difficult for me to write about because I couldn’t relate to it at all.
You’ve really pushed the envelope of standard boundaries when it comes to subjects like sexuality, prostitution, drugs, and alcohol. What are your thoughts on how the audience has reacted to your work so far?
I think people are only shocked for about a minute. The young audience especially is very ready to accept it because they’re downloading and streaming all sorts of stuff, and they’re not really shocked by anything--and rightly so. They should know what’s going on in the world. We underestimate the majority of our youth, and I hope that more actors come out with real subjects, not necessarily bold. I think some of the item numbers we have in Bollywood are extremely bold! But they’re exteriorly bold, not interiorly bold. And for me it’s more interesting to see the inner angst of a person.
Your next film, My Friend Pinto, is a complete 180-degree turn from Yellow Boots. Can you tell us a bit about what to expect from it?
MFP is a comedy and all the characters are about three times louder and bigger than they’d be in real life. So the bad guy is like (attempts an evil sneer) “har har har” and my character is this wide-eyed, innocent girl who thinks there’s nothing wrong with the world. It’s really over the top--but it’s kind of making fun of that kind of cinema, so it’s got nice layers to it. It’s still a darkish fairy tale about a boy’s very innocent point of view on Bombay and the not-so-innocent characters within Bombay. And I’m sort of his other half. It’s a totally fun film.
You’ve done a bit of everything: Indie, mainstream, romance, comedy, drama…what are you hungry for next?
Secretly, I’d love to do a biography. I think it’s awesome to do a historical character, someone who you need to do so much research for. If they’re alive you can interview them, or if not you can read up on them.
Any particular historic figure you’d like to play?
I find the story of Joan of Arc amazing, although it’s been done so many times. There’s also a less famous figure, Sister Nivedita, she was this Englishwoman who came to Calcutta when she was 22 and never left, and she did a lot of work with women’s empowerment and set up a lot of schools. I’d actually also love to do a full-on action film. I’m a very hyperactive person, so I’d love to learn some hardcore martial art or something.
You identify as Indian but you clearly have a distinct look, background, and place within the industry. How does that play into the kind of roles that you’re given?
I’m never going to play the Bihari gaonwali ladki, it’s just not realistic. But having said that, there’s a lot for me already. For Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, for example, Zoya [Akhtar] didn’t explain the background of my character; she was just a South Bombay girl. It was nice not having to put on an American or an English accent. So within my limitations, I think there are a lot of new filmmakers who are writing about a smaller world which is more globalized, and also about urban India which really does contain a mix of everything.
Let’s wrap it up with a rapid-fire round. Anurag the director or Anurag the husband?
If you took the director out, he wouldn’t be the husband that he is.
Biggest pet peeve?
When people ask me to sing and dance like I’m some kind of circus clown. I’ve actually had people in interviews ask me to “just sing one line, no?”
Your weirdest quirky habit?
When I get angry, only one eyebrow goes up. (demonstrates). I don’t do it consciously, it’s pretty embarrassing.
Favorite prank to play on costars on set?
Fake an injury. Or sometimes fake deep sadness and being upset with somebody. They’re so used to me being so hyper and bubbly that when they see me like that they get really worried that they did something wrong.
Biggest childhood movie-star crush?
The Tamil star, Surya. Also Harrison Ford, in Star Wars.
The item number you wish you’d done?
I have to say, I liked Munni…OH!! But I really liked Beedi Jalaile. I’d go with that. That was one hot song!