Ahead of her latest release, Margarita with a Straw, where she plays a teen with cerebral palsy, Kalki Koechlin talks about being a ‘white Indian’ in the industry and her separation from Anurag Kashyap.
Rarely do films like Margarita with a Straw receive the kind of response they deserve. Do you agree?
Yes, thankfully, the film has been appreciated by a cross-spectrum of audiences. I first watched it at the Toronto International Film Festival where it premiered. The audience comprised a large number of Punjabi aunties and I was nervous about their reaction. But they enjoyed the film, laughing and crying with the characters. That’s when I realised it’s actually a family film about this teenager Laila — in this case suffering from cerebral palsy — and her relationship with her mumma, papa and brother.
It also faced trouble with the Censor Board.
One of the scenes they had a problem with was where Laila takes help of a guy to use the washroom. They objected to the ‘nudity’ in it although it showed nothing. Shonali (Bose, director) had to take Malini Chib’s (the inspiration behind the movie) father along who had to explain to the committee that when he needs to help his daughter use the washroom, it’s something that happens. The censor board members need to have some sensitivity towards such issues.
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How much time did you spend with Malini to prepare for the part?
Six months. At the time I was shooting for Yeh Jawaani Hai Diwani and also co-writing Atul Kumar’s play Colour Blind. On the weekends, when I was free, I’d stay over at Malini’s place, which allowed me to watch her and her family in the personal space, like how she changes her pyjamas or brushes her teeth. But every day I also spent a few hours being Laila, for instance, making breakfast in Laila mode or talking on the phone like she would. The idea was to make it muscle memory so that I don’t seem inconsistent on screen.
Isn’t that like rehearsing for theatre? Do you follow a certain ‘process’ for each character you play on screen?
Not really. In Dev.D, I was pretty much myself. For that role, my ‘process’ involved focussing on my Hindi dialogues because my Hindi was bad (laughs). And I had to concentrate on delivering my lines without blinking because the camera captures everything. Then, I wasn’t really thinking of the depth behind what my character is doing. I just did not want to waste my co-star’s time and production’s money.
It’s only over time that you get to exploring or adding nuances to the character. Like my part in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara — I am so not the person who wears high heels and totters about like a poodle. But for the film, I asked the stylist to give me the most uncomfortable heels that I would wear even during close-up shots to acquire the body language — I would instantly feel like a meerkat.
You’ve worked with leading directors in the industry. Do you feel the industry’s been accepting of the white girl, usually relegated to play the vamp in Hindi films?
The country has double standards — it’s obsessed with fair skin on one hand but if the woman is white, she is expected to be loose-moraled. I, in particular, am in a confusing spot because I am Indian but I am white, which people don’t get. So often I find myself struggling to explain my Indianness. Most people will ask me if my father is Indian or mother? But, yes, the industry is more accepting now. They don’t ask me these questions anymore.
How is it being a single woman in the industry?
When your private life has been dragged into public space, you tend to attain a zen-like composure. It was a difficult time when Anurag (Kashyap, her ex-husband) and I were separating, made worse by the fact that every other day there would be reports in newspapers stating that either he is having an affair or I am.
People would give me the look of pity, asking if it was true that Anurag was having an affair with someone. I would get asked, ‘How are you?’ in a tone which got to me after a while. Some days I would want to scream back saying, ‘I feel like shit, what are you going to do now? Counsel me?’ But to be honest, I faced more problems outside. I recently had to give up my apartment and look for a new place, which was a nightmarish experience merely because I was single and separated. I didn’t have this kind of trouble finding a house six years ago.