Kalki: A Critical Omission from my Goris-in-Bollywood Post

I finally got round to watching Anuraag Kashyap’s Dev D (2009) last week and realised that I had made a key omission in my top 10 performances by goris (white women) in Bollywood movies post – Kalki Koechlin.

Dev D is a modern reworking of the classic Bengali novel Devdas, already adapted many times for the screen (most recently the 2002 Sanjay Leela Bhansali version). Kashyap’s version shifts the action to modern-day Punjab and Delhi. Kalki Koechlin plays the role of Chanda (Chandramukhi), a prostitute that Dev finds solace with after his childhood sweetheart Paro is married off to another man.

Kalki’s portrayal of Chanda, an unconventional but highly believable blend of sexiness, vulnerability and a hint of goofiness, stuck in my mind for days after I watched this movie. In Kashyap’s take on the story, Chanda ends up in prostitution after she gets embroiled in a sex scandal as a naive diplomat brat kid (she is filmed by an older man she is involved with, who shares the clip) and is disowned by her family.  The film follows her transformation from traumatized schoolgirl to sex worker in Delhi brothel, where she and Dev meet. Instead of performing mudras, Chanda re-enacts scenes from American porn movies and is adept at performing phone sex in a variety of languages, including Tamil. Pretty radical stuff for Bollywood.

The film overall is a bit soul-less but has much to recommend it – including an awesome soundtrack. Kashyap and co also deserve credit for raising some critical questions about the exploitation of women, such as who is really amoral – a girl who is duped into being filmed, or the thousands of men who watch the clip? The courtesan role has been a staple in Bollywood movies for generations but Dev D strips away any illusions about what these women actually do. No Urdu couplets or swarovski crystals here – just the sordid reality of an industry that thousands of women are trapped in.

Kalki herself may be a gori but she considers herself to be ‘fully Indian’ – she was born in Tamil Nadu to French hippy parents who were devotees at the Sri Aurobindo Ashram and says that she has no connection with France other than her ancestry. She left India to go to university in the UK, studying Theatre at London University (Goldsmiths College in Sa’af East London to be precise), but returned home to try her luck in Bollywood. I hope we will see a lot more of Kalki in future. And if she ever comes back to the Lewisham area I will take her out for masala dosa or idlis at my favourite Tamil restaurant, as long as she doesn’t mind the plastic chairs and sticky tables.

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