In A New Book ‘Feminist Rani’, Kalki Koechlin Speaks About Her Struggles With Marriage And Womanhood
‘The biggest problem with marriage, especially for a woman, is the idea of ownership: that you belong to me; I own you. Once I got married, I was only invited to the things that Anurag was invited to. People would say, “Call Anurag’s wife.” They wouldn’t say, “call Kalki” or “call Kalki’s husband”. In marriage, a woman becomes the weaker sex, even if her husband doesn’t want her to. This happens because of the way society has built the institution,’ Kalki Koechlin tells me.
It’s surprising that the agency of women in marriage, or the lack thereof, is a phenomenon from which not even filmstars are immune. There is no way for me to imagine this. Like most people, I have nothing to do with Bollywood except to appreciate or censure it. It’s a world I can inhabit only from the outside. But I can surmise this little thing: as someone who was married to acclaimed director Anurag Kashyap, and went through a highly publicized divorce, Kalki understands the role of women in love, relationships, marriage, divorce and conscious uncoupling.
She looks at the rustling leaves of the yellow flame tree outside her window and adds, ‘I don’t think I’ll get married again.’ I try not to show my surprise.
We’re sitting on a large couch at her home, which is stripped down, unpretentious and minimalistic, like her performances. She’s wearing a simple ganji and jeans, devoid of shoes, make-up and jewellery. Her thoughts, her home and her clothes are something entirely unexpected from a screen diva; yet, they befit her. I’ve known Kalki only a few minutes, but she strikes me as someone who doesn’t require material wealth with which to fill her life. She’s already filled it with self-reflection and thought.
She continues: ‘Maybe I’ll find a partner that I want to be with. But I’d want to respect the independence of that person and of myself, because it’s as easy for me to own that person and want them to be mine completely. You have to let go of ego and say: “Okay, you don’t belong to me, but I’m here and you’re free to be with me and I’m free to be with you, and we dedicate a certain honesty to each other.” I believe in honesty as the key to any relationship. Have complete honesty but keep your independence, keep separate friends, if you can afford it, keep a separate place, and keep some idea of life outside each other, so you’re not putting all the pressure on each other.’
It’s a balmy August afternoon in 2015 as Mumbai’s rains beat a hasty retreat. Somewhere in the byelanes of Versova a temple bell rings, clear and crisp amid the noise of traffic, one can hear vegetable vendors and barking dogs. I take a sip of water and look at her.
Bugs Bunny meets Julia Roberts is how the Chicago Sun-Times described her character in That Girl in Yellow Boots. But to me, she’s Audrey Hepburn in the twenty-first century: waiflike, elfin and self-assured. There is an effervescent and radiant quality to her. ‘Women should not have a rulebook on how to live their life. We tend to lose ourselves when we look for approval from the outside. It’s really about trying to be true to yourself and to be honest. I know that it’s easier said than done. It’s easy to be honest in public and in front of others, but to remain honest behind closed doors is quite difficult. Put yourself in a home environment where you have to stand up to loved ones and disagree with those who you love. That’s tough. Being honest is not easy. We all have a public persona that is lovable but to remain honest to yourself at all times is what women could look into.’ ‘Women should strive to live an authentic life,’ she adds sincerely. ‘Why do we need approval from others?’
I agree. But for women in India this is the most difficult part, as it’s been for Kalki too. Like many Indian women who don’t follow a prescribed patriarchal path, Kalki has spent her entire life breaking stereotypes and preconceived notions about her self, her agency and her identity. She has often spoken about the fact that people made assumptions about her when they thought that she was white, when she became an actress and when she got divorced. She broke through that noise and clutter to make choices that have made her one of India’s most admired women. Is there poetic justice in all this?
‘I don’t know if it’s justice, but it’s a great relief to find myself in all of this. There’s always the need to fit in, right? The struggle is to find your individual self. From childhood I’ve been the black sheep, although I was white (laughs). I was the one blonde girl with all my South Indian friends. I wanted to fit in so I spoke Tamil and not English. You naturally try to be “liked” and loved by people. I still want, of course, to be liked and loved by people, but instead of looking out, trying to find approval from everyone else, and losing out on the person that I am, I want to look into myself. The last few years have been about working on myself.’
Kalki talks to me with that same sense of abandonment that characterizes her performances, leaving everything else of herself behind. She’s effortless, in the moment and inclusive. I can sense this in the way she lets her teeth show when she smiles. ‘Because of circumstances . . . coming out of a marriage . . . I found myself alone after a very long time. I had to fill up that empty space somehow. I didn’t want to fill it up by going crazy and getting drunk, or by surrounding myself with people. I chose the introverted version of filling up myself by spending more time at home, more time with the family, going away somewhere and reading books. It proved to really fulfil me. I’m happy I went through that journey.’
Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India.