"It Takes A Village": Actor Kalki Koechlin Talks Conservation, Sustainability, & Motherhood

Kalki Koechlin
Kalki KoechlinRustic River Media

From the very beginning of her career as an actor, Kalki Koechlin has done things her own way and has blazed a trail across Indian cinema that’s shown both her contemporaries and up-and-comers that there’s room to be deliberate, measured, and thoughtful in your approach to projects, even in a creative industry demanding and chaotic as Bollywood. She’s always been unfettered by the burden of expectation; using her freedom to explore untapped avenues of expression, as both a performer and an individual. This unique approach mirrors her overall worldview; one that’s been shaped by a combination of her parents, her peers and the environments and locales where she spent her childhood and early adolescence.  

Today, Kalki finds herself juggling her creative pursuits with the immense responsibility that comes with being a mother. Spurred on by an innate sense of connection and an unwavering conviction, she’s been using her influence and her artistry to champion a cause that’s always been very close to her heart; creating a more sustainable, environmentally conscious world. We caught up with Kalki recently for a conversation where we talked about her role as a conservationist, her take on the concept of ‘hope’ as well as how she sees the current trajectory of homegrown film and television. 

How big a role did your upbringing have in shaping your views on sustainability and conservation? Was being environmentally aware something that was always important to you?

I think it was always important to me. I think I just took it for granted because I grew up in such rich natural environments. I spent a lot of time growing up in Pondicherry and Auroville where there’s a lot of organic growing and other such sustainable ideas. I also spent time at a boarding school where activities included going trekking and camping; just really being out and about in nature, so it was all very much part of my growing-up years. I always found that even though I’ve lived in a lot of big cities, I always crave nature. I like to remind myself that I’m a part of a much bigger interconnected ecosystem and that there’s far more to life than what just goes on in our heads.

Would you say that conservation and conscious living has shaped your role as a creator? How do you intersect conservation with creativity when it comes to your professional pursuits in a world that’s so obsessed with the bottom line? Have you ever had to choose between a professional commitment and your own personal ethics pertaining to sustainability? How do you reconcile the two in a world that’s often, at best, apathetic to any sort of conservation effort?

Conservation is familiar to me because a combination of my parents, who fought alongside wildlife conservationists, and my first boyfriend, whose parents were climate conservationists in the Satpura sanctuary. I got to go there and see the work they were doing firsthand when I was just a teenager so I think for it’s always just been something that’s necessary and beautiful.  It’s a way of life as well as being about saving the planet. It’s also about philosophical choices and the kind of life you want to lead as well as the things that are important to you; whether you value material things or whether you value time and experiences. I think that is a major philosophy that has come into my creative life. I think we’re here to experience and we’re here to express and we have to give that a certain amount of space despite our daily commitments. Apart from all of that, I believe that there’s also a creative space that we need in order to express and to know what’s going on inside our bodies and our minds. 

Why do we need a conversation with a friend over tea from time to time? There’s no quantifiable value to it necessarily but it’s still really important. You still need that time and you still need that connection and I think that is the key to everything and why we’re on this planet. It’s to have connections. Everything has a ripple effect and we are all connected to each other. 

I’m lucky that the brands I support are in tune with my beliefs and what I advocate for but there have been times and situations where I’ve found out that a brand that I was endorsing had been involved in animal cruelty. The minute I found out, I cut my ties to the brand. I do try to find a balance in that aspect of my life, even though I can’t always find the perfect brand or company. There are some hard ‘noes’ for me, especially when it concerns the things I believe in. 

Are there any initiatives or organizations at a grassroots level or beyond that people need to be paying attention to and even supporting in the battle towards creating a sustainable future? Do you think the mindset of Goa and its people makes conservation a little bit easier when compared to the frantic dog-eat-dog nature of a city like Mumbai or even Delhi? 

