Kalki Koechlin talks to Instep about why she identifies with feminism, her collaborative documentary Azmaish: the Trials of Life with Pakistani filmmaker Sabiha Sumar and the importance of cultural exchange.
There is so much more to Kalki Koechlin, 32, than her extraordinary acting capabilities although they merit a quick review. In the ensemble Zoya Akhtar film, Zindagi Milegi Na Dobara, Kalki essayed the uptight fiancee perfectly. Playing a tomboy in Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani helped her attain commercial prominence while Margarita with a Straw made us wonder at her range. Her portrayal of a teenager with cerebral palsy in the latter film won acclaim everywhere.
In person though, Koechlin is not like the characters she has played. She is both flamboyant and exuberant, as one discovered through our conversation. “I am usually offered scripts like that,” says Koechlin as we begin our dialogue. “I would love to do more comedies, where I end up getting the guy instead of killing him. That’ll be a nice change.”
An actor whose choice of work is driven by “instinctive decisions” rather than deliberate planning, Koechlin is not just a terrific performer but also has an altruistic side. Having spoken up about being a victim of domestic abuse, Koechlin has used her personal history to shed light on this pertinent and all-pervasive issue that has impacted millions of lives in India and across the world.
Declaring with a hint of pride that she is a feminist, Koechlin says: “We cannot have one way of defining feminism; it’s constant dialogue, constant little steps. This dialogue has started happening in the last ten years or so in India; questions of women’s liberation, education for women, equal pay, jobs for women – all these things have become relevant, so that’s encouraging and it has to continue.”
Among her recent moves is a guest appearance in the web-series, Man’s World, which explores what would happen if men and women switched places in society. “Web-series are very interesting,” says Koechlin thoughtfully. “There’s a lot of interesting, forward thinking work. Also, since there’s no censorship, people want to explore this medium in terms of female roles and sexuality, I think. This is a good thing, considering how easily violence is accepted in most films.”
Speaking about Man’s World further, she told Instep, “Do I think a female-dominated world is the solution? No, of course not. I believe feminism is equality between genders, not one gender being greater than the other. We have to seek respect between the genders, understand each other’s differences, understand our strengths and encourage those.”
One reason why Koechlin enjoys being an actor is that it allows her to “live and inhabit many different people” and “understand humanity and the choices that people make.” But as people are often prone to do, there are those who mistake Koechlin for the characters she plays onscreen. “Many times you get mistaken for those characters that you play and constantly have to redefine your image,” she confesses.
Though award shows don’t always validate talent, Koechlin’s scorecard is quite impressive. Apart from picking up multiple nominations over the course of her career, she also won a ‘Best Supporting Actress’ trophy at the Filmfare Awards for her debut film and this she has managed without having a godfather or connection in the fickle film industry.
“I don’t belong to any sort of camp in Bollywood. I don’t have a godfather so to speak, so the fact that I’ve been nominated and won awards is very encouraging,” observes Koechlin. “It goes to show that an ordinary person from the outside world can also win.”
Noting that awards are not the motivation but a bonus, Koechlin says on the matter: “The opinion of the jury can sometimes be personal and sometimes it’s the influence of the public’s vote and popular opinion. So for me, awards are a sort of bonus, I don’t really work for awards, my accolade is my work. The fact that I got a National Award for Margarita with a Straw, the fact that the government recognized a film like that is a big statement in itself, so yes I think it’s important.”
While Koechlin hasn’t had the opportunity to follow Pakistani serials on Zee Zindagi (back when the channel was running Pakistani content), she is aware of the fact that Pakistani artists like Ali Zafar have found work in India, a move that she endorses fully. “I’ve always loved Pakistani music and I think that’s been a great cultural exchange between the two countries.”
Articulating a strong view on how political upheaval has seeped into the arts, Koechlin tells Instep, “I find it thoroughly depressing that political tension can seep into art and we ban artists from working here in India.”
When probed further about the ban imposed on Pakistani artists as well as the three-month ban on Bollywood post Uri attack, Koechlin notes that art helps us in understanding one another. “Art is the place where we’re trying to find ways to understand each other as different cultures, to respect that, to have dignity of life, any form of life and I think that’s why we do art. I think cultural exchange is very important.”
To further implement her approach to border-less art, Kalki has collaborated with acclaimed Pakistani filmmaker, Sabiha Sumar on a feature-length-documentary called Azmaish: the Trials of Life in which she travels through India and Pakistan, exploring the two nations.
“I precisely wanted to take up a project on India and Pakistan that didn’t have to do with conflict, because we only see these two countries in relation to conflict,” Koechlin clears the air. “Sabiha was someone who just wanted to explore these two countries and people’s opinions on their own countries that I found very interesting.”
Koechlin described her experience of working alongside Sumar as a “huge learning curve”. “Sabiha is an extremely sensitive filmmaker, very able to find empathy and bring out empathy in her subjects,” notes Koechlin. “We definitely had our disagreements, and it was quite a learning process to do documentaries and to be myself as opposed to act – have an outside eye.”
Speaking of her shoot in Pakistan, Koechlin explains that she found the country to be “beautiful, with such amazing terrain”. But her visit to Pakistan also had its gray moments as Koechlin recalls a story about visiting the dessert(s) of Sindh where she encountered gut-wrenching poverty and people who no longer dream.
Elucidating on the subject further, she said: “Visiting the deserts of Sindh, in the middle of nowhere where the poorest of the poor live, it takes them four hours of travel to get to water, there are no schools or anything else around. When we asked people what their dreams are, if they could do whatever they wanted to for one day, where would they go, what would they be? They said, “No that’s not going to happen, so why talk about it?” And I think that really disturbed me — that you get to a point where you don’t believe that change is possible.”
Azmaish is currently in the process of crowd-funding through India’s most successful crowd-funding platform, ‘Wishberry’. It has entered the post-production phase where funds are needed for crew fee, sound design, colour grading and edit. The team will start showcasing the documentary at various international film festivals, starting April 2017 and has already locked a deal on delivering the film on German and French television.
“It’s still an ongoing process,” Koechlin says on the matter. “We’re far from ending the documentary, we still have to edit it and put it together. With documentary that is the most important thing because there’s no script and there’s no filming a particular scene, you find your film after you’ve shot it.”
As Azmaish nears its completion, Koechlin already has her plate full. Among her upcoming releases is Rakhee Sandilya’s directorial debut, Ribbon in which she is starring in the lead. The film, Koechlin explains, is an “urban story about a modern couple trying to bring up a child while they’re both working. It’s also about gender discrimination in the workplace when one becomes a mother.”
She has also completed shooting for Konkona Sen Sharma’s directional debut, the drama-thriller, A Death in the Gunj and is now doing Raman Bhardwaj’s film, “on the mining industry and corruption in India”.
Given Koechlin’s diverse film roles and a humanitarian heart, we’re fairly sure that she will continue to leave an indelible mark on cinema as well as inspire others to dream big.