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Beyond Cupcakes & Pink Ribbons

Beyond Cupcakes & Pink Ribbons

It is an irony that women are gifted cupcakes and trinkets on International Women’s Day at their workplaces each year, yet equal pay and opportunity continue to elude them the world over. It is perhaps for this reason that many women question the very relevance of such a day. But this day should serve as a reminder that the battle is not won as far as women’s rights are concerned. Its genesis should inspire us women from all walks of life so that we can keep the flame burning, lest we forget. Outlook Money puts the spotlight on Bollywood stars, women from finance and the first woman merchant navy captain in this very special issue.

A bohemian at heart, it took her more than a few years and a few bumps to understand the significance of being financially sound. Actor Kalki Koechlin opens up to Outlook Money about the choices in life, investments and movies that define her today.

At the very onset of the interview, actor Kalki Koechlin declares she is clueless about money, finance, stocks, mutual funds and everything in that realm. “This is going to be a really funny interview. I don’t know anything about money. I take advice on how to invest from my next-door neighbour,” she says, even before she can settle into her seat at a suburban Mumbai restaurant. In fact, 2018 started for her with a sermon from her long-standing talent managers at KWAN. “They told me, ‘Kalki, can we please try and make some money this year?’ They’ve been with me since before Dev.D, so they know how I am. By now, they know that I will run off to do theatre for two months and turn my phone off.”

It’s been nine years and roughly 16 films since the release of her first Hindi film Dev.D, and despite what she may say about being a hopeless negotiator, Kalki has steadfastly managed to build her brand. Every now and then, she has met with stone cold silence from her managers when she announces that she’s doing a tiny, indie project. The trouble, she says, is that she can’t resist a good script. “Like just now, I did a film with Rajat Kapoor. It was a quick 20-day shoot. Sab ghar ki baat hai. There was no money. He said we’ll pay you later. I can’t say no to him. I’ve worked with him for years. When I say these things to my managers, I get silence for two days. Then they’ll say, you know you’re missing out on a big, commercial, action movie. You could get this much money,” she says with a laugh.

That said, Kalki has consistently made film choices that are brave, diverse and smart. She has taken risks that for the most part have paid off. Take the past two years for instance—there was Konkona Sen Sharma’s fantastic directorial debut A Death In The Gunj, which had an ensemble cast but a great part for her. Then she played the lead in Ribbon, an urban love story about a woman juggling a career and a baby. She also shot for the next big web show for Amazon Prime Video India, managed to squeeze in a small, crowdfunded indie film called Mantra, and simultaneously made time for her true love—theatre. At present, she’s filming with Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt for Zoya Akhtar’s next, Gully Boy.

The trick, she says, is to nourish both the artist and brand equally. “I’ve found a rhythm. I realised I get one or two big commercial films every few years, and then I get these indie films. I am lucky now that I have some sort of a brand name. Endorsements come to me often enough. That allows me to do indie films. And then I make space for a big film like Gully Boy. So I think I’m really privileged,” she says. Kalki is the face of brands like Oriflame, Cotton World and Hidesign.

There was a period after her divorce from filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, in 2013, when she, quite literally, couldn’t afford to strike that balance between art and commerce. Her marriage had just fallen apart, and she was back to living alone and paying rent. Previously, she and Anurag were living in a flat for which they had jointly taken a loan. Her troubles were compounded by a sudden illness in her family that she had to finance. The first sacrifice Kalki had to make was to put aside theatre for a few years and concentrate only on jobs that would bring in substantial money. Now, she makes it a point to do at least one play a year. “I had to work really hard after I left Anurag,” she says. “That part of my life was all about cutting ribbons. It was so disorienting. You reach a hotel, you don’t really connect with anybody, you cut a ribbon, and then take photos with the family and cousins of the family who are funding it. You don’t learn or grow. At the beginning I didn’t have a good attitude about it, but then I thought at least I’m meeting all sorts of people. And suddenly things happened that got me to a Ted Talk or a FICCI talk.”

This wasn’t the first time Kalki was exposed to the famous Mumbai hustle that every young actor has to endure. “I remember when I had to go for social events, I would get that one Long Island iced tea and sip on it all night. It has the most amount of alcohol for least amount of money. So you have to find your strategies to living with less,” she says. In her pre-Dev.D years, Kalki did what every true struggler must do—go for daily auditions, crash on friend’s couches and accept embarrassing jobs to make that month’s rent. “The worst thing I did was this awful teleshopping ad. It was for one of those useless weight loss machines. I remember it was this jiggly thing—you put it on and weight is supposed to just fall off! I was made to wear pink hot pants and a bra. But I got paid around `20,000 and that was great. I was living on a week-to-week basis because I didn’t have financial support from my parents.”

