Monday, December 14, 2009

Filmi Girl talks to.... Kalki Koechlin!

This is for Bruce Sterling over at A re-post of my interview with Kalki Koechlin from back in April!

Kalki Koechlin’s recent debut in Dev.D garnered notice for her acting abilities but also for her white skin. Although here in America, the nation of immigrants, we’ve come to accept that the names Lopez, Takei, and Modhi are just as American as apple pie, in other countries nationality is still very much a racial issue. The nation-states of Europe are coming to terms with their dark-skinned immigrants, and India is beginning to understand its white population.

(picture from

The middle part of the previous century saw a spiritual malaise descend on the West. Some turned to fundamentalist religion, others turned to consumerism, but a small number of Westerners turned Eastward. The rich and still vibrant spiritual traditions of India drew the open-minded from England (like George Harrison of the Beatles), the United States, and other places – like France, which is where Kalki Koechlin’s parents left to come to India. They were seeking spiritual solace and, instead, found a new home.

As a second-generation Indian, Kalki often finds that the Bollywood industry doesn’t quite know what to make of her. When I asked if her race was a help or hindrance, she said, “It's a bit of both. People are curious and surprised by my performance, but I don't think most people understand that despite my foreign origins, I feel more Indian than anything else.” And though she studied acting in London, she returned to India to make her career – despite the difficulties she would face. “[Returning to India] was not so much a strategic decision as a personal one. I was born and brought up in India; this is where I call home. Even if I travel all over the world, this is where I want to have a base.”

So playing the prostitute Chandra in Anurag Kashyap’s indie version of that classic Bollywood story Devdas was a golden opportunity. However, there is the legacy of the only white actress to have made it in Bollywood to deal with – classic on-screen vamp Helen. Other actresses might be afraid of being typecast as a “vamp,” but Kalki didn’t worry about that – roles are only as good as the actors who play them, after all. “I think when a role is done with sincerity and transparency, when it is taken seriously, it stops being a stereotype,” she said. And the Helen stereotype? “Let's talk about the stereotypical portrayal of women full stop! I think women have been portrayed too often as the sweet virgin or the evil vamp, as black or white, I don't think stereotypes are ever serious. We, as women in the industry, should look to break that stereotype if we want to be taken seriously as actors.”

Well, with actresses like Kalki to turn the tables on the perennial prostitute role, the industry had better watch out! As Kalki is still a bit of a Bohemian, it’s no surprise that she ended up in a film by that industry outsider – Anurag Kashyap. As she says, “I grew up watching films like Salaam Bombay, Phoolan Devi, Swades, Lagaan, Maqbool… I've always enjoyed the alternative cinema in Bollywood more than the mainstream.”

And who knows – the newfound internationalism of Bollywood might lead to more roles for “international” looking actresses. With the very international Slumdog Millionaire making the news these days, I had to ask what Kalki thinks of this new East-West pollination.

“It's a good thing. People from the West are coming to India for filmmaking, maybe filmmakers here will realize the potential we have in India for making very original and different stories that the world can still understand and watch, rather than always trying to match or copy the Hollywood trends.”

And what about all those endless NRI (Non-Resident Indian) movies shot in Australia and London?

“The large NRI communities world over are an obvious trend that Bollywood has picked up on. I think such films are important because they show the modernity of India and that it is not solely an exotic or poor country. However, I also think Bollywood films should focus on India more, because poverty and the exotic are stereotyped in the West, and internationalism is about undoing those stereotypes and understanding what's really happening in each and every country.” I’ll cheer for Kalki’s version of internationalism!

And as is only right for such a broad-minded actress, she draws inspiration from a wide variety of cultural sources. “I watch movies from all over the world. I am inspired by actors and directors who portray the truth about human behavior, who do not separate everything into good or evil, right or wrong, but show the potential for both in everything. I love films like Les Enfants Du Paradis [French, 1945], Contact [American, 1997], Maqbool [Hindi, 2003], Dogville [Dogme 95, 2003 – and one of my favorites, too –FG], Chandni Bar [Hindi, 2001], Declin de L'Empire Americain [French, 1986]. My favorite actors are Juliette Binoche, Irfhan Khan, Tabu, [and] Daniel Day Lewis.”

And the future? “I have no plan except to continue working hard and improving myself as an actor. I want to do more film work and carry on with my theatre work too. Nothing is set in stone as yet as far as signing contracts but things are looking good.”

Well, with her debut film Dev.D the year’s first big hit, I wish Kalki the best of luck in her future career – but somehow I don’t think she’s going to need it!


shell said...

Thanks for this interview with Kalki. I haven't seen Dev.D yet but I've been intrigued by her story. I can't imagine the obstacles she has to go through, but I stand behind her 100%.

We talk a lot on these blogs about exoticism, but not a lot about the poverty side, and I agree with her that both are stereotypes that need to be undone. I posted on facebook not too long ago that I wished I was in India, to which my mother-in-law replied, "Do you know how dirty it is there and how they treat they're women?", to which I replied "I'm pretty sure I have a better idea than you". But that's the type of ignorance that a lot of people have I think.

Filmi Girl said...

@shell Kalki really is one of the more fascinating personalities in Bollywood. In an industry filled with former Miss Universes, it's nice to see somebody getting ahead by using her brains... :)

belly said...

wow...!! she is such a stunner. Being a huge fan of Anurag Kashyaps work, i had closely followed Dev D's promos and always wondered about this pretty lass, who puffs away cigarettes sitting on the couch.
she was wonderful in Dev D. What a revelation. i watched the movie twice once for Anurag and again for kalki.
Just before the release there was an article on her in the TOI banglore times.
Hailing from Pondi..not knowing how to speak hindi... and top it all a French descent,it was too intriguing.
Here's is wishing her all the best for her future.
From all her interveiws on tv and Youtube i have come to know her as a really brave, beutiful gal with brains and an indian english accent LOL...!! sounds funny on a White girl.
Hope there are enuf sensible people, who would like to cast her in some really character oriented roles.

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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