I do think we have access to knowledge and innovations in cities because of situations which are extreme. Whether it’s a redevelopment program or a housing program; all of this has come from urban situations that need to be addressed. I think we need to be questioning our companies and our government. There are a lot of avenues for personal growth in sustainability. We’re hearing about more sustainable fashion brands, organic food, and about how we can compost, which are all great on an individual level, but until the big brands stop selling poison and the government starts imposing stricter regulations, we’re not going to be able to win this battle.

On an individual level, we need to ask questions. Whether that means choosing not to endorse or buy from a big company that’s causing harm to the environment or even just signing a petition against air pollution, there are myriad of ways to do it. But I think focussing on the big picture is going to be even more important going forward.  

You’ve spoken about the concept of ‘green parenting’. While no one can overstate the importance of inculcating environmental awareness in younger generations, there’s also a ton of doom and gloom and even a lingering sense of hopelessness in a number of individuals. How do you convince young people to fight for a world that those who came before them have ostensibly destroyed? Do you believe there’s room for optimism within the battle for sustainability? 

There’s a natural cycle to our systems of hope and hopelessness. We grow up with a lot of hope when we’re very young and I see that in my daughter, who’s constantly recognizing the flowers and the butterflies and the sunset. She’s really aware of the beauty around her. But I know her teenage years will come and I don’t even know what the world’s going to be like then. She’s probably going to be like “My God, this place is awful. The politicians are terrible and the world is doomed.” 

After this phase,  I feel like we enter into an ‘ostrich in the sand’ phase where we just get on with our careers and our lives and do the things we want to do. But then, as we start to get older, we start caring more about the connections we have with the people we love and start caring more about the environment around us. It’s a full circle that keeps getting renewed with every generation. So I think it’s natural to have times of hope and times of hopelessness. I think the cycle exists in a way where we’ll always try to strive for the survival of the species, so in that sense, I think I have hope. 

Do you believe motherhood has allowed you to evolve as a creative and as an individual? Are there any lessons you take from your responsibilities as a mother that overlap with your role as a conservationist and an actor?

Personally, I realized how much more nurturing I am about life in general. From the minute she was born, I found myself thinking about what could possibly cause her harm and how I could prevent that. I remember thinking, “Why don’t I do this for myself?” and  “Why did I have to wait to have a child to realize this is important?” 

It was a good reminder that we do deserve a better life and a better quality of life. In terms of my creativity, I feel like some part of me has been erased completely. I’m a completely different person compared to who I was before I became a mother. I think you become a new person in many ways. At the same time I feel more in touch with myself than I ever have before. You start to prioritize your life in a very different way when you have another life to take care of and be responsible for. You suddenly realize the rat race and all of that isn’t everything. You have to find community and you see that you are very much dependent on many people for support. It really does take a village to raise a child and you can’t do it on your own. You need to be able and willing to ask for help, so I think it encourages you to build a community. 

The landscape of homegrown film, television and even theatre has changed immeasurably over the last decade or so. While OTT platforms like Netflix & Prime have allowed independent creators to have a wider audience, people are oversaturated, overstimulated, and largely spoilt for choice. How do you personally select projects that are right for you as a creator? Is there a process you follow or does it largely come down to a combination of experience and instinct? 

It’s a combination of practical reality and instinct. On one hand, it becomes a question of “Can I handle this project now that I have to balance it with my responsibilities and schedule as a mother?” 

On the other hand, it’s about instinct and asking whether this story makes me curious. The minute something sparks that is when I start to gravitate towards it. I definitely feel the saturation and that even what was once considered ‘alternative’ has now become fairly formulaic. When something works people just want to make the exact same thing and there’s that feeling in a lot of the scripts I read.

I’ve always taken my time and not felt like I have to just have a project for the sake of having one. The reason I’ve been able to take my time is because I busy myself with other things and dive into writing, theatre and other creative avenues. I try to explore and expand my creative horizons as much as I can and make sure that it's not always via the same medium.  

You can follow Kalki here.

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