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Kalki Koechlin - On Individuality, Equality, and Progress in Cinema!

By Armin Sethi Friday, Oct 20, 2017 10:14: AM

I’ve been a huge fan of the kind of work Kalki Koechlin does, both off-screen and on. She has spoken at length, either through her films, or through her interviews and social media, about the need for movement towards equal treatment of women and other socially disadvantaged groups. With Azmaaish at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, and Jia Aur Jia and Ribbon releasing shortly after, Kalki has her plate full, both of work and thoughts. Here`s some of that conversation of her work and thoughts for you:

2017 has seen many films that were expected to do well at the box office, but we have seen them not come up to par. What kind of an impact does it have on other films that are not touted to be a big budget film even though we have seen films like Lipstick Under My Burkha, for example, do well?
Well, not a direct impact but the fact that bigger budget films are not doing so well means that people are either not risking bigger budget films as much or they want to try to find a way to make a film in a lower budget in order to make the money back. I think you mentioned a good example of a smaller budget film that did do well. It means that there is a question of content that is coming up a lot more. And even bigger budget films are looking at content and writing more carefully.

The films that you are associated with in 2017 – all of them are very different from each other. For example, Azmaish, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, depicts the commonalities between the people of two nations. Why is a film like that so important in this day and age?
I mean, why do we make films in the first place? For me, films are more than just a business and a commercial enterprise. I think as artists, from my perspective anyway – we are here to create things and make things that make people look at their lives, and assess them, and question them. The more space there is to do that, with stories which are unconventional or getting a different angle than the one we are hearing from advertising or media, I think it is very, very important – when somebody tells the untold story. Otherwise, democracy is threatened by money and advertising and media hype.

We’re also seeing more females take more strong, powerful roles within the industry. We saw a celebration of this at TIFF too this year. You’ve taken a strong stance on equality as well. Where do you think this transition has come from? 
For one, I think that transition is happening globally as well right now. I think women are speaking about feminism a lot more now. People like Jennifer Lawrence are speaking about equal pay. So I think it is a conversation that is happening globally at the moment. And, here, definitely, the last twenty years, there has been a lot of movement in educating the girl child. And that has taken a few generations to do. It’s been twenty years of encouraging education and that has had an effect now, because we see a lot more women in the workplace now. So, those twenty years have only started reaping benefits now.

But I think that is what is causing the violence now – because the mentality hasn’t changed but the opportunities have changed for women. So women are extremely active and you can see that. I have worked with six female directors now. It is happening everywhere – even in the web series world especially, with either female-oriented content or the world through the perspective of a female.

What more has to be done? Obviously, equal pay is a battle that still has to be won.
Hmm, so much. I mean, we’re still talking about it. We have success stories like Deepika with Piku or Kangana with Queen or Priyanka who is paid more than her male counterparts – but those are exceptions to the rule. The average actress has to pretty much fight for an equal payment and she gets paid a lot less than her male counterparts. There is still a long way to go. That mentality has to change more than anything. Educating the male child, educating the boys on gender equality is also a very important part.

The generation I see of young men today, men of my age, are open-minded, but they have come from a background where their parents were not. So there are still those habits of patriarchy so things like not being domestic. Whereas I look at my brother who is nine years old, he doesn’t think it is a big deal to make me a cup of chai or help out in the kitchen. He knows what periods are. So he will grow up thinking that is normal.

But our inclination right now is, “oh my gosh, a boy is making a cup of tea! He’s talking about periods. Wow, what a fascination.” So there is still a long way to go before that equality is really ingrained in the mentality of people.


You said in an interview in the past that females often play the sidekick to the main lead, who is a male. We’re seeing in Jia Aur Jia a twist to that statement, with two female leads, no less.  
For me, there seems to be an idea of gender equality but right now, mostly, there are women-lead films but they are very social issue-based. This is very important. But we don’t see many casual, commercial films which are about women. That is also important to do at the same time. To make fun movies about women who are living their ordinary and fun lives, you know (chuckles).

Actually, Richa (Chadha) and I were talking about it the other day – we don’t have a single female road trip film in Hindi cinema. So, I loved the script when I read it. I thought it was funny and it’s got some pretty strong feelings of sadness and depression because it is about two very opposite personalities and how they learn from each other on how to live life and be happy. It was a fun film and it was showing women in a light where they are being who they want to be – and not carrying the burden of society and fighting the big fight.


For you, on a personal level, how do you find happiness?
I think it is a daily maintenance. You can’t just find happiness and keep it nicely, all wrapped up. You have to work at being happy every day. It’s like how you need to exercise every day and maintain your mental health every day – outside of the hectic schedules and responsibilities we have. Time to ourselves where we get to download our thoughts and do what it is we like, like reading a book, watching television, or writing your thoughts down. We don’t prioritize that time often because we get caught up in family, relationships, and work. We get distracted. That is one of my keys. I always guard that little amount of time for myself every day.


The trailer for Ribbon also depicts the predicament of the working woman, who constantly has to fight the battle of either being a good mother or being a good worker, and how we cannot somehow achieve both. It’s interesting how that seems to be woven into the storyline. What made you say yes?
I liked the script. I thought it was well-researched and subtle. I remember one of the scenes I read was a scene where the couple have sex when she is seven months’ pregnant. Right after I finished reading it, I googled whether it was safe to have sex during pregnancy. I found out it is. I was fascinated that this was gone into that I hadn’t thought of.

Also, the notion of wanting to be ambitious and wanting to be nurturing – my character is a strong character but vulnerable at the same time. I really liked that about her.


Why do you think that dichotomy exists?
Women are expected to be superwomen – go to work, if they want to work, come home, cook, look after the kids. And of course, after maternity leave, there are cases of women facing difficulty in getting back to their positions at work, with less money, or demotions. It is back to the point, if you are equal at the work space, you should be equal at the home space. Introducing paternity laws, at least in India, we don’t have those. Culturally speaking, traditionally, the man does not always bring up the child. Sharing that is also a really important part of it. A man also sharing the domestic responsibility and bringing up the child from the early years. It all goes back to equality.

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