At the start, interviewing Kalki is punctuated by her changing gears while driving, and greeting a neighbour she bumps into in the hallway. When we get to chatting about the Cosmo Quiz part of the interview, she literally squeals. "What fun! People are always asking me such dark questions—I'm much more light-hearted than people think, you know." That's when we realise—Kalki is about as real as a girl can get. Who else, we wonder, would casually chuckle that nothing quite relaxes her like her vibrator—and not follow that up with a quick, 'but that's off the record' for political correctness?
She's the very picture of 'together' now, but she insists that, as a kid, she was a strange mixture of shy and awkward—and wanting to be friends with everyone. "I was the class clown, a performer; but I couldn't make conversation in social situations," she says. "If you walked into a party, I'd never be the centre of attention. I was never the girl telling the story that had everyone listening intently, hooked." She laughs and muses, "I'm still like that. I'd love to live in a commune kind of situation, in the way of old-timey villages. You know, where everyone's living in the same house as me and raising their kids—as long as I could still have some privacy."
Privacy, however, has not been on her plate of late, given her divorce from filmmaker Anurag Kashyap in May of this year. "I had to stop reading the paper for eight or nine months because, every day, there was something new and painful. Anurag and I even stopped following each other on Twitter and Insta and stuff to just get a break from one another. Getting over someone is hard enough, and social media essentially just rubs salt in the wound," she says. "It's been almost two years since I moved out, so it feels like (and it has been) a long time. But the media keeps it fresh. You can't plan for a breakup, and the trouble was that it wasn't only a marriage Anurag and I shared; it was ideas. We were part of each other's creative process," she explains.
But, brave face on, she kept her chin up and got on with it. "Only my friends saw that weak and vulnerable side of me, and thank God for them. I'd call them up at unearthly hours, and they were always kind." She smiles and reminisces, "I'd sometimes wake up and know that I just really didn't want to be alone. Instantly, it was phone-a-friend and I'd pop by their place to have breakfast," she recalls. "Sometimes, there'd be parties where I'd run into him and get this 'God, I just don't want to see you' feeling. It's a painful thing, but we're still very much a part of each other. And we've stayed friends, like we knew we would. We just had to go through all the bad stuff to get there, I suppose."
She adds that, with relationships in general, the biggest mistake people make is having unrealistic expectations. "We need our partner to be our lover, our protector, our best friend—all rolled into one. The need for them to provide in so many ways is so much that the pressure is on," she says. "Ourselves, we tend to go in reverse. That now that we're in a relationship, it's okay to no longer make an effort—this laissez-faire attitude comes in and we start to take things too easy." Back to the Anurag subject, she says, "My way of distracting myself when the going gets tough is by focusing on work," finishing with a 'shake-it-off' note in her voice.
So, focus on work is what we do, congratulating her on all the acclaim she's been accruing for Margarita, With A Straw. "I did this role differently from others in terms of my own preparation—I'd done daily riyaaz (rehearsal), like I do with theatre. That's why, unlike with my other films (where I take three or four warm-up shots), I got everything in one take. It became second nature, I started walking, talking and moving my shoulders like Laila." She admits that it wasn't only her inner actor that blossomed in the process. "I'll be honest, I was intimidated by disability. I didn't know how to deal with it. But nothing will teach you how to get under the skin of a character and figuring out where they're coming from!"
The film was a risk, she tells us. "People told me it was such a bad decision to do it, that it'd never work, commercially. The character was too 'out there' for Hindi cinema, where there tend to be these two, solidified tropes of women—idealistic and virginal, or coquettish, vamp-slash-item-girl. Where are the ordinary women?" she asks, passionately, "the vegetable vendors, the female rickshaw drivers in villages? That's what we need to see more of."
But she's realised it's glamour that truly sells in Bollywood. "The minute you get mildly famous, a team of people kidnap you. They decide what you're going to wear, who you can be seen with, what haircut you should get, what you're supposed to say—you need to have a strong personality to ride out the wave. Be careful," she warns, laughingly, "what you see of somebody might very well be less than five percent of them." This isn't the first refreshingly forthright opinion she's had. She's not a big fan of censorship, believing that "telling our adults what they can and can't watch is a scary thought. It's a form of mind-control, and it limits freedom of speech and expression. That's not okay in a democracy!"
And it's that freedom of speech she champions so strongly in comedy. Her reaction to the AIB Roast is proof. "People react so strongly to comedy because it's becoming so popular. It's now being seen as a threat to the 'moral standing' of our country—but that's what comedy is," she grins, "the real fight against power!"
One of her biggest fights though, is against what she calls 'the white girl stereotype'. "Okay, I know I technically shouldn't be cribbing, because being white is this 'major privilege', but there's always been this notion that white women are 'easy' and 'loose' (is it because we all watched so much Baywatch back then, she ponders). And I, being the kind of person who smiles at everybody with abandon, have always had to ward off that awful stereotype! It's really frustrating!"
Her tone turns grave, though, when she addresses a more serious issue she wants people to talk about, "I recently spoke out about how I was sexually abused as a child, because it really bothers me that so much sexual violence and crime in India goes unreported. There isn't one woman I know who hasn't had an incident of abuse in her youth, and still, it's kept buried. Speaking out about sexual violence is a change I'd really like to see in this country."