Koel Purie

“Acting is my favorite thing to do in the whole world – much more than sitting ‘On the Couch’ or any other thing!” ~ Koel Purie

There are television hosts and then there is Koel Purie. She’s an actress, a television host and a journalist with an attitude that simply cannot be imitated. Her now one year old show, Koel, which incidentally is Hindi for a Calling Bird, calls on some of the most amazing personalities: Pervez Musharaff, Imran Khan, Shashi Taroor, Shah Rukh Khan, Sushmita Sen are just a few people who have graced On the Couch with Koel. Unafraid to shed all her inhabitations when she interviews all these elite people on her furry fuzzy red “travelling” couch, you would never believe she actually researches every guest equipping herself with immense information and a volley of questions to throw at them. She was last seen on the big screen in 2008’s most acclaimed film Rock On! and even though her role was extremely small, Koel managed to leave a lasting impression. Roshni Magazine catches up with Koel as she packs up her home in Mumbai and is about to shift base to Delhi. Needless to say, she had heaps to say and all beyond interesting!

Koel, On the Couch with Koel is my favorite show. I never miss an episode. First and foremost, what is your obsession with the color red? I read somewhere you never travel without a red suitcase, and your overcoat, couch and many other things are red. What’s up with all the red?
Well it’s a bit of an exaggeration. There used to be a time that I did and I was obsessed with red. But I have to say that I’ve been packing up my room and I’m looking around, my bed is red, my cupboard is red, the bag that I’m packing in is red (laughs). And half my closet is red! So actually I can’t say that I’m not obsessed with it. I love red because it’s a very very fiery and passionate color. There is no iffyness about red; if you see red, it’s hot. And I don’t mean hot as necessarily sexy but it’s a very definite color. It knows its mind, highly-passionate and highly-fiery. And if I’m not necessarily all those things, at least I aspire to be all those things.

I agree! Let’s start with the show then. How did On the Couch come about?
Years and years ago, I was offered something to do with a cosmopolitan show who wanted me to do this kind of interview based show. I was like what if we do a cosmopolitan show about sex! And how about we do it on a bed and we have a travelling bed. Of course the Indian television thought it was a bit too risqué so it died at the pilot stage itself. And then many years later I had an opportunity to do a show and then I thought okay, maybe not a bed because that is very specific, but something that makes people very comfortable. So I thought couch because it’s also synonymous with the getting into someone’s mind psychiatrist way of thinking; definitely not the version that most people go “casting couch” in Bollywood. Most of my guests are movie stars so they turn around and go, “Woo! We’re sitting on the casting couch!” (Laughs) And I say, “Not quite…but if you want to think that, that’s fine.” I wanted it to be like a dissection of what’s going on behind the celebrity, behind the drama. And the way to do that is to get to know the person in a very comfortable situation and I thought what better than having the couch which is comfortable as well as the whole significance behind it.

I love your, “I’m not afraid to ask you anything” attitude and you’re never scared to debate them too. Is that a part of your personality or is this for TRP’s?
You know what after a long time, because most of the time I’m on camera acting; I’ve been able just to be myself on camera. And initially it was a bit daunting, because you need to find who you are in front of the camera, easier said than done that I’m just myself; because what is that self that you want to portray? So, I’d like to believe that now, I’m definitely myself. And that if being “myself” initially was overstepping the mark and being a bit cheeky because I didn’t know how to behave, it’s now become something that I’m very comfortable being. I’ve lucked out with that; I force myself to be me, and now that now become the kind of USP of the show in a sense. But I loathe journalists who push the personal angle beyond the point. It’s okay to ask it and if you genuinely sense that someone is feeling uncomfortable with it, drop it. So that’s why I don’t feel scared of asking anything if the vibe is right. And pretty much 99 percent of the time, I do gauge it right because people either open up or they turn around and they say, “Look, can we just drop this?” And I do. But sometimes, without going into who when how, but sometimes I also have misgauged it, where I pushed it and people have found me a bit like, you’re going into territory where you shouldn’t be. That’s a learning curve because I certainly don’t want to be the voyeur, I want to be the person who gets people to open up about things that even they don’t know they want to open up about but not be the person who asks, “Who are you sleeping with?”

