Bollywood actor Kalki Koechlin’s offscreen talents—spoken word, podcasting

Going behind the scenes.
Going behind the scenes.
Image: Reuters/Joe Penney
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Actor and writer Kalki Koechlin added another feather to her cap last year when she became a podcast host.

When Koechlin first got an email from BBC’s podcast commissioning editor, Jon Manel, she ignored it. The second time, she passed on her manager’s contact and pushed it to the back of her mind. Finally, her manager notified her about a list of people Manel wanted Koechlin to interview. “When I saw that list, something changed,” Koechlin told Quartz. “There was a female ice hockey player, a male Muslim belly dancer. These are unique people doing things offbeat against the odds.”

On Nov. 23, Koechlin is back with the second season of the audio show, which interviews unique Indians about their life stories. The podcast My Indian Life is “all about being young and Indian” and will address “success, art and conflict” in its second season, the 35-year-old says in the new season’s preview which looks at a vast array of topics from the Kashmir issue, space exploration, travelling across the country, and beyond.

Below are edited excerpts from Quartz’s conversation with Koechlin:

Why do you think the BBC picked you as a host for this podcast?

Jon was saying he’s seen me doing alternative stuff. I’d already worked with BBC a little bit. I did a piece on Ophelia, so he’d seen that, and also some of the spoken word I’d done. He felt I was someone who reaches out to young people and who’s a little conscious of what’s going on in terms of the new generation and the changes here. It started there and then I got into podcast listening. I was like “oh shit, this is a new job. I have to learn a few things.”

What do you like and dislike most about the medium?

You’re not camera conscious. The interviewee is also far more relaxed. You can have a cup of chai and just be yourself. The challenges are when you’re in a studio setup and you have to make sure you don’t blow into the mic and then the interviewees get all “Oh, am I speaking alright” and their voice changes. I’m all “No, don’t listen to the editor! Just talk how you normally talk. Just be casual.” In trying to make them candid, many times I go off-script. I’ll ask where did you go today, what did you eat and then that conversation leads to their opinions on things—about Mumbai or about their travel or something—and then it goes into their past. I start with the present and then eventually lead them to talk to me about their childhood.

How do you pick the people and stories you will feature?

In the first season, BBC picked everyone. In the second season, we had a combination of things. Because I knew a little more about the podcast, I started asking people. And there were certain things I wanted to cover which we didn’t cover in the first season, like environment and the pressures of education. We also had great reviews and feedback from our listeners from the first season. Some of our guests are from letters that have been sent from the public.

What’s been your favourite response to the show so far?

Eshan Hilal, the belly dancer, has always been my favourite. He talks too much but now we’re like really good friends. He’s so full of life and candid. His life has changed hugely. Firstly, he hadn’t come out about his sexuality in the first season and in between, he got so much positive feedback that now he’s out and proud about it. He’s just flourished as a person.

Why would people choose podcasts over other entertainment like watching movies or streaming music?

When I listen to a podcast, it’s usually when I’m too tired to watch something so I can close my eyes. Or I can be in the kitchen cooking, and I’ve got this information coming in. It’s like someone telling you a story. I love that you can have that company without you being only engaged in that. The second thing is the amount of time we spend in traffic commuting. It’s nice to put on your headphones and not always listen to switched-off stuff but something that switches you back on.

Who is your typical listener and who do you hope the show will reach this time?

It’s a lot of young people. There’s a lot of listeners also in the Indian diaspora abroad because it’s in English. I’d like more Indians to listen to it here. I work in the entertainment industry and yet the people listening to my podcast are not my usual Bollywood followers so I’d love them to also tap into this.

How has podcasting helped you as an actor?

It informs you on so much. I had to research nanotechnology for one of my interviewees. I had to research the statistics of missing girls in India. Each week, I’ve got a whole bunch of information and TED talks and things to watch. As an actor, whatever skills or knowledge you pick up, you can always use it somewhere.

You’re the voice of the podcast. Who is working behind the scenes?

There are two incredible women, Ishleen Kaur and Prabhjit Bains, who are basically doing all the hard work. They’ve been travelling far and wide around the country, looking for these people. Then, of course, there’s Jon Manel and Richard Knight, who’s the editor back in the UK.

Would you ever consider becoming a podcaster independently?

The resources that the BBC has is fantastic and makes my life a lot easier. They do the research and I can just come in and learn it and talk. For me to start it on my own right now would be very difficult just from a time-consuming point of view. But it’s absolutely not out of the realm of possibility.

How have your work commitments changed since your pregnancy?

I wasn’t planning on being pregnant so I quickly called my agent and my managers and I said, “What are we gonna do?” We’ve been working quite hard the last seven months, finishing off projects that were already in hand. Of course, because I’m on some OTT platforms, there will be season two maybe of Made in Heaven and Sacred Games season 3 so there’s stuff down the line in the future. But it was important for me also, because it was my first pregnancy, to consciously take time off. I’m due at the end of January and January to April, I’m taking maternity leave for three months. Let’s see. If I need more, I’ll take it because I really don’t know what to expect. But the idea is to trickle back into work. I think we live in a world where we are multitasking all the time. Balancing family and work is a normal part of life. Luckily, I have a partner who is also equal with me. If I take off for work, I know he’ll be there with the child and vice versa.

You’ve spoken about equality and other social causes before. Are things like spoken word and podcasting a kind of activism?

My activism has to be very informed and there has to be a personal relation to it. There are many wonderful NGOs that come my way but I can’t get involved because I don’t know enough about that subject and it would take a lot of investment. There are certain things there’s an aptitude for just because you’re more experienced in them. Women empowerment or environmentalism—these are things I grew up with, I can talk about these things. And I’d rather do it through my work always. Through my spoken word or through a podcast, rather than just put a picture of myself up with a board saying “Save People.” I feel like that doesn’t really impact in a long-term way. It’s more sensationalist. I’d rather put in more effort and do fewer things.

Which is your all-time favourite medium to perform in?

Theatre is still my favourite medium. If I was paid the same cheque as I was for films, I think I’d do only theatre.

Are podcasts lucrative?

Not as lucrative as cinema but more lucrative than theatre.