The year Kangana Ranaut made her debut in Bollywood, 2006, was a landmark year for the industry. Karan Johar attempted to move out of his familiar universe of frothy romances and directed Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna, a dark, albeit problematic, film on extramarital relationships. Farhan Akhtar made Don, a shocking reimagination of an Amitabh Bachchan classic. Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Rang De Basanti wove political commentary into the mainstream Bollywood format with unmatched confidence and flair. To add to this mix, there was Lage Raho Munna Bhai, which made Sanjay Dutt a ‘feel-good’ hero and Gandhi ‘cool’ for a short while. The year’s biggest hit Dhoom 2 was a typical Yash Raj product with a flimsy storyline, but it was high on style, music and swagger. That year, Bollywood films displayed spine, imagination and flourish.
However, there was one disappointing thing common to all these films — they cast some of the most popular and talented women actors of the time, but the films were paeans to the leading men. While Rani Mukerji (KANK) and Aishwarya Rai (Dhoom 2) had slightly better roles than Priyanka Chopra (Don, Krrish), Preity Zinta (KANK), Vidya Balan (Lage Raho Munna Bhai) or Soha Ali Khan (Rang De Basanti), they still unmistakably played second fiddle to the heroes.
Ranaut appeared in two middling films from the ‘Bhatt camp’ that year. Her debut was Anurag Basu’s Gangster, a film about a woman torn between a mafia boss with a kind heart (Shiney Ahuja) and a scheming cop (Emraan Hashmi). Pitted against more experienced male actors, Ranaut had the difficult job of holding the pieces of the story together. Her dialogue delivery needed some work but she acted with a quiet assurance. Her second film, Mohit Suri-directed Woh Lamhe, was promoted as being based on the life of Parveen Babi and her relationship with Mahesh Bhatt. As Sana Azim, a popular actor battling schizophrenia, Ranaut was spectacular, essaying the fear, anger and frustration of a talented star watching her life slip away from her. For years after that, many Bollywood-watchers seemed to view Ranaut in the same mold as her vulnerable, frenetic character in Woh Lamhe.
Fourteen years since then, Ranaut seems unconcerned by what people think of her, but everything else about and around her has changed. Now a successful actor whose talent can’t be ignored by her harshest critics, the 33-year-old has a swarm of champions hanging on to every word and tweet. Journalists tail her movements, angling for a new comment that will ignite controversy—they are rarely disappointed. People who once hailed her as a ‘path-breaking feminist’ and ‘the rebel Bollywood needed’ confess, often, that they are shocked and disappointed in her. Through all the noise, Ranaut continues baiting the ‘liberals’ and delighting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters.
To give Ranaut her due, she did not ask for any of the pedestals some of us had put her on. In fact, contrary to what this 2019 headline in Scroll says, the feminist media may have been impressed by some of her actions, but was far from being the “hand that fed her”. The reason she was on any of these pedestals — and I am saying this because she was on a few of mine — was actually because of her utter disregard for this kind of entitlement.
Few accolades, plenty of gossip
The year Ranaut entered Bollywood, I started my first job as a journalist in the small Kolkata bureau of a national English daily. While there were some inevitable ‘new-kid-on-the-block’ type of articles written about Ranaut in almost all English newspapers, what eclipsed her stunning performances was the ‘juicier’ gossip about her relationship with the much-older, married Aditya Pancholi. At the time, there was little space for writing about women actors with dignity, thoughtfulness and grace. Like now, there were many websites and columns that only focused on gossip, ‘blind items’ and unverified personal news about actors. Slut-shaming was not called out regularly, since social media was in the nascent stages.
Over the next couple of years, news on Kangana’s relationship and other gossip were published in English and regional media far more often than longer, thoughtful pieces on her work or her ambitions. In 2007, alongside some unimaginative films, Ranaut appeared in the multi-starrer Life… In A Metro, again an Anurag Basu film. She was cast alongside some known heavyweights and popular faces — Irrfan Khan, Konkona Sen Sharma, Kay Kay Menon, Shiny Ahuja and Shilpa Shetty. Again, as a young woman working in Mumbai, and in a thankless, exploitative relationship with a married, older boss, Ranaut brought her trademark vulnerability to the screen, oscillating between the lightness of a chirpy woman and the heaviness of being unhappily, desperately in love. Despite being a newcomer who had shouldered three complicated, dark roles with the ease of a seasoned actor in just over a year, Ranaut was mostly mentioned in passing in media reports.
It was only in 2008, when she played the role of Shonali Gujral in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion, that she finally seemed to catch the media’s fancy. In a film which focused on women, Ranaut’s acting prowess finally got the space to breathe. Her character wasn’t out of the ordinary—by then she had established that she was ridiculously good at playing a tortured, conflicted woman grappling with a tragic personal life—but in what was pegged as a “Priyanka Chopra film”, Ranaut’s cameo actually came across as having more candour, and landed her a National Award.
