“If you’re remembered, you’re relevant”: An Interview with Kalki Koechlin

Kalki Koechlin shares about her experience on the sets of Goldfish and reflects on her legacy as an actor
“If you’re remembered, you’re relevant”: An Interview with Kalki Koechlin

Goldfish is the latest addition to Kalki Koechlin’s rich and diverse oeuvre, and it might be her most poignant performance to date. The film, directed by Pushan Kripalani, navigates themes of memory and identity, love and guilt, family and community. Koechlin's character grapples with her conflicting feelings towards her mother (played by Deepti Naval), who suffers from dementia.  

The film had its world premiere at Busan International Film Festival in October 2022, and will be released in theatres across India this week. Here are edited excerpts from Film Companion’s chat with Kalki Koechlin about her experience on the sets of Goldfish, how motherhood shaped her creative expression, and her legacy as an artist.

Film Companion: You’ve stated in the past that you’re not someone who sits around and waits for the perfect role to come your way. Rather you choose a script that makes you feel something you haven’t felt before. So what did you feel when you first read the script for Goldfish?

Kalki Koechlin: I think one of the big things I felt was how — because I knew it was about dementia, I knew it was a heavy subject — how you can have these moments of utter, baffling joy or laughter in the middle of something really serious. Or the other way around — you can have a perfectly nice day in the middle of which you just start crying. I think the way they brought out the duality of emotions, as well as the duality of identity into the script, was really beautiful.

Kalki Koechlin and Deepti Naval in Goldfish
Kalki Koechlin and Deepti Naval in Goldfish

Your characters in both Margarita with a Straw (2014) and Goldfish have complicated relationships with their mothers. In Margarita with a Straw, Laila clashes with her mother over her increasing desire for privacy and independence, particularly as she comes to terms with her own identity. In Goldfish, Anamika seeks closure, and for her mother to realise the depth of her injustice when raising her; while also wrestling with conflicting feelings of love and guilt towards her. Goldfish, of course, was filmed after you had your own daughter. How do you think becoming a mother has informed your acting sensibilities?

Well, firstly, just from a practical point of view, I was sleeping very little — I was breastfeeding in the night, I was working in the day. It was a tiring month. But on a deeper level, I think being a mother at that early stage is like being a full-time caregiver. It’s similar to what someone has to do with an older person — you don’t know when they’re going to wake up, you don’t know when they’re going to throw a tantrum, you don’t know what’s next. And you have to manipulate your way around them, you’ve got to find gentle ways to deal with them. So the caregiving aspect of the film was more obvious to me, because I was going through it with my daughter. 

The other thing, of course, was empathising with Deepti’s character. I know I had a very tenacious relationship with my mother. It’s better now, but in my teenage years, I really used to fight with her. And now that I’ve become a mother and I see how close me and Sappho are — like, we’re so tight — I wonder how we will get to that stage where she says she hates me. I don’t want to get to that stage! So I felt that empathy for Deepti’s character.

Kalki Koechlin in Margarita with a Straw
Kalki Koechlin in Margarita with a Straw

Goldfish has a number of gut-punch moments. The biggest one for me was when Anamika reveals that sometimes she tells people she’s adopted, her mother replies that she does the same thing, and the two of them just burst out laughing. Your character also has a line where she says: "I think my mother still has postpartum depression". What was it like bringing this dynamic to life on screen with Deepti Naval?

I mean, that’s the thing, you know? We have terrible tragedies in life, but we have to find ways to cope, we have to laugh, and that’s what these characters do all the time. Even the thing about being adopted, it’s nasty as hell, but it makes you laugh because it’s like “Yeah, well, we have to keep going.” Coping mechanisms.

Working on the dynamic with Deepti was a lot of fun. We just didn’t know what would happen next. The real treat was that Pushan [Kripalani], being the DOP [director of photography] and the director, had decided to keep three cameras rolling at the same time — one on Deepti, one on me, and one on the scene overall. So it meant that we saw the scene as a whole, and not in bits. When you normally shoot, you do a master, where you have the whole scene from a distance, and then that becomes the template. And you have to replicate that, so you’re stuck. So you never do too much in the master, you always keep it a little on the safe side. But here, we were going wild. We didn’t know what the other person would do next, we didn’t know if something would break or smash (to the horror of everybody on the crew). But for us, it was fun to be able to do that. And thankfully, Deepti’s someone who lights up when the camera comes on. She won’t tell you in rehearsal what she’s going to do. And so you only see it when it’s actually happening.

What are some fun moments you can recall from set?

At one stage, there was a scene — which is now cut out of the film — it was a dream in which we see a dead goldfish, like a real, dead goldfish. And we were like, “Where do we get a dead goldfish?” So production went to the pet store where there were plenty of goldfish, all of which were … alive and healthy. They asked the pet store, “Can we get a dead goldfish?” They were like, “We don’t have a dead goldfish. Why would we keep a dead goldfish?” “Okay, so can you tell us when the next goldfish dies?” And then the driver, who was listening to this conversation — this tattooed, Eastern European tough guy, says, “I get you dead goldfish.” And we’re like, “No, we don’t want you to kill a goldfish!” And he said, “You step outside. In five minutes, I get you dead goldfish.” [Laughs] There was this whole drama around this dead goldfish, like, how do we do this ethically? In the end, we didn’t use the goldfish for the dream sequence, and the scene ended up being cut anyway. I’m very sad about it. I was like, “Pushan, it was my favourite scene!” But we have to respect the overall vision. 

