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Men explain things to me: Kalki Koechlin

Our cinema makes heroes of men. Women are only add-ons. How does one counter Bollywood’s male-dominated narrative?

Written by Kalki Koechlin | New Delhi |
Updated: March 5, 2017 12:00:10 am
kalki koechlin, margherita with a straw Kalki Koechlin in a still from Margherita With A Straw

Let’s say it out loud: misogyny is very much a part of Bollywood’s fabric. It may not exist in a tangible form, I can never claim to have been a direct victim, but I can’t say that I haven’t felt it either. I have been asked by a producer to Botox away my laugh lines. I have been told that at 30, I should not worry because I still have five years left to my career. I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t bothered me, but I have taught myself to see it for what it is: misogyny.

Of late, there have been talks about the disparity in pay for men and women in the industry. Actors such as Kangana Ranaut and Kareena Kapoor have spoken out against it. But there are many women actors who are shy about demanding more money. It comes from years of conditioning, and it takes much to undo it. I am terrible at it myself, and every so often I have to remind myself that I feel the way I do —insecure about losing an opportunity — because I am conditioned to believe that I am not worth it.

But one cannot view this problem of pay disparity in isolation, it is a direct result of the fact that we tell male-oriented stories. Our cinema makes heroes of men. Woman are only add-ons; in some cases, they uplift the story, but they don’t form the crux of the story. Films such as Piku or Queen are a welcome, but handful exceptions. And, if a woman is not shouldering the burden of the film, then why will she be paid as much as her male counterpart?
There’s an easy enough answer to that. We produce male-oriented films because there are more male writers and directors in the industry than women. And why should that be the case? Because, apart from equal opportunity to women, the female gaze offers an interesting perspective. The series, The Fall, for instance, is a feminist thriller. When you watch it, you realise it’s a feminist story about the violence of men over women in a patriarchal world.

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One of the best counters to misogyny is talent. When people write roles for Kangana Ranaut and she holds up an entire film, that is a push back against misogyny. Success opens doors; it allows you to say “f*** you” to the world. Priyanka Chopra, for instance, is working here and in Hollywood and earning more than many male leads. By laughing at herself, Alia Bhatt takes away the right men believe they have — to judge her based on her looks. Sunny Leone is another great example of a woman who is here on her own terms. She is clear about what she wants and isn’t apologetic about selling Brand Sunny Leone, which she has worked so hard to build. If male actors can build labels for themselves, why shouldn’t she have the same privilege and be met with the same professionalism?

Misogyny shows up in many other ways, too. In the homes of “progressive filmmakers” whose wives eat their meals after they have finished, for instance. This hypocrisy may be as rampant as misogyny, but it’s at least an excuse to start a conversation around feminism. It’s better to have #feminism all over the place than to not have a discussion at all on the subject.

If one has to counter misogyny, feminism is their best bet. And you don’t always have to preach it. Your actions can show the way. The last four films I have done are with women directors: Anu Menon’s Waiting, Margarita With A Straw by Shonali Bose and Nilesh Maniyar, Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj and Ribbon by Rakhee Sandilya. If I make feminist choices, people begin to respond to me on a similar vein.

Kalki Koechlin, Sayani Gupta, Kalki Koechlin film, Kalki Koechlin news, Sayani Gupta film, Sayani Gupta news, Margarita With A Straw, Margarita With A Straw cast, Kalki Koechlin upcoming film, Kalki Koechlin Margarita With A Straw, entertainment news Sayani Gupta and Kalki Koechlin in a still from Margherita With A Straw

Often, I get asked how someone like me, “with unconventional looks”, made it in Bollywood. I always wonder if people mean to ask me how an ugly woman can be successful? But my work has been able to shut those up who said I am here in the industry just because of Anurag Kashyap. It hurt back then when people said my play, Skeleton Woman, was ghost-written and directed by him, that I was only a facade. On some days, I would choose not to fight it, on other days, I would fight it wrongly — by lashing out. It took me a while to understand that it is best to let your work speak for you.

Also read: Kalki Koechlin feels that she has been typecast several times in Bollywood

Today, when I have survived all these years in the industry, I suppose people acknowledge that it’s been on my own steam. I wonder, though, if that would have been the case if I were still with Anurag. Would I been have been able to claim my success as my own then? I am not sure.

Kalki Koechlin is an actor based out of Mumbai. Her last film was A Death in the Gunj.

As told to Dipti Nagpaul-D’Souza

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