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Cover Story
January 09, 2011

Kalki Koechlin: Oomph La La!

Text by Sona Bahadur. Photographs by R Burman. Styling by Nisha Jhangiani. Make-up and hair by Manzoor Khan

‘How old are you?’ Abhay Deol’s Dev disdainfully asks Kalki Koechlin’s Chanda in Dev D. ‘Old enough to go to bed with you, darling,’ she shoots back in a clipped accent, stumping him with her saucy repartee. Imbuing the role of a teen commercial sex worker with a rare spark and dignity in Anurag Kashyap’s wildly original adaptation of Devdas, Kalki was unforgettable in her debut film. Two years later, as the sexy actress readies for the release of her new films, That Girl in Yellow Boots and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Verve decodes the K effect

Mélange, a loan word from the French language, is defined by the dictionary as a mixture of disparate components. Derived from the infinitive mêler, meaning ‘to mix’, it perfectly describes Kalki Koechlin’s mosaic-like persona. Hybridity runs in Kalki’s French-Tamilian roots. It’s in the way her individually imperfect features – the ripe strawberry mouth, pug nose and warm brown pixie eyes – come together ever so sexily. It’s in the way the Goldsmiths graduate fuses her theatre learning with Bollywood’s erratic work ethic. It’s in the way she says aiyaiyo with her low French drawl. It’s in the diverse music she plugs into – Joan Baez meets Bright Eyes.

Alors, what’s a girl like her doing in a place like this? One could have asked this question as recently as the mid-noughties and seemed justified. Yet the global, multilayered texture of Bollywood 2011 suits Kalki to the T. Indeed, her eclecticism is precisely what makes her stand out, complementing the experimental comme vous voulez spirit of the times where anything goes as long as it’s pulled off with conviction. Nothing and nobody is an aberration in the current melee of transcultural influences, novel themes and unconventional faces. Not to forget the white-hot gori trend spearheaded by the likes of Katrina Kaif, which has made it easier for phirangi faces to be accepted. Add to this an award-winning debut and Kalki’s ascent in Bollywood seems not just plausible but likely.

Not that it’s been a cakewalk. “It’s funny because there are some people who just have no clue about me. They think I am some Russian who came to India two months ago. They ask me, do you like spicy food? And I’m like, aiyaiyo, I’ve lived on chillies and thayir sadam since I was a kid. Though I’ve not sensed any barriers from people I have worked with, sometimes journalists and fans ask really strange questions. But people are nice to me. It’s not like I am some ostracised outcast,” she smiles between feathery strokes of powder and puff for the Verve cover shoot at the heritage hamlet of Khotachiwadi in Mumbai.

Though many consider her a foreigner, Kalki reveals her connection with her French roots is tenuous at best. Born in Pondicherry to French parents who moved to India in the 1960s, she spent an idyllic childhood in Ooty. Weekends were spent trekking, horse riding and rock climbing. There was sports and art besides studies. And drama club, of course. Her first role was that of a sheep in The Nativity at school.

From playing a sheep to essaying dark complex roles like Dev D and That Girl in Yellow Boots on 70mm, Kalki has come a long way. Passionate about the stage, she describes theatre as ‘therapy’ and the “best playground for an actor”. She thinks of her Goldsmiths education as an invaluable asset that continues to empower her in the mayhem of Mumbai. “If I hadn’t gone to theatre school, I would not have been sure of what I want. Goldsmiths taught me to fight for my ideas,” says the 27-year-old who admits to being a control freak when it comes to her characters. “I can be a pain in the butt. But after I get on the set I try to be spontaneous and improvise.”

On 70mm Kalki has charted the reverse career path to many new actors, beginning with risqué roles like Dev D and That Girl in Yellow Boots and moving to more commercial ventures like Zoya Akhtar’s Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and My Friend Pinto. “I’m glad I started with Dev D where everybody was so down to earth. If you jump straight in with the stars, you’re too scared to ask anything for fear of looking like an idiot.” But there’s a flip side to the trajectory, admits Kalki, miffed at the way her film Shaitan with newbie Bejoy Nambiar is shaping up. “Everybody is disorganised and everything is a mess. Bejoy is a great director but it’s a new team and things are taking time. Working with Zoya has spoilt me! ”

Though she is all praise for Zoya, Kalki confesses feeling a tad nervous when she started working with the film’s ensemble cast of established stars like Hrithik Roshan, Katrina Kaif and Farhan Akhtar. “Then I realised that stars are just people. And if you treat them like people, they are quite normal. Also shooting in Spain we didn’t really see that side of stardom. I was a little disappointed because I didn’t witness any tantrums!”