That year, I remember having a conversation with a school friend, an engineer who also wrote film reviews, about how Ranaut was a typical underdog and while she wasn’t discussed much in the media, we had both come to like the touching vulnerability she brought to her characters. She should get more good films, we lamented. Both of us agreed that she was unlikely to be considered heroine material by big production houses—her short, but powerful body of work made her ineligible to be the frothy, inconsequential, conveniently objectified, Manish Malhotra-clad Bollywood ‘heroine’ of the times.
“She is too dark for the Indian audience,” we concluded.
A Bollywood “Outsider”
As avid Bollywood watchers, it did not surprise us that Ranaut did not make it to Koffee With Karan for many years. In the back of our minds, we slotted her among one of the many brilliant women actors who have been treated by the Indian audiences and Johar’s ‘couch’ alike. Like Richa Chadha or Tapsee Pannu, Ranaut just didn’t seem like the kind of person Karan Johar could crack inside jokes with and rank colleagues as ‘most hot to least hot’.
Johar’s glossy couch reflected the narrow dimensions of womanhood an actor has to at least pretend to fit in to have Indian viewers pay to watch their films.The same viewers who applauded as they watched a Kabir Singh slap a woman for ‘love’ or a Chulbul Pandey threaten to slap a docile woman out of ‘affection’. A filmmaker I spoke to once revealed how top women actors from Bollywood would hanker for a Rituparno Ghosh film in Bengali because they were unlikely to get such roles in Bollywood, and they also fancied a ‘National Award’ alongside their easy-to-get Filmfare trophies. The audience would let one ‘serious film’ now and then pass, as long as the women kept prancing around men and did not challenge the fragile masculinity of Bollywood-watching viewers, dominated by men with greater purchasing power. The space for women such as Ranaut, therefore, always seemed small and suffocating in Bollywood.
So when Ranaut laughed and accused Karan Johar of nepotism while two men from film families stuttered, almost mortified on the director’s behalf, I relished the moment. This was 2017, Ranaut had done Queen and Tanu Weds Manu: Returns, and had been credited with carrying two massive blockbusters completely on her shoulders. Anyone who had watched her first few films wouldn’t be surprised at the confidence with which a much older Ranaut pulled off the roles.
With the emergence of social media and therefore the establishment of an alternative platform for opinion columns other than the complicated politics of film and fashion magazines, and some newspapers, Ranaut was finally getting her due. Her success, and more importantly, the way she visibly enjoyed it, was a necessary and much-needed recalibration of power structures in both Bollywood and the media that covered it.
The democratization of the opinion space came with its various ills, but it also offered the space where Rananut’s work could be appreciated by anyone with the privilege of access to social media. Ranaut’s swagger, therefore, also partially came from the knowledge that her credibility as an actor no longer depended entirely on when Vogue magazine honchos decided over their spritzers that she deserved a cover.
The hypocrisy of the Bollywood-fashion-television power cabal was visible long before Ranaut’s success. Shweta Bachchan made it to Vogue’s cover in 2012, despite having done nothing particularly significant in either fashion or cinema. Ranaut’s first cover came only in 2014, 8 years after her debut and a slew of great roles. Konkona Sen Sharma, Pannu or Richa Chadha have never been on Vogue’s covers despite a stellar body of work. On the other hand, three-film-old Sara Ali Khan and two-film-old Jahnavi Kapoor have been on the magazine’s covers already. The Vogue cover is particularly telling as Anaita Adajania Shroff, the magazine’s fashion director, works closely with Bollywood even styling for some films. These covers are not a sign of an actor’s success or prowess, but unsubtle evidence of how much weight the industry is putting behind a woman actor.
So Ranaut’s splash into the proper ‘limelight’ did not come due to a controversy or a big-name film, but rather for speaking the truth everyone knew but no one acknowledged. Even while she was being hailed as the brave new face of Bollywood, Ranaut refused to be slotted into easy boxes: she repeatedly refused to call herself a feminist and would not openly seek the validation of the young, ‘woke’ audience which applauded her. A rare exception was a video she made with All India Bakchod in 2017, ahead of the release of Rangoon. It was promotional work, but nevertheless, thoughtful and important, much like Deepika Padukone’s wordless appearance at JNU during the promotions of Chhapaak.
