A film like Margarita, With A Straw would only come to me once in a lifetime – Kalki Koechlin
She portrays people who are chalk and cheese with equal finesse and aplomb. She makes her presence felt in hard-hitting surroundings as well as larger-than-life settings. She is Kalki Koechlin, who will be soon seen in diametrically opposite movies, Happy Ending and Margarita, With A Straw. In an exclusive chat, the young lady talks about her roles and what makes her tick as an actor.
Margarita, With A Straw is an important and rare film. Obviously one can’t say no to it. So what really compelled you to take up the role of a person suffering from cerebral palsy?
I knew something like Laila (her character’s name in the film) would only come to me once in a lifetime. You don’t get to do such a challenging role, especially of a woman protagonist who is in a wheelchair. It’s hard enough to have films about disability and that too a female lead makes it more difficult. I am a greedy actor who jumps at the chance to do something exciting.
Shonali (Bose, director) emailed me and I knew nothing about her. But Margarita, With A Straw (MWAS) had already won the Sundance Festival’s Best Script award. So that instantly got my attention because Sundance does some very interesting independent films. I read the script and immediately liked it but also told Shonali that I was terrified of doing the part. She wanted to go on floors in three months and I was already shooting for Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani (YJHD). So I wasn’t sure if I could do it as I needed six months of training. She almost went ahead with someone else, but then came back to me and was willing to delay it as she wanted me to do it.
What preparation did you undergo to get into the skin of Laila?
One of the biggest things Shonali helped me with was introduce me to her cousin, Malini, who has cerebral palsy. Malini works in a center for disability called ADAPT in Bandra (Mumbai). I spent a lot of time with her, lived with her, went drinking with her and watched movies together. I obviously went to her workplace and saw people interact with those who have cerebral palsy. I also worked very closely with Malini’s physiotherapist and speech therapist to try and understand how the muscles work and speech works. I also spent a lot of time in the wheelchair. Sometimes I would spend four to five days in a row doing all my daily activities, from morning to night, in a wheelchair. That was the important work. Technically one can’t understand everything until one does it. It has to become muscle memory and part of your body. That’s the essential part, I think.
What brief did Shonali give you while preparing for your role in Margarita, With A Straw?
She said: ‘This is not some hammy Bollywood film. You have to work very hard and spend and dedicate a lot of time for it. And, BTW I don’t have any money’. She did pay me eventually, but really it was a work of passion from everybody. We all put our time and energy into it. Thankfully it has all paid off as it is releasing across the globe. But while making it we weren’t sure if it was going anywhere.
Often people with disabilities are caricaturized (exaggerated physical movements and loud mannerisms) in movies. From what one sees in the trailer you are a natural. Was it a conscious effort?
It’s a big responsibility because you are representing a whole group of people so it was important for me to try and get it right as much as possible.
In MWAS you share quite a few intimate moments, that too with a woman. Were you comfortable with the sex scenes in the plot?
The whole story of MWAS is only about her journey as a young teenager who wants to experience sex, wants to be kissed and touched. So it’s essential to the story. It’s not like the intimate moments were extra scenes that we can remove. In that sense I had accepted it (sex scenes) from the very start. One, it’s done in such a beautiful way. Two, I was very comfortable because my Director and Cinematographer were women. That really made me very comfortable shooting the intimate scenes.
What was the most challenging aspect to play Laila?
Of course, the scary part was the physicality – getting the physicality of the disability right. Actually, the first day of the sex scene was extremely difficult. I thought I was very comfortable with my naked body. But clearly I was not. Because one doesn’t imagine there will be ten people in the room. And you have to redo the same thing over and over again till you get it right. It was testing and trying. And it’s a very vulnerable situation to be in.
When is MWAS releasing in India?
It’s releasing in India on Feb 20, 2015. And it’s been sold to Japan, South Korea and the US. I don’t know the release dates for those countries.
Yeh Jawani Hai Diwani was your last release, a different style of filmmaking from MWAS. How do you mentally adjust yourself on extremely opposite kind of movie sets?
For me each film is a different project, it’s a new page. And I love the contrast, because as an actor I am pushing my own limits, also in commercial cinema. I am not used to doing that kind of loud acting so for me to try and make it believable and real, despite being larger-than-life, is also a challenge. In fact, when I finish a film I hate going back to it. Each film has its own time span and in that time I live that character completely. I don’t look back at it because for me it’s like I have said goodbye to the character, buried it, and had a funeral, now it’s time to move on to the next one. I don’t find it difficult unless I am in a situation where two films are clashing. Sometimes that happens though, like when I was doing That Girl In Yellow Boots and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara at the same time. Both are very different films. So it was a bit stressful because you are jumping back and forth. But usually I need to have gaps between two films.
