“Feminism is important as we form half of society, so there needs to be a balance in terms of views and how we look at cinema” – Kalki Koechlin
Kalki Koechlin is an Indian-born French actress and writer, who lives and works in India. Known for her unconventional body of work in the Hindi film industry, she is the recipient of such accolades as a National Film Award, a Filmfare, and two Screen Awards. Koechlin was conferred with the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture for her contributions to cinema. She is known for her work in Dev D, That Girl in Yellow Boots, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara, Shanghai, Margarita with a Straw, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Gully Boy and more.
Q.You are a very successful actor, and have worked across all platforms such as films, theatre, TV, and web series. What led you to pursue your career as an actor?
When I was in school, I used to love being a part of our drama production. We used to have a drama festival every year in the school. The first role I ever played was of a ‘Sheep’ in the Christmas nativity and then the second role I played was of a ‘Tree ’ in another production. I got my first proper role as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Eventually, I went to study drama in London and that’s how it all began for me.
Q.What challenges did You face when You started out? What took You to be here?
What it took for me to be here was the language. I was giving a lot of Tamil accent into my Hindi dialogues in Dev D, so I had to really work hard on that. I had a tutor to teach me she would make me put a pencil in my mouth and say the dialogues, so that I pronounced the syllables correctly. Another challenge was finding a role that I wouldn’t be stereotyped in. If you start out with a certain role, you get boxed in and you set expectations that you have to break by not being repetitive with the roles I act in. So, I had to make sure that I found roles that were suited to me, but were also different than what I had done before.
Q.A lot of your movies have addressed taboos and issues regarding women. Why is feminism important in today’s era, and what reforms do you want to see for women in the industry?
I think feminism is important because we form half of society, so there needs to be a balance in terms of views and how we look at cinema. If you have a female director or writer, there is a different perspective. I’m not saying one is better than the other, but both are necessary, both male and a female view. In our industry women are still categorized and stereotyped, so I think we need to get away from stereotypes. Even male heroes, we don’t see them as vulnerable or them having shades of grey. Our industry has changed in some ways, but we still have a long way to go. Women need to be represented as humans rather than objects.
Q.You extensively campaign for gender equality across various forums and platforms. You also once mentioned that equal pay won’t happen because of the existence of a hero-based industry, and that only when women-lead roles are the norm and not exceptions that we can expect equal pay. Do you think that the rise of web series with well-integrated characters and storylines will pave the way in cutting the wage gap in our industry?
I think it is one of the ways that can bring about change. If you look at female led projects like Leila, Piku and Queen, female actors were being paid equally as the males. I think the narrative will dictate that, in terms of when female actors start bringing in as much as male actors do, because producers are looking at it from a business point of view. If someone isn’t bringing in that revenue, then they can’t be paid at that level. It is a business-minded approach, I don’t think it is right or wrong, but that’s how it is. Many web series are focusing around female characters and the storylines are more developed, so it is one way in which the situation is changing for female actors.
Q.Indian censorship has always divided opinions among the masses. What do you think of the creative freedom that multimedia on digital platforms offer, and their ability to showcase topics that are considered taboo in Indian society?
There’s always a good with the bad with censorship. When there’s no censorship, everyone goes wacky and wants to talk about sex and put in gaalis (abusives). I think that there will be a shock value that comes from very bold in terms of contest. At the same time, there is a need to be more realistic. If someone is playing a character that gives gaalis, that’s their character not the person, it is a part of the story. It makes sense that there is certification for kids because their content needs to be age appropriate. However, as an adult, I don’t think censorship is ever necessary. It’s really up to you and what you choose to watch. Otherwise, when will we ever grow up? The industry has used the objectification of the female body to titillate its audience, as seen in a lot of ‘item number’ songs. I think that is far more objectifying than seeing a naked woman. Even with the gay community, it is important that they are represented on screen without being stereotyped, as heavily as they have in the past. The audience needs to see that because so many people have this image of how a gay person, or a woman should be like, so it is important to showcase the reality of it and how they are human beings at the end of the day.
Q.The Indian LGBTQ+ community have made major strides in recent times. What are your thoughts on the community’s representation in Indian cinema, and what steps do you think can be taken to integrate them into mainstream cinema?
A lot of commercial films still stereotype them heavily, and they are often portrayed as sidekicks in those movies. I think it is very important that someone in the non-acting team of the film is a part of the LGBTQ+ community because they can give a very realistic perspective on the portrayal of the character. Having someone in the crew or the creative team of the film will go a long way in showcasing an authentic, realistic portrayal of such characters. Integration of the community in the making of the film will help improve the community’s representation overall.
Q. You work a lot to raise awareness on child sexual abuse, child education (active during) environment, animal rights and a lot more. What concerns do you have these issues?
I have huge concerns about these issues. I don’t know the exact numbers, but almost half of our population is sexually abused and we don’t take action on it. We have to educate not only the children, but also, the parents and teachers because they are so afraid to talk about the subject of sex to children. They don’t know how to approach, so these kids get all this from their friends or from social media when they aren’t really mature enough to understand it. So we need to reach out to the adults and encourage them to educate the children so that they are informed correctly and through trusted sources.
Q. Can you talk about an incident in your life that inspired you to pursue your dreams? What role did your family play and how did they support you in your journey?
A lot of things have inspired me. I grew up in a household where I got to watch a lot of cinema. My parents showed me a French movie called Les Enfants du Paradis, a classic black and white movie about theatre. Watching the mime artists not speak, but express without words, was powerful to watch. Growing up watching cinema made me love it because I admired how it could evoke so many emotions within you. My parents were always a bit worried about me, but they never stopped me from pursuing what I wanted to. I was able to study abroad in London because of my grandparents, who paid my fees, and I am grateful to them. My mom advised me to become an author because she was always worried that I wouldn’t get enough work as an actor, and my dad’s only advice was to not get pregnant. We would also argue over my choices, and I would keep reminding them how they never even went to college and moved to another country when they were young! Even though they had these worries, they never stopped me from doing this and once I started getting work, they were very happy.
Q.You are an inspiration for many. What advice do you have for upcoming actors and content creators?
Try to find originality and authenticity in what you do. Every story has been told, and every genre has already been explored. It’s all about what you bring to it and how you’re different from everybody else. So, use that in your work because that’s all you have.