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She plays an NRI in the upcoming indie, Shanghai, but can Kalki Koechlin ever be Bollywood’s blue-eyed girl? Sunaina Kumar finds out what lies beyond the pale for this fearless actress

Photo: Himmat Singh Shekhawat
Hit list: Kalki in Shanghai
Hit list: Kalki in Shanghai

WHEN DIBAKAR Banerjee pencilled the character of Shalini Pearson Sahay in his ambitious political thriller Shanghai, he knew there was only one person who would fit the bill. “The current issue with casting is that you either get a star or an actor, Kalki is the rare person who combines both,” he says. She carries the film on her shoulders, portraying an idealistic NRI who takes on the system, and he put relentless pressure on her. “I can be a cold bastard, but she has balls of steel and did not buckle.” When the movie releases next month, Kalki Koechlin, 28, will take on her grittiest role yet, “armed with an oliver twist hairstyle,” she laughs (Banerjee insisted on the severe look).

Her waif-like slightness belies those balls of steel. She has stayed back in Mumbai for Shanghai’s release, while Anurag Kashyap is in Cannes. At their home in Versova, she introduces the only other occupant, her cat Dosa, who sits atop a vintage cupboard. Kalki had two cats, Masala and Dosa, Masala ran away recently. “We’re now left with sada Dosa,” she stares unblinkingly and then smiles slowly as the joke sinks in. Her quirky humour has a habit of surfacing unexpectedly. She recounts the time she was quizzed by a reporter on her favourite Khan. Without batting an eyelid, she replied, “Genghis Khan” for his flair at looting and plundering. Another time, she was asked what she thinks of Salman Khan. “Salman Khan? Who is he?” The reporter silently tuttutted, bechari, of course she doesn’t know Salman, she’s never done a mainstream film, before educating her.

Her essential impishness has never been unleashed on screen. In her debut film Dev D, she played the child-woman prostitute Chanda, hounded by the demons of her past. In 2010’s That Girl in Yellow Boots, she played a British national in search of her father, who gives hand jobs in a seedy spa. Just when one thought Kalki had explored all shades of grey possible for a Bollywood heroine, she portrayed a psychotic drug addict in Shaitan. Even in a frothy cocktail like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, she was a spoilt and cantankerous rich girl.

In the three years since she started, she’s finally worn off the label of Mrs Anurag Kashyap, a beneficiary of her husband’s nepotism. The films she’s currently working on have nothing to do with Kashyap or his protégés. Ek Thi Daayan with Konkana Sen Sharma is produced by Vishal Bhardwaj. She’s also a part of Ayan Mukherjee’s Ranbir Kapoor starrer Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani. Mukherjee says he cast her because she has no baggage and notions of being a star.

Hit list: Kalki in Shaitan
Hit list: Kalki in Shaitan

Kalki says it’s easier for people to believe that she’s riding on her husband’s success than to attribute talent to her. “If I was an insecure person it would get to me. the truth is we’re two separate people and I’m too independent-minded to depend on him.”

Their home illustrates how the marriage works. In their library, which is thick with books from the ceiling to the floor, the crime fiction and graphic novels that take up most space belong to her husband; the poetry, drama and fiction are all hers. Anurag is a hoarder, she explains. A mirror version of this room is the one next door, crammed with DVDs. His collection veers towards noir cinema, Kalki’s smaller shelf stocks romantic comedies and Woody Allen. In the living room, it’s easy to spot her corner; amidst Anurag’s cult movie posters is a part of a wall with paintings by her favourite French artists, Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and Marie Tissot.

When she auditioned for Dev D, Anurag’s first impulse was to reject her as another skinny firang model in a bikini, till he saw her tape. She did her best to avoid falling into the relationship, she says, to avoid all the clichés, older man-younger woman, newbie actress-director. But he won her with his extravagantly romantic gestures and home-cooked meals.

Anurag says he has imbibed her bohemian spirit. “I now climb mountains, jump into the ocean and backpack on holidays. Imagine a conservative Banarasi man doing that,” he says over a phone conversation. It is endearing to place the image of the hardboiled filmmaker with this man who gushes like a schoolboy in the first flush of love. He breathlessly lists her attributes, she writes poetry and short stories, she makes portraits and she’s adept at juggling. “On our wedding night, she was rehearsing lines forShanghai. Can you hear her right now? She’s practising gibberish in the bathroom for her play, Hamlet, the Clown Prince. She’s crazy.” She’s currently writing a new play to be produced by Quaff Theatre, a group she co-founded in 2008.

Hit list Kalki in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara
Hit list: Kalki in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

Kalki chooses to avoid star trappings, travels by rickshaws, hangs out at Prithvi Theatre and retains the ability to laugh at herself. In That Girl in Yellow Boots, her smile is described as “Bugs Bunny meets Julia Roberts”. “I am not gorgeous. I am the sort of girl who people find prettier once they know me better,” she says. She detests make-up, and has to force herself to go to a salon once a month.

The singularity is a family legacy. Her ancestor Maurice Koechlin designed the Eiffel Tower. Her father Joel Koechlin hitchhiked his way from France to India, where he met her mother at the Auroville Ashram. They moved to Kallatty, a village near Ooty, where Kalki was born and where she got married last year. Her father set up a business designing hang-gliders and microlight aircrafts, catering to the tourist rush in the Nilgiris.

Kalki says it’s easier for people to believe that she’s riding on her husband’s success than to attribute talent to her

Kalki’s earliest memories are of a spartan lifestyle with no television and occasional holidays taken in India. “She learnt Tamil before other languages. She’s the daughter of the village,” says her mother Francoise Armandie, who’s called Kalki Amma by the villagers. Kalki feels that the word hippie has been corrupted with connotations of a charsi, useless tourist. “My parents were a part of a social movement, of a searching spirit that brought them here to lead an ideological life. They came with nothing and had to create careers for themselves,” she says. As an actor, she has chosen some of the uncertainty and living on the edge, but she rues that she does not have as much freedom in her as her parents.

AFTER BOARDING school in Ooty, she majored in theatre at Goldsmiths College in London, where she received a reverse cultural shock, out of place and conservatively Indian in a foreign environment. In India, she was used to explaining that she’s born of French parents, but scratch the surface and she’s more Indian than most Indians. Some of the angst of being perceived as a loose-moraled white girl was channelled in That Girl in Yellow Boots, a film she co-wrote with Anurag Kashyap.

Banerjee says that Kalki is the essential outsider and that is not because of the colour of her skin, but because of the work she chooses. “If you do not align yourself with big budgets and stars, and work on the side of merit, you will always be an outsider. But I know she enjoys that fight just like I do.” Zoya Akhtar, her director from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara says that Kalki cannot take on roles that require innately Indian looks, like Sonakshi Sinha’s part in Dabangg, but her strength is that she is not bent on creating a slot for herself.

The white-skinned woman has usually occupied the item girl slot in films. Kalki upsets that equation. Film critic Nandini Ramnath thinks that her timing is perfect. Had she come a few years earlier, filmmakers may not have known what to do with her. “Writers and filmmakers may have to create ‘half-breed’ characters to justify her presence in a story. The number of such offbeat films is low, so it’s possible that she’ll be regarded as a niche but nevertheless striking performer for quite some time.”

Filmmakers who have worked with her attest to her staying power. She feels there may be a time when they will stop writing roles for a white girl. But Kalki being Kalki is not too worried. As her husband says, “She likes things unplanned.” The bohemian in her will pack her backpack and find a new destination. Besides, she will always have theatre, writing, and poetry. She quotes her favourite lines by TS Eliot, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

Sunaina Kumar is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.
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