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The Earthy Notes: Kalki Koechlin Unfiltered

In conversation with Naina Kumar

She has always intrigued her audiences, at first with her unconventional beauty and later her unmatched talent. If you open her filmography the list of her movies will scream MUST WATCH. From playing Chandramukhi (Dev D) who made us swoon over her to the clingy uptight Natasha (Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara) who made us crave some space, she is an enchantress, her performances make one emote exactly how she desires with each portrayal. Yes, she is our favorite, National Film Awardee Kalki Koechlin; an actor, and writer. She recently came out with her new book The Elephant in the Womb, a candid, spellbinding and empathetic book on pregnancy and parenting. Off-screen Kalki is a greater star, she is the unfiltered voice that inspires and empowers, a mother who believes in learning and unlearning with her daughter, a warrior who wears her scars like a badge, a crusader of conscious living and so much more. Owing to her strong cultural roots, her impeccable craft and profound voice helps strengthen social ethics and mindset for today’s world. She lives slowly, sustainably and wholesomely amidst nature. She is a breeze of fresh air that heals and her demeanor towards her life and the world is so grounding, it’s almost therapeutic. Let’s unwind with this honest and earthy conversation with our Kanmani

Congratulations for your book release, ‘The Elephant in the Womb’ it’s definitely a must read. When did you start writing, and why did you choose it to be illustrated like a graphic novel?

Thank you. I started writing during my pregnancy. I was just kind of so overwhelmed will all the things that were happening with and around me, I felt I should not forget these layered moments and thus I started doodling. Just scribbled notes and drew myself kind of like maintaining a journal. I thought maybe gift it or make a poster out of it to Sappho one day. She was born just before lockdown hit and the most of the lockdown I was jobless sitting at home as a full-time new mom I felt like this became a therapy for me to pen down all the things that were happening. And because I’d done these doodles, I knew that it was a very visual thing in my head. I always knew that there was a lot of humor to it and the illustrations brought that light fun take on rather some of the heavy subjects of motherhood. And of course, I had this incredible illustrator, Val Valeriya Polyanychko who is a friend of mine; she and I would brainstorm together. So that helped a lot to have somebody working closely with me to bring it into an entertaining yet an educational read.

In the first chapter you talk about miscarriages and abortions and how both are frowned upon. Did you have a good support system when you dealt with these social stigmas?

I think it depends on where you are in life, and the situation with me particularly if I compare the two abortions I had, in the first one I didn’t have any support. I mean I didn’t have a community that I could talk to or take therapy post the procedure. But then the second time around I was much more informed about my support system. I was much more ready to ask for help and I think that with even the whole pregnancy, and motherhood part, I think having somebody on call like a professional, I mean like a doctor or a doula or a therapist is so significant. That’s why I have spoken about this in my book so women can foresee these complicated situations and be prepared.

You speak about therapy, how can one prioritize mental health? 

Luckily I understood the importance of mental health quite early on. By the time I was 30, I started taking regular therapy, I think you know it all starts when you start speaking about your problems with your friends and (laughingly) so much so that they kind of start asking you to pay them !!! But this is the start of you seeking help and it’s only then you can be guided towards the right professionals who will help you perceive balanced perspectives to see the situations of your life through. Today social media is a big platform where people are open about the importance of mental health and popular culture is prioritizing it enough. It all begins when you start being in check with your thoughts and routine and seek help at the right time. It is like going to the gym for your mind.

We recently saw your powerhouse performance in the skit ‘I’m (Not) Okay’, was the skit from your book and are you making a theatre comeback and do more shows?

Yes, the skit is from a poem in the chapter (The Elephant in the Womb) about breastfeeding; I extended it a bit and added more layers to make it more performance friendly. Well yes, I want to do more theatre. I am planning to work on a few ideas for a play, watch out for it!

Apart from the jarring transformations mentally and physically in womanhood, what are rather the best parts of motherhood for you?

For me, the favourite part of motherhood is that one starts learning to see the world again through a fresh pair of eyes, your child’s eyes. So all the things you were jaded about in life, your kids see with brand new perspectives. That revival of earlier redundant things makes you alive and pulls you out of the regular grind of life.

Has motherhood helped you as an artist and vice versa?

For sure, post-motherhood you learn to multitask to another level, suddenly I know what an Excel sheet is, I have charts on my fridge, on my bathroom and all around the house. Everything becomes much more organized and it is helpful for you in your professional life as well, otherwise scheduling or managing is not the artist’s favorite chore. But now I have learnt to schedule and prioritize like a pro and have my A game on. Well the answer to the second part of the question, ‘if my being an artist has helped me in motherhood’ is yes definitely, my child is never bored (laughs), apparently am so entertaining that my bedtime story doesn’t make her fall asleep. My husband says ‘What are you doing, you are too entertaining, and she will never fall asleep’ (laughs). And I think she is picking up on the creativity, now she has started making her versions of plays from her favorite stories and she would narrate and want us to enact it together.