You initially had no interest in journalism but on the couch is entertainment/social journalism wouldn’t you say?
Well that’s not entirely true. I started off my career as a journalist; I wanted to go to a Broadcasting Journalism School at NYU and as a part of that I did an intern with the only kind of television company that existed in the nineties known as Medi Tech. And they were providing programming for Door Darshan still, because DD was still the only kind of channel and STAR Plus which had just come in. So I started working for them as an intern and ended up, because they were desperate for people, having my own travel show called Great Escapes. So I was a kind of TV journalist in the sense and it so happened that I loved the job so much that I never bothered going to journalism school which eventually ends up happening; you learn more at the job. And I even read the news in fact for my Dad’s channel—I used to do all kinds of things. But at that point I was 21 years old. And then I kind of gravitated towards acting and it just took over as it does. It’s a profession that haunts you. If there’s even a slight inkling you might act, you will act; it will come and find you.

We’ve seen you in a number of fabulous films including On the road to Ladakh, Its Breaking News, Mixed Doubles, White Noise, and more recently Rock On!. How has the journey been so far in acting?
I’ve loved it and I hope that my journey with acting is not over (laughs). I want to be acting with the rest of my life! But yeah, my priorities for this moment in time, and I’m sure they’ll shift again, lie in television and shifting base from Bombay to Delhi. And inevitably, that means that acting takes a backseat. In this profession unless you have to be constantly at it – and I mean at it, on every level and in fact the higher you get, the more difficult it gets, because then you can’t do any rubbish; you have to do a certain caliber of production house and so on, so you’re constantly selling yourself. And eventually you get tired of that aspect of it; not of the acting ever. But you get tired of the business aspect of it and I got a bit fatigued with it and I’m sure I will bounce back; there is still that whole burning desire to act and it’s still my favorite thing to do in the whole world – much more than sitting on the couch or any other thing!

Who have been some of your most favorite guests you've interviewed? I loved your interview with Sushmita Sen! I think I saw it five or six times.
(Laughs) My favorite interview was Musharraff [General Pervez]. For me it felt like I passed a 10th grade board exam because I really put in a lot of effort into that interview. This was not in my realm and I didn’t want to come across as appearing like a moron or a ditz. So I worked the hardest on that one and I realized eventually that anything he would say, I was so well informed about that I could pick up on everything. So it paid off! Hard work always pays off! I got higher TRP’s for that episode than some of the big Bollywood stars! It was amazing because there was such buzz about it. It was the first time that people had seen a world-leader blushing, answering personal questions about silly stuff as opposed to what is on the agenda for Pakistan. Of course we talked about that also but it was not what I was interested in. I was interested in the man as opposed to the leader. For me, that was my most satisfying episode.

With Rock On! being one film that loiters in between, you’ve generally chosen more “arty” films as they are known as, as opposed to perhaps more mainstream films? Do you prefer being different than the usual to everyone else?
You know, it’s a chicken and egg situation. I gravitate towards films that make sense to me. Invariability, the films that make sense to me happened to be less mainstream films. But those are the films that I enjoy watching, the script is there and there is not this sort of ad hoc way of working. And then slowly but surely that is what is seeping into the mainstream as you pointed out yourself that Rock On! is one of those films that completely made sense to me even though it’s a much smaller part that I’ve ever played. But I was sure I wanted to be a part of it because it’s a fantastic project and it had all the right ingredients along with a brilliant script. And I didn’t care about what level I was a part of it, I just needed to be a part of it. So things like that, I fight for them and go after them, but the rest the films that don’t make sense to me, I don’t run after those films? And you know what, I’ve done a couple of them like Mere Dil Leke Dekho and Nazar, and I have to say that they were the most unsatisfying and frustrating experiences of my life because you’re working with actors who don’t know what the hell they’re doing, you don’t have your lines in advance, you’re not doing rehearsals—it’s not acting. And to me I’m not in this for any necessity, I’m in this for the love of it.