Deepti Naval as Sadhana and Kalki Koechlin as Anamika in Goldfish
Deepti Naval as Sadhana and Kalki Koechlin as Anamika in Goldfish

Your character Anamika is initially distant towards her mother, and by extension, her Indianness. By the end, as she connects with her mother, she is more self-assured in her own identity and culture. How did your experiences as a white person in the Indian film industry inform your performance in Goldfish?

It’s very identifiable. It’s kind of ulta, the opposite in my case and Anamika’s case — this thing of not accepting a certain part of yourself, or being unfamiliar with a certain part of yourself. I used to be very proactive about my Indianness, like, “I’m Indian. I was born here.” I used to really explain my Indianness, and now I’m just like, “I’m Indian, deal with it.” That kind of development has happened because I’ve come face-to-face with my Frenchness, my family there. I’ve had time to absorb both cultures, so I can be in a place where I’m like, “Yes. This is who I am.” So what Anamika goes through in the film was very relatable to me.

Goldfish is ultimately a story of forgiveness and healing from wounds of the past. Where do you see Anamika and Sadhana’s relationship after that lovely final frame? 

It’s a hard one. I’ve thought about it many times, and I don’t think Anamika’s got it sorted at all. She’s said no to her job, she’s sitting at home, she doesn’t have the money to do it. But she’s stayed back with her mother. It’s an emotional decision, one made in the moment. And what’s important, I think, is that she’s not telling Sadhana what to do. Sadhana herself needs to come to the realisation that she needs help, or she might need to go to a home if Anamika takes that job in Basel. It’s just that the decision is not being taken for her. When it comes to older people, we tend to treat them like children and not take them seriously. The important thing is the dignity that Sadhana receives in the end, that “This is your life, and we will find a way. And you’re part of that decision.”

Kalki Koechlin as Chanda in Dev.D
Kalki Koechlin as Chanda in Dev.D

You have worked with both male and female directors in your career. Do you believe there is such a thing as the female gaze? What does that look like for you?

I definitely think there’s a different viewpoint. But I don’t think it’s necessarily stereotypical, in that because you’re a woman, you’ll write more sensitive subjects or anything like that. But we have a story to tell that is different from our male counterparts. If I look at my track-record, I’ve worked with Konkona Sen Sharma, Rakhee Sandilya, Nitya Mehra, Zoya Akhtar, Shonali Bose. There have been a lot of women, which is really exciting. 

When it’s a mostly female crew, there’s a lot less eyes on you. Especially with a film like Margarita with a Straw, I felt very safe because my DOP was a woman as well. There’s some sex scenes in the film, and it’s a very vulnerable place to be. So it was really nice to have a female DOP and a female director, and a very closed set for those scenes. I didn't have to worry that somebody’s phone would come out, because that’s the thing today — everyone has a mobile phone and can record footage, and that’s really scary. 

Even your somewhat antagonistic characters — like Natasha from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), Sky from Gully Boy (2019) and Faiza from Made in Heaven (2019) — feel sympathetic and likeable despite their flaws. What drew you to these roles, and how did you navigate them?

Well, somebody’s gotta do it. What would Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara be without Natasha? I love playing characters that have nothing to do with me in many ways, or that I have to really understand from a different point of view. I love it. Ultimately, everyone is a human being that you can empathise with. Everyone has those screwed up emotions in them, and it makes sense to show that. Because everybody has it, it’s just about how much we can handle and our individual circumstances. We all have a gamut of emotions. I don’t think we need to look outside. It’s just a matter of tapping into what’s already within.

Kalki Koechlin as Natasha in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara
Kalki Koechlin as Natasha in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

Your supporting characters have also resonated with audiences. Aditi from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) is considered to be extremely relatable and the underrated star of the film. Compilations of her iconic moments from the film have hundreds of thousands of views. Are you aware of how your work is perceived by fans, especially on social media?

Every once in a while, I see one of those and I’m like, “Yay! I have an audience of 15-year-olds as well,” because most of my films are adult films. It’s nice — it’s definitely helped my career. I love Aditi. She’s very similar to me in many ways. I was like this tomboy growing up, then I became a slightly more ladylike person, but not without having gone through a lot of hard lessons.

You have many feathers in your cap: actor, writer, director, podcaster, activist. What have you taken away from each of these experiences as an artist? How do you wish to be remembered decades down the line?

What have I taken away? I guess just that art is about expression. The form is not as important as to be able to and have freedom to express. Even if you’re doing it for yourself, writing in your diary, that’s a form of expression. Ten years down the line, you’ll be able to read that and get a hell of a perspective from it. And it is going to empower you. Whichever way, however small it might be, looking into yourself, understanding yourself and taking that time to reflect and express, eventually leads to everything else — to other people, to community, when people say, “Oh, I feel that too.” It just ripples out. So never think that what you do as an artist is too small. As for how I want to be remembered, I don’t know. Relevant? If you’re remembered, you’re relevant. And that’s enough. I would love to be acting till I’m 90. But I don't know what I’ll do next. I am interested in producing and writing more, wherever it takes me.

Do you see yourself ever directing a feature film?

Oh god, I directed a play and it nearly killed me, so I don’t know if I’m ready for that. But who knows? Maybe I’ll get there. I would first prefer to produce and write, maybe be part of a feature as a showrunner, as a creative director. But I’m not ready to go hands-on just yet.

You can catch Goldfish in theatres from September 1.

Watch the official trailer of Goldfish:

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