Mirroring Ophelia

parallel lives:Koechlin finds herself weighed down by expectations, similar to Ophelia.— photo: special arrangement

parallel lives:Koechlin finds herself weighed down by expectations, similar to Ophelia.— photo: special arrangement  


Drawing parallels with one of the key characters in Hamlet , actor Kalki Koechlin discusses the struggles of fighting patriarchy in Bollywood

It’s not unusual for Kalki Koechlin to advocate for female empowerment. Whether it’s using YouTube videos to promote gender equality or shouldering an unconventional film like Margarita with a Straw (2014), which touches upon disability and sexuality, the actor has often campaigned for women’s rights through her work. In Koechlin’s latest effort, this time for BBC World News, the actor draws parallels between the feisty Ophelia in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the plight of Indian women. According to Koechlin, the demon that both Ophelia and Indian women fight against is common: patriarchy.

On the occasion of playwright and poet Shakespeare’s 400th death anniversary, BBC World News invited five artists from across the globe to talk about the relevance of Shakespeare in their respective cultures, and compiled it in a documentary. Koechlin represented India, while the other artists comprised South African actor Dr. John Kani, Scottish musician Dame Evelyn Glennie, Chinese writer Hong Ying and Lebanese dancer and choreographer Alissar Caracalla.

Art as liberation

When the Indian actor of French descent was first approached by BBC World News for the documentary, she unhesitatingly picked Ophelia. Koechlin found several similarities between Ophelia and herself while portraying the character in a unique rendition of Hamlet (2012), directed by Rajat Kapoor. According to the actor, Ophelia wanted to be accepted socially as pretty, kind and popular, while simultaneously being judged for being so. Pondering over her own life as a Bollywood actor, Koechlin finds herself weighed down by similar expectations. Much like the fictional character, Koechlin narrates her true, untold story by unleashing her inner madness through art, which for her is acting in theatre and cinema.

But how could an ordinary Indian woman unfetter herself from the constraints of patriarchy? “Expression in any form, or any form of telling stories like singing or dancing, can be liberating. It could even be something physical, like architecture,” says Koechlin, adding that it must be devoid of influence from the society and must be done on your own volition.

In the documentary, the 32-year-old actor addresses patriarchy as deeply entrenched in Bollywood, yet not openly discussed. Koechlin recounts how she was offered a series of sex worker roles after the release of her debut film Dev.D (2009), in which she played a prostitute. Having acted in both mainstream and independent films, the actor has come a long way since then.

Cyclical problem

Koechlin notes that independent cinema still trumps mainstream movies when it comes to pushing gender boundaries. “But then there is a limited budget [in indie cinema], so the pay cheque suffers. Therefore, to balance that out, I do advertisement work where I’m portrayed as sexy, and as a glamorous icon. And I have to keep doing that because I have to support myself financially in order to do indie films.” Patriarchy works in a cyclical fashion, she says.

But the actor is positive about commercial cinema. Despite its flaws and shortcomings, Koechlin says it plays an imperative and irreplaceable role in driving change. “Until change happens in the mainstream, it’s not going to have a mainstream effect on people.”

She counts Piku and Queen as examples of mainstream films that challenge the accepted notion of having a male lead.

Breaking stereotypes

Koechlin believes, however, that advocating for women’s empowerment through cinema can be a double-edged sword for an actor. “I’m not always looking to do a women empowerment film, because I’m typecast [and] feel the need to break that. I feel limited if someone puts me in a certain category or box.”

She looks at a film from a realistic point of view, rather than a moralistic one. “Sometimes, a script can make me angry and frustrated, but it’s the truth. It can show men in a great light and women in a bad light, but that could be a reflection of reality.”

The actor dismisses the label of an activist bestowed upon her by the media. “My primary job is to express myself and the difficulties of life through my art,” says Koechlin, adding that she doesn’t go out of her way to make a statement and hence should not be branded as an activist.

Like Ophelia, Koechlin finds herself imprisoned by these expectations, a burden she shares with several other Indian women. With the changing times, the actor hopes Indian women, unlike Ophelia, can sail through the strong tides of patriarchy.

Kalki’s thoughts on parallels between Hamlet’s Ophelia and women in India can be seen here:

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 12:45:06 AM |

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