You’re also know for speaking your mind. After the 26/11 attacks, you did a whole episode at Leopold Café speaking to the common man about their afterthoughts regarding the 26/11 attacks and respectfully shed the red couch for a black one. How was that experience? Watching it on television is completely different from actually chatting with people closely associated with the heinous crime. Why did you choose to focus on them rather than take a celebrity outlook?
I actually was away when 26/11 happened. And pretty much like you, I was glued to my television and it was 24 hours on every news channel. And even the French, who are internally obsessed, for three days, it was just nonstop carnage being shown. When you’re far away, it affects you ten-times more than when you’re actually here and you see people getting on with their lives. And I was very disturbed by it. I cut my trip short and I came back, and I decided I wanted to be part of this effort. By this time, everyone who was anyone had spoken about this and rightly so because they were angry and felt the need to have a kind of outlet. Then I thought the people who haven’t had the voice was the common man and here I have a platform at my disposal on National TV that I can use correctly just for that. And it was a very obvious decision, that this is what I need to do and we did it. It was one of the most fulfilling experiences. Actually, initially when we started On the Couch started, we tried to sell it to the channel as much more of an Oprah show which would be that yes, we are a travelling couch but we go to people – anyone of interest. It could be an inventor sitting in Baroda or a huge celebrity or a poor person who has done amazing things just like Oprah. But of course, channels are all obsessed with TRP’s and asked whose going to watch this? No one. So you better get the biggest stars and get your show on the map, and then people will watch it for the show. So that was my way of saying eventually I’m going here—this is where my heart belongs; to give people a platform and chat!

What would you say Koel Purie stands for?
I don’t think I stand for XYZ. I stand for individuality and freedom which I don’t mean in a necessarily narrow vision, “political freedom.” I mean it at the core. I stand for freedom of everything; for women choosing who she wants to be, what she wants to be, discarding social norms, what she wants to wear, of career, and of course freedom of voice and speech. I stand for that. And anytime I see that being infringed, that really gets me going. In an obvious sense, that is what the terrorists are taking away from us. Every day we have to be a lot more careful with where we are going and what we are doing—they are taking that away from us. And it really is unacceptable at every single level. So I don’t know what I stand for but if I had to say, then I stand for individuality and freedom in every sense of the world.

And when you do have some spare time, what do you like to do?
Travel, travel, travel! I have a lot of time at the moment because my show doesn’t take up that much time of mine—not anymore. They are very organized. I have an excellent team. So it used to take up my entire week but now it takes up one day of my time. I travel loads and loads. And fortunately I have married an adventurer so most of our time is spent on adventures. My biggest stress buster is dancing! I absolutely love dancing. So I just put some music on with a bunch of friends and dance at home or go out dancing or take up a dance class even. And I love reading but that I don’t only do just in my free time, I do that all the time; I have to read a book before I go to bed or sitting on the toilet! (Laughs)

What is coming up on the acting front?
There are a couple of films that I have just finished. One lovely Canadian film called Amal. I think it has already done the American circuit but it will come out in India and the U.K. soon. And the other I’ve just finished dubbing for, which for the moment is called Mocktail and it’s by the same people who made BhejaFry. It’s an Indian adaptation of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. It’s excellent! It’s such a brilliant film.

You’re my icon in so many ways. What are your words of wisdom for people like myself who think you rock?
Me and wisdom? (Laughs) I think you’re completely on the right track because you’re lending a bit of yourself to it. And that I think is the key to anything; to be true to who you are. Even if who you are is a tailored personality for what you’re doing. It doesn’t have to be that what you are at home is what you’re showing the public, but be true to what you’ve decided that you’re going to show. And I think you’re already doing that! So stay true to who you are and never anyone curb your freedom.

~ Roshni M.
(September 2009)

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