That Girl in Yellow Boots, which Kalki co-wrote and will most likely be her second release, features her as a British girl who gets sucked into the underbelly of Mumbai when she comes to India to search for her Indian father. “We got a great response at the Venice and Toronto film fests. Some reports insisted the film has this amazing sex scene – which there isn’t much to everyone’s disappointment!”

Post Dev D and Yellow Boots, there is already a perception of Kalki as the poster girl of offbeat, experimental roles in B-town. Does she feel prematurely straitjacketed? “Sure, a lot of scripts that come my way are these dark edgy films. After a while I go, Ok I’d like to be happy now. It’s important not to get stuck. It’s tough sometimes to do low-budget films where you’re not getting any recognition, money or even being treated very well. And yet those are the movies that are going to change things.” She has remedied that to an extent with lighter roles. Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, where she plays Abhay Deol’s love interest, is a coming-of-age film. And in My Friend Pinto, produced by Sanjay Leela Bhansali and directed by Raghav Dar, she is paired opposite Prateik Babbar as a sweet innocent girl role with her head in the clouds. There’s also Happy Journey, a dark comedy directed by Akshay Shere.

Venturing into mainstream films entails the inevitable familiar tussle between being an actor and being a star. Though Kalki craves variety as an actor, she continues to believe strongly in Indie films. “What we called edgy movies or real movies are telling stories that are happening in our country, not in America or elsewhere. In India we have this look-after-our-own household-don’t-worry about-what’s-happening-outside attitude which needs to change. Bribery, corruption, poverty all stem from it. Indie films can make people think about things and make them uncomfortable. The key to evolution is awareness.” Phew, this is getting heavy!

Though she gravitates towards realistic cinema, Kalki admits the films that are doing well currently are “happy, brainless movies.” Could she see herself in a film like Dabangg? “I think Dabangg was great fun. But I wouldn’t have wanted to play the female lead. Because anyone can play a role like that.” The hazel eyes widen in mock horror. “Oops, how am I going to say this and still be politically correct! What I’m trying to say is that it was a typical gaonwali ladki. I didn’t see anything new there. Besides obviously I’m not even going to pass off for a village belle. Some people come up to me and say, you can play this Bihari girl. And I tell them, no, I can’t! I’m realistic about what I can do.”

Not letting her atypical looks deter her, Kalki is working hard to improve her Hindi and opening up more roles for herself. Part of the prep is mastering the mandatory Bollywood latka jhatka routine a la Sheela and Munni. “I have had to learn dance which I am terrible at. I have two left feet. It’s part of my brain wiring that’s not been finished. I haven’t been fully equipped,” she jokes.

The lady’s wish list for 2011 includes doing a new play – she was seen in Skeleton Woman and more recently, Rajat Kapoor’s Hamlet – wanting her films to do well and staying true to what she believes in. She’s keen to work with Vishal Bhardwaj whom she admires for the modernity he brings to Indian cinema and with Dibakar Banerjee who shot her award-winning Coke commercial with Imran Khan. “And of course I want world peace!”

Though she’s not doing another film with beau Anurag Kashyap, she credits him as being a strong force in her life. Their first meeting was far from the stuff of love stories. Anurag was dismissive and rude to Kalki at the audition of Dev D. “UTV had sent Anurag some ‘hot’ photos of mine on the previous day and he was like, ‘I don’t want a model, I want a real actor’. He took one look at me and growled, ‘Um, yeah hello, the audition is there. Don’t come to my room. The casting director will audition you.’” The casting director took a video and she left. Ten minutes later she got a call from Anurag: “You were good yaar, come back!” She still teases him about it.

Kalki brings the calming factor to the relationship. “I tell Anurag not to waste his energy by shouting and getting angry at people and to choose his battles correctly. So I’m that angel on the side, whispering words of wisdom,” she giggles. Fiercely independent, she prefers to make her own work decisions. “I don’t go and ask Anurag about all my films. He is too busy. Besides I go by my own instinct because I’m the one who has to end up doing it. But whenever I struggle with anything, especially writing, he eggs me on.”

Like life and work, the petite beauty doesn’t like to pigeonhole her dressing. Her taste in clothes is unpredictable and diverse, not so much by design but because she gets bored quickly. Preferring to keep her look casual for the most part, she went all out for the Venice Film festival last year where she dazzled in a sequinned off-white gown by her favourite designer Preeti S Kapoor. “I had to cross my legs and be very proper. It was nice to feel all ladylike.”

She adores the boho chic look put together for her by Verve for the cover shoot. “The clothes are fantastic with a very hippie feel. I feel like Pocahontas with all the big coats. Or like I’m out of a ’60s movie like Easy Rider!” Ask her to spell out her personal style and she confesses she gets all mixed up in the head about it. “It’s hybrid and a bit Bohemian. I really don’t know how to describe it.”

Mélange seems like the perfect description.

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