‘I have been typecast after every film’

Alaka Sahani
Kalki Koechlin.

Having appeared in Made in Heaven and the second season of Sacred Games, two successful Indian web-series, would you say you are enjoying this space?
I m not looking to do one thing more than the other. In terms of shooting (in a web series), you’re facing the camera just as you do in a movie. However, since the story is spread over eight episodes, there is more space to build the character. These series, at least the successful ones, are not just about the lead characters. In the first season of Sacred Games, I remember being attached to Constable Katekar s character. Kukoo s character stood out, too.

Ten years ago, you debuted with Dev.D, which is now a landmark Hindi movie.
I knew very little about cinema then, and I had very little grasp of Hindi. I was learning on the spot. The scratch of the song Emosanal Attyachaar was being made when I went for my second audition. After hearing it, I felt that it would be an interesting movie.

For several years now, you have been acting both on stage and screen. How do you manage that?
Every year, I try doing a play. At the end of this year, I m doing a play based on Anton Chekhov s Uncle Vanya (1898), directed by Rehaan Engineer. It will be staged during the Serendipity Arts Festival (later this year).

Do your theatre and screen assignments feed off each other?
Somehow, the practice of one works for the other. (When shooting a film), we do a kind of internalisation for the camera, especially for a close-up. You can t look away or hide, even in the middle of chaos. To be able to do that is very useful in a play. You don t always have an audience that is as attentive as the one at Prithvi Theatre.
What made you pick a movie such as Ribbon (2017), which had an impressive script but a modest budget?
When (writer-director) Rakhee Sandilya sent me the script, I thought it was very good. I also watched the documentary My Baby Not Mine (2013), which is about surrogate mothers and directed by Rakhee. That gave me confidence in her work. Ribbon s script had the details about how a woman feels at the workplace when she is pregnant, how things turn around when her husband is away. I thought there was a very real touch. I often go by my gut feeling, too.

Are you always guided by gut feeling?
It is, ultimately, that. Sometimes, you do films for other reasons. Excel Entertainment, for example, is a very good platform. I know their movies will get a big release. Sometimes it s because you haven t done this kind of project before. However, when I m in doubt about something, I believe it s not worth (pursuing) it.

Did you have to struggle against being typecast?
Always. I have been typecast after every film I have done. After Dev.D, I was offered roles of prostitutes only. After Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), I got only bitchy characters and after Margarita with a Straw (2014), disabled characters. When people see you in a certain role, they assume that s what you are good at. It s my job to look for other (kinds of) roles. I was happy to sign Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) for a role that was different from what I had done until that point. But then you can t always do what you wish. At times, you have to do a movie for the commercial value or just to keep working. Nine out of 10 scripts offered to me are bad.

Ribbon was in theatres for a very short while in spite of critical acclaim. Does it upset you when your best work doesn t reach a wider audience?
I ve learnt to be detached about that as you can t predict success or failure. You can t also judge a film on the basis of its (commercial) success. It is not always a measure of how good your film is. Thank god for different platforms which now allow movies to have a longer shelf life. For instance, I watched Nandita Das s Manto (2018), much after its release, on a digital platform.

You did podcasts and a travel show, too.
I don t mind what medium it is, as long as I learn something. People are watching different content online. So, we have to reach out to them. (Hosting a) podcast was not on my mind. When Jon Manel, a podcast editor for BBC, sent me a list of stories, I found it interesting. Soon, we will be doing the second season of the podcast, My Indian Life (2018). With the travel show, Kalki s Great Escape, my father and I wanted to do something together. Part of it is driven by the plan to continue working and part of it to learn something.

You have often spoken up on socio-political issues.
My politics comes from a personal space. There are many terrible things in the world that I can t write about because I don t have the experience or personal knowledge to do so. There are other things I ve suffered from and I want to write about them. One of my recent pieces is about fairy tales (presented at Spoken Fest, a storytelling event, in Mumbai). (As a child), I was indoctrinated with the idea of princes, princesses and certain ideas about romance, and I question these (in the piece).

Your Twitter bio reads: This one time abroad I didn t have ID to get into a bar so I told the bouncer Google me, I m famous. The rest of the time though, I don’t feel that important. Is this story true?
Yes. We were in New York and shooting for Margarita… I didn t have my ID or wallet with me. Because of the simple look required for the movie, I was wearing a kurta. After looking me up on the internet, the bouncer laughed and said you don t look 30 , and let me in.