So is that how you both bond and spend time together?

Oh yes, we do different and creative activities, we have these performances for each other, her dad and others at home. We have this one Hot Seat game where others can ask any question to the one sitting on the hot seat. We both create these games which we as a family enjoy together and have wholesome and entertaining times.

Post motherhood are you selective on the content or time commitment of the projects you take up?

I have taken a slower pace when it comes to work because I want to have gaps in between work where I can be with my daughter. When she starts her new kindergarten I need to be around her. In general, I don’t prefer to go for long periods for work because I want to be here for her. I do fewer projects and prioritize what I want to do. Post-motherhood I have started being conscious of taking work that is significant to me and not just doing everything for the sake of work. As an actor one easily becomes insecure towards their public image and keeps producing something or the other to be in the public eye. But I have things I would rather spend my energy on. So now am more inclined towards doing limited yet intense projects where I get to work at a great length in a movie than doing lots of different and small roles or appearances.

How do you manage to strike a balance in your reel and real life? How do you keep it so real, even your performances are so heartfelt?

I think I take my life and struggles as it is, part of my public figure has learnt to use that in my work. Be it writing about women’s empowerment, or motherhood, as I am learning new experiences and hurdles, I am open about it on public platforms. And when I see my past mistakes, struggles or storms I have crossed and overcome, I reflect a lot on it and it allows me to create something new or channel that experience in my art as well. I derive from each of my reels and real life and implement the essence in the other.

Out of all the iconic characters you have portrayed on screen, which one is closer to your persona?

Oh God I have done so many intense characters, I can’t completely relate to a lot of them but if I have to pick one it would be Aditi from ‘Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani’ because growing up I was very tomboyish, wearing boy shorts, mostly boys as friends and loudly notorious, and then suddenly in my twenties I became aware of my beauty and I gathered the sense of being a lady (laughs). Aditi goes through a similar transition in the movie, so yes I think it is closer to my real-life persona.

You come from a village where life was amidst nature and living sustainably was organic, but when living in metro cities like Mumbai do you think one can be completely sustainable?

I come from a village called Periyamudaliyar Chavadi, which was on the outskirts of Auroville. In villages like ours, people’s sustainable life is not a choice but the only way to be. I have grown up watching animals around, farms and gardens where our playgrounds and you just start appreciating and valuing the organic and slow life. Rather than thinking of achieving a 100% sustainable life, one must try to find ethical substitutes for a better lifestyle, changing your habits can make bigger waves than you think. People in metro-cities would go to the malls, eat junk and shop aimlessly for their entertainment, maybe changing these recreational habits to going to retreats in farms, trekking or on a waterfall trail is more sustainable. These nature adventures should be flashing more on our screens than consumerism-aimed activities.

As a celebrity and an activist what kind of brands do you endorse?

Well, honestly I am lucky to have endorsed brands like MamaEarth, Eleven Eleven 11.11 (clothing brand) and have a long association with Cotton World. Yes, I believe the way forward is to endorse more sustainable brands that talk about preserving nature, empowerment and sustainability. In a true sense makes you and Nature happy.

One of my favorite characters of yours is Laila from Margarita with a Straw and can’t admire you enough for truly an award winning performance. When and how did you land this role and how did you prepare for this?

The role came to me when I was shooting for ‘Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani’, Shonali came to me with the script, she said she was keen to cast an actor with cerebral palsy yet she would like me to audition as well. She clearly instructed me that if at all I land up this role she will need me to do nothing else, no ads or films nothing. I auditioned for it and was cast after a few weeks. So for another six months, I lived with her and her cousin Malini Chib who had cerebral palsy. I started working closely with her speech therapist, and gather all the insights I had access to. I would sit in an old wheelchair and practice my mannerisms. It helped me a lot to add to the layers of the character. This is one specific incident which I can’t forget in particular; I was done for the day and before leaving I said “Hey so I’ll see you tomorrow” and got up and hugged Malini, to this she said, “That is the difference between you and me, at the end of the day you can get out of your wheelchair”. That hit me hard and that’s when I decided to not get up from my wheelchair while I shoot at all, to imbibe the essence of the character. It surely is once in a lifetime role.

Also to mention Laila was queer and proud. What is your take on the current scenario where we are fighting for gay marriage act in India?

Well to this I will quote my favorite from Bill Maher, “Gay marriage won’t lead to dog marriage. It’s not a slippery slope to rampant inter-species coupling. When women got the right to vote, it didn’t lead to hamsters voting. No court has extended equal protection clause to salmon. And for the record, all marriages are ‘same sex’ marriages. You get married and every night, it’s the same sex”. J


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