When the ads and modelling assignments started rolling in with some regularity, Kalki did the other thing every struggler must do—get an impressive portfolio. “My portfolio had sexy photos of me in a bikini. It was shot by a photographer who had a studio in Aram Nagar with a backyard. In some of those photos, I was climbing a tree in a two-piece. They weren’t really Bollywood and bling, but I thought they were pretty nice,” she says. When these photos landed on Anurag Kashyap’s desk, who was then looking to cast Chanda in Dev.D, his exact words were: “I don’t want another Russian model. I need a real actress.”

These words bring her to mull on what the definition of a ‘real actress’ would be today. Stars like Sonam Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and several others don’t shy away from addressing themselves as brands and not actors. That’s only fair because a lot of an actor’s life is not about acting anymore. It’s no different for Kalki as well. “You have to realise it’s not just films and ads, there’s this whole other world that is a part of maintaining your life as a celebrity. There’s social media, interviews and, of course, being seen at places so that people don’t think you have disappeared,” she explains.

Though she is careful to not let these distractions come before her work, she admits that she can’t run away from them either. “If I’m in town and I have a day off, I’ll go for an event. I now see that it is important. In the beginning I didn’t. I remember when Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara was about to release, I was doing the play The Real Inspector Hound. Zoya said they were doing this amazing road trip through India for promotions, and I said I can’t go because I had my play opening in a week. And she was like, ‘Babe, you’re stupid’. And now I realise how important that stuff is. It helps you finance other small projects. That comes from all this other stuff—being on social media, interacting with fans and generally being a little bit aware of what your celeb personality is.”

When the noise gets too much, she turns off her phone, lights her aromatherapy candles, does yoga, plays calming music and catches up on her real work. Besides acting, Kalki has several creative pursuits that she takes seriously, like writing poetry and theatre. To be able to hone these other talents and create, she’s consciously cut down on the coterie of people who manage her celebrity, otherwise known as an entourage. “I don’t have a PR person. I just have an assistant who organises meetings for me. I don’t have a stylist. If I like something I see, I call the designer directly,” she says. Typically, an actor has a minimum of five people who run his or her life. This includes a manager, a trainer, a hair and makeup person, a stylist, and the list goes on. “I once took a stylist with me to the Morocco Film Festival. I was just so stressed about the dresses. I couldn’t deal with the fact that I have these seven outfits that I have to wear on these days and with these ridiculous earrings!”

Yet, Kalki is often applauded for her original sartorial sense, walks the ramp for designers, and makes it to the ‘best-dressed’ list. She has a clear understanding of when to conform to the demands of showbiz and when to push back. Her biggest achievement, she says, is to be able to live on her own in her own house, and working on her own terms. Interestingly, those are also the sort of characters that end up being offered to her. “I get mostly strong, independent women roles. That’s why I rarely say no to a film anymore, the right ones are just coming to me. I truly am lucky.”

“I won’t do things for free even if it is something I love”

Even as she admits to not being financially savvy, Kalki Koechlin knows that money is important. Having started her career at a young age, she lists purchasing her own house and investing in land as her smartest investment. Indulgences include holidays and travelling to music festivals

First pay cheque

I got paid as a waitress in London. I had so many things to pay for—like my rent—that I wasn’t in any state to buy myself something. I think the first time I earned enough money to buy something, I spent it on a really warm coat because London was freezing.

Most expensive purchase

I have my own house. Two years back I started paying the loan and I just finished. I was so sick and tired of renting. Being a single girl and an actress, it was hard to find something. It is lovely that I don’t have to answer those ‘society’ questions now. I can paint my walls a certain colour, and grow my vegetables the way I want.

My greatest indulgence

I take a few holidays every year. I went to this cool music festival last year. I think that’s where I indulge. I would love to go to the Burning Man Festival, but it’s very expensive. When I go shopping, I go to either vintage stores or handcrafted places. But I’m not much of a shopper when it comes to designer stuff or even high street stuff. I’m trying to get away from that because it is so destructive. I’m trying to be more sustainable with the clothes I buy. I mostly shop from Auroville.

Where I invest my money

I helped my mom invest in her property in Pondicherry. It’s a beautiful house, and she has a great eye for furniture. She’s used colonial furniture and redone it, so the house is stunning. So investing in my mother and in land is my smartest investment.

Rules of money negotiation

I have made a rule for myself in the last two years that I won’t do things for free. I have found now that I don’t want to do things for free. A lot of my time went in just performing or speaking at places for free. I realised that this is the work I love to do, so why shouldn’t I be paid for it.

My go-to financial advisor

My next-door neighbour, Akshay. I don’t even know his last name. He tells me where to invest — like he’ll say ‘now the market is down, you must invest’. Because I’ll be like ‘this is extra money I have. I don’t need it’! And he’ll be like ‘no, no, no’!

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