Hell, yeah, this is a girl with an agenda. And, it isn’t your usual body sculpting, followed by quinoa salad, gruelling day on the sets, chased by a nightcap of Twitter time with followers and fans, kind of agenda. Kalki Koechlin, along with two of her lawyer friends, has drafted a manifesto, er, sorry, a ‘Womanifesto’, demanding better rights for the half billion women of India in their domestic and professional lives. With AAP’s public endorsement already in the bag, the idea is to get every political party to commit to this charter of demands, so that when the new government comes to power, they can be pressured into delivering, with no opposition from any quarter. The charter covers issues such as education, legislation, equal employment opportunities and salaries, and representation in policy making. (You can support this Womanifesto at avaaz.org). And, no, Koechlin is not contending for a seat in parliament against Nagma or Hema Malini. She just feels it’s about time Indian women stopped being bystanders in their own lives and stood up for themselves and each other.
Is this petite half girl-half woman a raging feminist? If your definition of a feminist is a male-bashing, oestrogen-overloaded militant, then she most certainly does not fit the bill. She prefers to call herself a humanist and believes in equality across the board, regardless of gender, race, colour or nationality. Women constitute a significant demographic in the inequality equation, especially here, admits Koechlin. “It’s just about correcting the balance of power,” she shrugs, “That’s all.”
It’s precisely with this lack of guile that Koechlin took the stage at the India Today Conclave last month, curled up on an armchair in front of India’s cognoscenti, and delivered a 16-minute monologue on the urgent need for women empowerment. Bare and brutal, her piece was extracted from her personal poems and diary jottings. The standing ovation paled in comparison to the deluge of hits and accolades that continue to pour in for the YouTube video of this monologue titled ‘The Truths of Womanhood’. At the core of the monologue is a plea to women to support one another instead of bringing each other down. “A woman’s suppression manifests in her reaction to other women,” she says.
The pressure women feel to conform in the way they look and the roles they play leads to an absolute loss of identity and a resultant inability to be able to exhale and be themselves — this is Koechlin’s interpretation of the truth about womanhood. In Bollywood or outside, it’s the same story. With role models such as Sita, Draupadi and Sati, our culture attaches a huge value to the dutiful woman who does as she is bid, without question. “The whole world keeps going on about educating the girl child. But, even if the girl is super-educated, how does it change anything if the man she’s with has been brought up with chauvinistic values?” she asks. “It’s the boy who needs to be educated the right way, be taught to recognise the woman as his equal.” Koechlin has a point so sharp, it almost hurts. Must be the unusual diet she’s grown up on — hearty amounts of Krishnamurthy, Vivekananda and Aurobindo served with a dollop of French cinema.
So, how does a girl who looks the way she does and thinks the way she does fare in Bollywood, one wonders? Her non-desi looks do work like a restraining order sometimes. “I so want to work with Vishal Bhardwaj, for example. He loves me as an actor. We have a great connection. But, all his films have rustic, ethnic sort of leanings. I just don’t fit in,” she grumbles. As for the mind, she’s quick to point out that Bollywood is home to quite a few cerebral female actors today who prefer to keep it under wraps, in case it threatens their chance of success. “Hey, at the end of the day, like the casting couch, it’s a personal choice.”
There are enough directors in the industry who are creating women characters that go beyond the hot-chick stereotype. This doesn’t mean Koechlin gets to play the intellectual in every film. But, when she does play the ditz, i.e., Natasha in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, there’s a very good reason for her to be so in the film, a real context for that character. “I wouldn’t mind playing an item girl in a Vishal Bhardwaj film, for example. He does his item girls so well,” she says. The role that most resonates with her is that of Aditi, the bohemian clown/buddy in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. That’s Koechlin inside out. Her bucket list, interestingly enough, includes characters such as Nadia Hunterwali and Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc? Is that a throwback to her French ancestry? Not really, Koechlin is more of a masala dosa than a crepe jambon. Born and brought up in a little fishing village near Pondicherry, she spent her childhood shunting between her parents’ farm and boarding school in Ooty. The first time she stepped on French soil was as a shy gawky ten-year-old, who “couldn’t stop staring at the white-skinned foreigners”, she says with disarming gaucheness. “Thollevelle, manse karpe,” she mutters in Kannada between peals of laughter. “One of skin white, but heart black — that’s me, desi to the bone.” Hiking in the mountains is her idea of a recharge and she’s off to Peru soon with her BFF on a girlie bonding trip. Real life mimicking reel life, for a change.
Speaking of reel life, Koechlin says that after Rosie in Guide, it’s been a regressive three decades for women characters in mainstream Indian cinema. The volume of money riding on the films these last few years has strangled the appetite for risk, she claims. The reason we’re subjected to the never-ending spate of masala films with their classic archetypes — the demure heroine, angry hero, lecherous villain and his slutty moll. But, now, things are a-changing. Queen and Ankhon Dekhi are indication enough that people are back to experimenting again. “It’s not just about weaving fantasies anymore. The public seems to be ready for a dose of reality. That’s why Anurag Kashyap’s real, gritty films do well. He doesn’t believe in bubble-wrapping anything.”
There isn’t a moment’s hesitation when probed on the status of her relationship with Kashyap. The whole marriage construct came with too much baggage for this free spirit. The child of divorced parents, matrimony lost its appeal early on. But, it was important for Kashyap’s conservative family that they be married. The trouble in the relationship, she says, began soon after she became Mrs Anurag Kashyap. Directors who would earlier approach her directly for a role would now approach Kashyap instead. She was dropped from the shortlist of one particular role because it wouldn’t be right for Kashyap’s wife to play a sexy siren.
“Society starts viewing you as one entity once you get married, with none of the characteristics of the individual. Our relationship has always been based on debate and argument. It worked for us. But, the world wouldn’t allow us our personal space, our disagreements, our differences.” The break, she feels, has been good for both of them. It’s allowed them to grow in their own selves, rather than having to forcibly steer themselves in the same direction. “We are not romantically together at this time. But, the partnership
that we share isn’t something that’s going to go away.
We’ve been through too much for that.”
What’s next? She doesn’t believe in plotting trajectories and planning strategies. She lives in the moment and plunges heart and soul into whatever it is that the moment brings. Right now, all she wants to do is closet herself from the world for a week and write down the story that’s dancing in her head. Theatre is her first love and people such as German dance pioneer Pina Bausch and Canadian theatre director and playwright Robert Lepage are her heroes. Pushed to share her ambition, she chews on her lip for a bit and says, “How liberating if I could be the female George Clooney of Indian film industry – grey, portly, but always always in demand.” Figures. Kalki is Sanskrit for eternal.