“Sorry,” a soft voice calls out. “We will have to do the interview like this.” I walk towards the voice — and find myself in a tiny dressing area. Two makeup artistes are putting rollers on Kalki Koechlin’s hair. “Let’s get started,” she says with a big grin.
Koechlin is in her hotel suite in the capital, getting ready for a function where she is going to endorse some brands. She has been signed by online fashion portal Myntra to present her choice of labels and accessories on their website. A company spokesperson says her “non-star appeal” will make her choice of clothes click with the young.
But I am told she detests shopping. So what is she endorsing a fashion portal for? “I hate shopping — but online shopping can be done from home,” she says, beaming some more.
The spokesperson has a point. Koechlin is not your conventional celebrity. In the film industry where most actresses are like clones, she is like a breath of fresh air with a wide, wide smile — famously described as “Bugs Bunny meets Julia Roberts”. The roles she chooses to play are different too — she was a hooker in Dev D, a spoilt rich brat in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and a social crusader in Shanghai. That’s not all: in an industry where women have to remain single to rule, she went and got married to filmmaker Anurag Kashyap just two years into her film career.
But marriage, she stresses, hasn’t affected her career. “Perhaps it’s my white skin,” she says matter-of-factly. “They think I must be of loose morals, maybe a whore. Thankfully, whatever the reason, offers haven’t stopped coming my way,” she says and knocks on wood immediately.
“It’s a hypocritical world,” she muses. “People respect you when you are married. Now that Anurag and I are married, our neighbours smile at me,” she says. The two were married in 2011 after living together for almost two years.
Dressed in a black spaghetti top and grey linen pants, the 29-year-old looks more like a perky teenager than a Bollywood actress. And like the average college girl, she is full of laughter — flashing her trademark smile every few seconds. “I was a gawky teenager with braces. I used to smile with my mouth shut. It was depressing,” she says. “Maybe that is why I smile so often now.”
The rollers have been removed. Her shoulder length brown hair falls neatly in soft curls. Now her eyelashes have to be curled. Koechlin sits like an obedient child as the makeup artistes get to work. She doesn’t even bother to look into the mirror. “I detest makeup as much as shopping,” she declares.
Filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee, who directed her in Shanghai, believes she is a rare combination of a star and an actor. “It’s a nice compliment, though I don’t see myself as a star. I am not bothered about the size of a role or being the lead actress. I am glad if I am part of an original project.”
Her steamy liplock with actor Prosenjit in Shanghai evoked some speculation and interest — with the scene being leaked online weeks before the film’s release. What was that all about?
“We were given orders not to stop kissing till the director said cut. We were kissing for over 45 seconds when I started feeling uncomfortable. I looked from the corner of my eye and saw that the camera wasn’t focused on us anymore. Dibakar had just forgotten to say cut.”
Koechlin’s approach to work is academic. She works diligently, asking for homework from her directors to help her improve her scenes and diction. “I sit with my directors and ask a hundred questions.” She is at present taking Hindi lessons. The Tamil accent — she grew up in Puducherry — in her Hindi is evident. “But I have improved a lot.”
The roles she has played so far have demanded hard work. In her 2009 launch film, Dev D, she is the modern day Chandramukhi to Devdas. In the critically acclaimed That Girl in Yellow Boots, directed by Kashyap and co-written by her, she is a British woman working illegally in a Mumbai massage parlour. In Shaitan she depicts the character of a mentally disturbed girl affected by her mother’s suicide attempt. “People have almost started thinking that I am a disturbed person in real life,” she rues.
So has she been typecast? “Yes, I think so. For every 10 scripts that I read, eight are intense roles. But that’s the threat every actress faces in this industry. Look at Tabu, an amazingly fine actress. She wants to break the mould yet is unable to do so. So now I am being choosy and trying to do different roles. I do not want to restrict myself to any genre.” The two new films starring Koechlin are Ayan Mukerji’s Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani and Vishal Bhardwaj’s Ek Thi Daayan. “Both are different from what I have done till date.”
Koechlin stresses that it’s not easy to find a footing in Bollywood. Her pet peeve is about the Rs 100 crore-club — high budget films with almost set stars and stories. “Most of the movies that have entered that bracket are mere copies of each other,” she says. “It’s insulting the audience’s intelligence. If you serve them McDonald’s every day they will like it, but it’s not healthy. You have to give them spinach and carrot too.”
Diversity has been a part of Koechlin’s life. Her French parents — followers of Aurobindo’s teachings — settled in a small village in Puducherry, where her father runs a business designing hang-gliders and micro-light aircraft. “In my village, I was the only one with white skin. People often pinched me so that they could see my cheeks turn red,” laughs Koechlin. “But then I had Tamil friends, spoke Tamil and was just like them.”
Koechlin went to a boarding school in Ooty before moving to London to study drama and theatre at Goldsmiths. After life in India, London was a bit of a shocker. “Though I looked and sounded like a Westerner, I was still an Indian. There was a reverse culture shock kind of a thing,” she says.
After her return from London, Koechlin moved to Mumbai to do theatre and modelling. She auditioned for several roles but most offers that came her way were of a white girl frolicking in a bikini. So how did Kashyap spot her for Dev D?
“Anurag had been looking for someone for eight months. He had given up hope and didn’t even bother to come for my audition, dismissing my resume as that of just another foreign girl. But the production house UTV wanted me as they thought I was a good looking girl suitable for the part. I went for the audition and the video was sent to Anurag. Some 15 minutes after I left the studio, I got a call from Anurag asking me to come back.”
The audition was in Hindi but Koechlin couldn’t speak the language. She gave the audition in English and was asked to learn Hindi in two months. “I got a tutor and after two months auditioned in Hindi and got the part,” she says.
The film shoot got over and Koechlin returned to theatre. One day Kashyap invited her out to dinner. She politely declined but Kashyap didn’t give up. “At that time I was rehearsing for my play and had no time. So I kept saying no. Moreover, I didn’t want to fall into that clichéd director-actress sort of a thing. He kept calling me over for dinner, I kept saying no. Then he started dropping in for my shows. He sat and watched the same play every night for a week. Finally I said yes to dinner and that was it.”
Koechlin admits that she is romantic at heart. “I am not a high-maintenance person. You don’t have to woo me with expensive gifts but yes, a romantic poem will do wonders.” But Kashyap is yet to write a poem for her. “Anurag would say I am a drama queen. I do need a lot of attention.”
The territory at home is clearly demarcated: neither invades the other’s space. They don’t read each other’s scripts or discuss work at home. “I don’t even know what he is doing half the time. I like to see his work only when it is finished and then give my honest opinion.”
How does she deal with critics? She giggles and says that the barrage of insults that comes her way on Twitter doesn’t bother her. “Someone once said I was Darsheel Safary (the child actor of Taare Zameen Par — and now that she mentions it, I see the resemblance) with long hair,” she laughs. “Thankfully, it has always been about my looks and never about my acting.”
A floral dress has arrived. Koechlin has just about 20 minutes before her event starts. Her makeup artistes now want her to keep her mouth shut so that they can do the rest of her makeup. The beaming smile has to be zipped up. I get up and leave — after all, what’s Koechlin without her smile?