From her 2009 debut with Dev.D, all the way up to her standout performance in the second season of Sacred Games, Kalki Koechlin has made it a point to take up projects that are unconventional and offbeat. She speaks to Rishita Roy Chowdhury about the challenges she had to overcome and the lessons she got to learn in her decade-long film career.
Q. You’ve completed a decade in the Hindi film industry. Tell us about your journey.
A. These ten years have been mercurial and eclectic, with lots of ups and downs. I don’t think there has been a stable moment. It’s all or nothing. I feel lucky to have worked with such different kinds of directors—really mainstream ones like Ayan Mukerji in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewaniand Zoya Akhtar in Gully Boy, to non-commercial ones like Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee in Shanghai (2012). I have also worked with completely new directors: Konkona Sen Sharma in A Death in the Gunj (2017), and Rakhee Sandilya in Ribbon (2017).
Q. What kind of challenges have you faced in establishing yourself in the Hindi film industry?
A. In the beginning it was the Caucasian skin issue. People assumed I was from elsewhere, not born and brought up here, hence they thought I had very little understanding of Indian culture. That’s gone now.
I think the persisting issue is the long wait between good projects, and not knowing when the next project will come. But with time I’ve gotten used to doing other things, like podcasts. I am also going back to theatre and enjoying my free time when film work isn’t on the horizon.
Q. You have worked across platforms, ranging from films and theatre to the web. How have these platforms shaped you as an actress?
A. Doing theatre is quite a process. It engages your body and your mind, all at once. It is like going to the gym. It makes you quite alert as an actor, I feel. When you are shooting a film or a digital series, you have longer periods of waiting in the vanity van, with few shots to shoot a day. At the same time, when you are doing a film, you have to be ready to give it everything, even at a 3 a.m. moment. It’s all about discipline. On the other hand, in theatre, every time when you prepare for your performance, you do an hour of warm-up, voice exercises, yoga and other activities to get into the character and mood. We have to immerse ourselves into the process and only then can we go on stage to perform.
Q. What appealed to you about your role in the second season ofSacred Games? How did you prepare for it?
A. I loved the first season of the series. And when I had to audition for Batya [the character Koechlin plays in the show], I loved the restraint the character had. She was graceful and ever smiling, but underneath it there was a simmering feeling of some kind of a threat about her.
I prepared by working out a French accent, because of the character’s background. I also kept following Pankaj Tripathi on the sets during the shoot, and watching him closely, because Batya had to eventually take over from where he left off.
Q. You have been an active part of both the independent film scene and the digital media revolution in India. In your view, to what extent have these two sectors transformed our entertainment space?
A. There has been a sea change in the entertainment industry in recent years because of these. It’s not only about the quality, content and satisfaction of the audience. One has to take into account how there’s more employment and opportunity how… Not just for actors, but for musicians, writers, crew, etc. There’s also varied content available now which challenges the clichéd and conventional stories of our popular commercial cinema. I think there is healthy competition now [between the mainstream and niche industries], and both can feed off each other and evolve.
Q. Tell us about your criteria for choosing a role. What kinds of roles would you like to play in the future?
A. I’m in as long as the character intrigues me and/or the script is unputdownable. I believe there are many genres and types of roles that I can still explore. I have always dreamt of doing a historical character, a biography or biopic. I think there would be so much of research in the process and it will be really fun. I have always been interested in history and as a student it was my favourite subject. Another thing that I’d actually love to do is an action role, something which is physically challenging, something for which I’ll have to be trained and required to completely transform my body.
Q. Which has been the most challenging role of your career and why?
A. For me, Margarita with a Straw [a 2015 film in which Koechlin plays the role of a woman who has cerebral palsy] was memorable and challenging. It was not an easy film to shoot but when I look back, I realise that it taught me so much. It has made me sensitive to the plight of disabled individuals. It made me aware and alert about the amount of rehearsal you can do for a project. I practised for six months and the character became a part of me. So much so that after the film, when I’d go out for a drink, I’d find myself asking for a straw.
Q. You write poems as well, many of which you have recited on your YouTube channel, Unblushed. Tell us about your interest in poetry.
A. It’s been a part of me since childhood. I always wrote little poems and certain poets really started inspiring me, such as William Blake, whose poems we studied in school. Then there’s Jacques Prévert, whom I discovered later, and Saul Williams as well, thanks to the Internet. I enjoy working with rhythm and performance when I write my poems.
Q. Any particular filmmakers you would like to work with in the coming years?
A. Dibaker Banerjee, Vishal Bharadwaj. And I’d love to work with Mira Nair. I also want to work with Michel Gondry and Sofia Coppola.
Q. Tell us about your future endeavours.
A. I’m mainly focusing on my podcast—My Indian Life. Doing research for its season two for the next two months. Then, there’s a play coming up at end of this year with my company Little Productions. The play is a modernised version of Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov. It’s going to feature an all-woman cast and is directed by Rehaan Engineer.