France’s complicated ‘white girl’ in Bollywood

Unknown in France, but a superstar on the streets of India, Kalki Koechlin says of herself: “My skin is white, but my heart is brown.” Known for playing the complex foreign woman in Bollywood movies, she is our French Face of the Week.

France's complicated 'white girl' in Bollywood
French-Indian actor and Bollywood star Kalki Koechlin. Photo: Youtube/Rajshri

Who is Kalki Koechlin?

She is a 29-year-old French-Indian actor and star of several Bollywood movies.

Why is she in the news this week?

After the announcement that this year’s Cannes Film Festival would feature a special tribute to the 100th anniversary of Bollywood, Koechlin has emerged from almost total anonymity in France, as the French public recognize one of their own amid the colossal movie industry based in Mumbai, India.

Tell me more.

Koechlin was born to “French hippie” parents, Joel and Françoise, in Katally, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, in 1984.

Despite being followers of the yogic guru Sri Aurobindo, the Koechlins sent their daughter to an international Christian high school.

From there, Koechlin studied drama and theatre at Goldsmith’s, in the University of London, where she received her training as an actor.

She speaks fluent English in a strong Indian accent, as well as French, and Hindi, which she learned for her first movie.

Give me a fun fact about her.

Well, one of Kalki's ancestors was the Swiss engineer Maurice Koechlin, who ran Gustave Eiffel's company at the turn of the century, and played a hand in the building of the Eiffel Tower.

What is she best known for?

After founding a theatre group and doing some modelling work in India, Koechlin made her breakthrough performance as “good girl” Leni, who moonlights as the prostitute Chanda in the 2009 Bollywood hit ‘Dev D’.

Her work earned her widespread plaudits, announced her on the Bollywood scene, and garnered a coveted Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress.

What has she been up to lately?

Koechlin began dating Dev. D director Anurag Kashyap after the release of the movie, and the two married in 2011.

Kashyap, 40, and Koechlin are something of a power couple in Indian cinema, working together as director and screenwriter, respectively for the controversial 2011 thriller ‘That Girl in Yellow Boots’.

Koechlin also starred in the movie, playing a British woman searching for her estranged father in India, only to become embroiled in the seedy world of Mumbai massage parlours.

In 2012 she won Best Supporting Actress at the Global Indian Film and TV Awards, for her role as Amy, a mentally disturbed young woman who moves from Los Angeles to Mumbai after the suicide of her mother, in the movie ‘Shaitan’.

As you may have noticed, there is something of a pattern in Koechlin’s movie work – the troubled, complicated white girl in an Indian setting.

What have others said about her?

“With her bee-stung lips, unusual face and refreshing lack of acting guile, Kalki Koechlin imbues the part [of Chanda] with a touching fragility,” said one critic reviewing ‘Dev D.’

What does she have to say for herself?

"Growing up as a white-skinned woman in India, I was always the odd one out – there was a certain alienation that came with that, and you end up alienating yourself because everyone comes to you like the white girl, the easy 'Baywatch', loose-moraled white girl,” she said at the New York premiere of ‘That Girl in Yellow Boots’.

Perhaps it’s best to judge for yourself, however. This is a fascinating interview in which she goes in-depth on her childhood, her French parents, and her own complicated sense of identity.

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French film club for English speakers returns to cinemas

Lost in Frenchlation, a film club that screens French films with English subtitles in Paris, is returning to cinemas this weekend after holding virtual screenings during lockdown.

French film club for English speakers returns to cinemas

Wednesday saw the reopening of cafés, restaurants, museums, theatres and cinemas in France since October.

This means that Lost in Frenchlation can return to cinemas, and film buffs who struggle to watch French movies without English subtitles can meet up again this weekend at the Luminor Hotel de Ville where the first screening is taking place this Sunday.

READ ALSO: French cinemas face 400-film backlog as they prepare to reopen

What’s on the programme?

The first event taking place on Sunday, May 23rd is a screening of Albert Dupontel’se César awarded film “Adieu les cons” (Bye bye Morons), a comedy drama about a woman who tries to find her long-lost child with a help of a man in the middle of a burnout and a blind archivist.

On Sunday, May 30th there will be a Mother’s Day special screening of “Énorme”, comedy, starring Marina Foïs and Jonathan Cohen, at Club de l’Étoile in the 17th arrondissement in Paris. 

On Saturday, May 22nd, there will be a virtual screening of “Joli Mai” by Chris Marker (1963) which inspired the documentary film Le Joli Mai 2020. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Chris Marker specialist & journalist Jean-Michel Frodon.

Lost in Frenchlation is a company that sets up screenings of recent French film releases with English subtitles to give Paris’s large international community access to French culture and meet others in the same situation.

For more information, check out their website or sign up to their newsletter (link here).