Of course in an ideal world I would like to have two weeks before a film start where I shut off from the world and get into that zone. But it also depends on the film. For a film like YJHD I am not going to do that but for certain films I do like to have that prep time. But it’s not a luxury we always have. Sometimes things are decided at the last minute. Like for Shanghai, Dibaker Banerjee’s film, I found out about it while I was on my wedding trip. I had no time to prepare. As soon as I returned I went on the set. You never know what you have to deal with in the situation that comes your way.
Leni, Ruth Natasha, Shalini, Aditi and Laila, each onscreen character is different from the other. What got you to say ‘yes’ to these roles?
One, definitely, I try consciously to not repeat myself. So I myself am learning each time and doing something I have not done before. But it’s also the kinds of roles that come my way. I would to like to do a romantic comedy or a biopic; those films haven’t come my way yet. You are partly a victim of your choices, of what comes your way and then for me the script has to excite me. I can always tell that if I am making a cup of chai in between reading a script then it’s not interesting me. If I read the script in one-go then I know it’s a script that is holding my attention.
In Happy Ending, your most recent release, you are doing comedy for the first time. Can you throw some light on your role in it?
That’s again a whacky character, a bit similar to the one I played in Zindagi…, except that she’s a bit lighter. The film is a spoof so we have all kinda played our characters like we are making fun of ourselves. My character is slightly psychotic, whacky and obsessively in love with Saif Ali Khan’s character.
In between films you do theatre, like the recent one is ‘Trivial Disasters’. How do you manage to make time for so many things?
I don’t. I have no life. My manager keeps shouting at me and wants me to stop doing so many things. But I really enjoy going back to theatre because theatre is like a gym for an actor. You sharpen all your acting muscles, your diction, body language and everything. So I make time for it. Also it’s not like I am flooded with work. There are times when there’s been a gap of three-four months when no good scripts have come my way. Also because I am choosy with my scripts, I don’t do everything that comes my way. It’s nice to have theatre to go back to because sometimes you can go insane as an actor waiting for the right script. I think it’s important to keep your mind occupied and your body still in some sort of training in acting rhythm.
I am also doing Colour Blind shows, a play on Tagore (Rabindranath) that is being directed by Manav Kaul. And very soon I am starting a new film called Waiting by Anu Menon. It stars me and Naseeruddin Shah. It’s a small independent film and a very nice script.
Which has been the easiest and toughest role you have done so far?
Probably YJHD is easiest because that’s very similar to me. I was a bit of a tomboy while growing up. I was surrounded by guys and my best friends were boys. I think I felt very comfortable in that role. Plus me, Adi (Aditya Roy Kapoor) and Ranbir (Kapoor) got along very well. They treated me like their brother.
And clearly MWAS was the toughest. It asked for a lot of time and psychological investment. I cut off from everything else and was literally in a wheelchair, being disabled for some time. I obviously can never understand in my whole lifetime what it is like to be disabled but it was extremely tough.
Are you content with the way your career has shaped up?
Umm, I am very happy and lucky to have gotten to work with the directors I have worked with, Dibaker Banerjee is one of my favourite directors. Everyone I have worked with has been extremely sincere and sensible. Even in the commercial zone, someone like Zoya Akhtar who I think is very talented. I think I have been very lucky. Am I satisfied? Yes, there are times I am craving a good script. I have gone for nine months without a good script. I have said ‘no’ to fifteen scripts. It’s a long time to go waiting for that good opportunity, but then opportunities suddenly come. And now I am doing three films in a row. It’s always like that, it’s feast or famine.
Are you happy with the roles being offered to you?
There are many things I have to still do. Like I said I would love to do a biopic. I am a history buff so I love doing research on a real life person. There are so many people I’d like to play onscreen. There’s a book ‘Mafia Queens of Mumbai’ with some great stories in it. One of them is Sapna Devi who went against Dawood Ibrahim. I would love to do a biopic on her. Then there are rom-coms. People think I am so serious and only do dark cinema. I think I would do pretty well in a silly rom-com, like Pretty Woman, playing the Julia Roberts kind of role. I wish something like that would come my way.
– Rachana Parekh