An honest, sensitive portrait of disability and the sexual awakening of an adventurous young woman, “Margarita with a Straw” has garnered praise around the world, and caused social waves in India upon release for its compassionate portrayal of taboo subjects rarely seen on screen. Featuring a remarkable and critically acclaimed lead performance from international actress and Bollywood star Kalki Koechlin, the film depicts the struggles of a handicapped women discovering herself and her sexuality.
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Chris Remmers: Let’s start with telling me a little bit about where you’re from and some of your family history.
Kalki Koechlin: I’m French. Both my parents are French, but they moved to India when they were five-years-old. I was born and brought up in South India in a small town called Pondicherry. I grew up speaking French, Tamil, English and then Hindi as well.
CR: That’s quite impressive. Did you have a hard time learning all those languages growing up? Or did It come more naturally to you?
KK: Yeah, it was just natural, because everything happened organically. I didn’t really learn them formally. In fact, I actually resent the fact that I didn’t learn them formally, like with French. I don’t feel my French is as good as it should be, because I never learned it at school. I learned it at home.
CR: Of course, of course. The classroom environment has a little more structure.
KK: I think what it did do for me was make me feel a bit displaced. I was always speaking three different languages at different times — different languages at school, with my friends, at home.
CR: That’s definitely one way to be culturally well-rounded. So, growing up in India, what’s something that not a lot of people may not know about that you’d like to share and get out there?
KK: Wow! Great question. What I love about my country is that it’s so diverse. There’s 14 or 15 different languages. I think it’s just amazing that so many people have very, very different beliefs all mixed together in this one country. I think you constantly see that sort of contrast between north and south Indian. The different religions and different languages being able to understand each other. I find that amazing. There’s so many things that make India a work of art. A big focus in India right now is gender awareness and gender equality. That’s something I’ve been closely associated with. I do a lot of talks and spoken-word stuff on gender equality. I think that’s something we still need a lot of consciousness and awareness for. It’s starting to happen, but it’s slow.
CR: That’s great that you’re working so hard on awareness. With anything in terms of gay rights, even here in the States, it takes so long for actual change. It’s been over 25 years since people started coming out and saying, “This is what we want.” Finally, we’re starting to see some changes, and that’s a beautiful thing once it starts happening. Now, in terms of your career, how does all of this kind of inspire you?
KK: I guess it’s always put me in a place where I feel like, as an actor, you have to be able to understand the differences in others. You sometimes go into a character that’s completely different from yourself and from any experience you’ve had. I think it’s really important to be exposed to the difference and there’s so much of that here and in my life. I’ve never really felt like I belonged in one place. I’ve been to France, England and America, then I come back to India and I feel that we all have very, very similar insecurities, problems and emotions. We all express them in different ways. I think that kind of exposure to different cultures has sort of helped me to able to jump from one thing to the other, and shift into different moods and characters.
CR: Have you ever played a role that felt uncomfortable about playing? Then, once you understood and were more comfortable with the character, felt you represented the person or people well?
KK: I don’t think I’ve ever felt uncomfortable doing it in the sense. I’ve always agreed with with the character or understood the character. That’s what makes me do a script. If I don’t feel I am understanding or if I feel like I’m representing something I don’t agree with, and that’s kind of difficult to do for some. But yes, I do feel like sometimes I’m frightened that I won’t be able to pull it off. Sometimes I’m frightened that, “Oh my God, is it something that I’m actually going to be able to do convincingly?” Some things are more difficult than others, and “Margarita [with a Straw]” was the first of those where I haven’t grown up with anyone disabled in my family. I haven’t been exposed to anyone with cerebral palsy. For me, it was a completely new subject. I knew it would be a huge challenge and I was afraid, “Would I be able to pull it off?”
So, that was a big, scary commitment. But, we went ahead and I think I just got all the support I needed, because my director put me in touch with her cousin, Maniche, who kind of advised the story of the film. I lived with her. I went out with her. I went to her place of work, and just really got exposed to somebody with CP in a way that I wouldn’t have gotten access in any other way.
CR: That’s absolutely amazing. It’s totally different to read about something versus actually be in the mix. Switching this over to travel, since you’re culturally diverse and have been all over the place. Is there anywhere you still haven’t been that you have to hit?
KK: I really want to go to South America. I’ve always been interested in the Inca civilization in Peru. I’ve also played an Argentinian character called Victoria Ocampo. She’s a feminist writer from Argentina in the 1920’s. I would love to visit. As well as, some of these countries in South America.
CR: When you’re landing in a destination for the first time, what are some of the things you like to do and see? Do you like to get acclimated to your hotel? Or are you the kind of person that would immediately go out and like to explore?
KK: I like meeting people from the place. I’m not the “resort person”. I’d rather stay in a bed-and-breakfast, something where you can interact with people from the place and see the city from their point of view. I’m more into seeing from the local point of view rather than a touristy point of view. I think would go to a home stay, go out onto the streets and find out what people do there. I’m not a planner. I’m an improviser.
CR: Myself as well! When you’re on vacation, and your agenda is crazy than your everyday life, what kind of vacation is that? When you’re traveling to these different places and get acclimated with the people there and you meet some locals, they can really point you to the coolest things to see in that place. Has there been a subject or script that you’d like to portray?
KK: Oh, thousands and millions. I’ve always been a little bit obsessed with Joan of Arc. I would love to be in a musical performance or film of Joan of Arc. There’s also many films in India that I would love to be a part of. There was a film called “Queen” that came out a couple of years back, which required somebody who spoke French and Hindi. It was this Bohemian, crazy chick who’s half-Parisian and half-Indian. I would’ve loved to play that.
CR: That sounds like it would have been a cool role. Lastly, to wrap this up, what’s next on Kalki’s agenda?
KK: I don’t know if it’ll be much news over there, but I am doing a film called “Mantra.” with a director Nicholas Kharkongor. The subject is about changing India in the ‘90s when multinationals started taking over. Smaller companies and India sort of opened up to international markets, companies like Coca-Cola basically bought out all the smaller companies. I’m excited for that one as well as “Margarita”!