From Feminist Poster Girl to Right-Wing Twitter Warrior
So clearly, the media was never the hand that ‘fed’ Ranaut. At most, it backed her after she mockingly took on a Bollywood behemoth with a ‘yaaaas queen’ here and there. The media fed off Ranaut’s success for content, and she gave interviews to promote her work—at best, there was a symbiotic relationship there. And this is what makes Ranaut’s open support for bigotry now deeply disappointing. Like the media-Bollywood cabal she disses, the right-wing in India at present is a well-oiled machinery of abuse and intimidation which treats women with the same kind of disrespect and disregard she has often accused Bollywood of.
In fact, like Johar beat his chest and loudly declared he’d cast whoever he wanted to in his films with little regard for fairness, Ranaut responded to questions about atrocities on Dalits with a story about a Dalit woman her mother sheltered, and was brought up as her ‘sister’ in the family. Sharing photos of the woman’s son, who is married to a Brahmin girl, Ranaut indulged in trademark right-wing whataboutery. “The atrocities on Dalits you all tag me on, I have never experienced, but I believe you, but when I share the modern India my mother gave you who are you to call me a liar” she tweeted. Perfect #NotAllUpperCastes? Check.
Until recently, I liked and vociferously backed Ranaut because there was a sense of justice in her career trajectory. Not being a Bollywood reporter meant that I could afford to appreciate Ranaut’s public persona without having to negotiate for access to her. Her filmography — in which her characters went from ‘vulnerable’ (Gangster) to confident (Queen, Tanu Weds Manu) to unapologetically self-loving (Simran, Judgementall Hai Kya) — felt like a familiar arc from the lives of many women I knew, as they progressed from suffocating through patriarchal sanctions to finally learning to not care about them. Ranaut’s success as a woman who merely wants value for her labour and talent seemed oddly familiar, reassuring and I won’t lie, inspiring.
No, Ranaut never asked to be put on that pedestal. But life sucks, and we foolishly cling to hope whatever shape it comes in.
The actor has now chosen to ally herself with a bigger, more vicious and organised version of the Bollywood politics of exclusion that she has evocatively spoken against. Ranaut’s primary issue with Bollywood is a conflict as old as the Shiv Sena itself. The outraged response to Ranaut’s ‘attack’ on Mumbai — tales of how people lived and prospered in the city despite hardships — showed no awareness of the history of trauma and violence that Biharis and Tamilians have faced from the Shiv Sena or its offshoot Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.
Sanjay Raut’s pathetic comment that Ranaut is a ‘haramkhor’ is a sign of that prejudice, which strangely a lot of liberals fell over themselves to defend. Anil Deshpande’s threat that her face would be smashed, and the demolition of her Bandra office, had flashes of the violent identity politics the state has witnessed. On the other hand, the offence people took showed that they assumed ‘Pak-occupied Kashmir’, often referred to as ‘azaad Kashmir’ by its residents, was a hellhole no one wants to live in.
Ranaut, in effect, milked the dubious, largely uninformed politics of Indian social media to inch her way closer to a political career. She’ll have to tread carefully though. While right-wing supporters herded around her, the trolls made it very clear that their support was conditional. The moment she associated Sushant Singh Rajput’s alleged relationship with Sara Ali Khan with her relationship with Hrithik Roshan (a muscled Hindu man the right-wing wants to see as an alternative to the Khans), she was immediately asked to leave ‘Hrithik Sir alone’, and focus on Karan Johar and gang. It is impossible that an intelligent woman like Ranaut doesn’t see that the support she has amassed is fickle, selfish, and against a cause she used to fight against — the abuse of women by people in power.
In keeping with her ascension in the political side she has chosen, Ranaut has also turned to devaluing, abusing and heckling women online — an old, and now well-oiled strategy of the right-wing to intimidate and abuse women who don’t fall in line with their ideology. In a Times Now interview she called Urmila Matondkar, an actor with an incredible body of work, a ‘soft-porn star’. By framing it as an insult she also dissed the labour, agency and perhaps compulsions of women who work in porn.
As Navika Kumar, another woman in a chauvinistic television media business, smirked and encouraged the dehumanizing of other women — the anchor had herself led the charge against Rhea Chakraborty — Ranaut morphed into the perfect right-wing poster girl that an Akshay Kumar or Ajay Devgn would never openly admit to being. It’s probably important to note that Kumar and Devgn’s restraint in public often gets them plum government access — both interviewed Narendra Modi — and they will continue to do so. On the other hand, the BJP was quick to distance itself from some of Ranaut’s remarks. In the scheme of right-wing propaganda machinery, Ranaut still she still remains a convenient outlier.
Hypocrisy and ‘Manikarnika’
While Ranaut’s choice of politics disappoints me, I don’t really grudge her that. Throughout history, men and women have sidled up to political parties when convenient, attracting less than a fraction of the liberal hatred and mockery she has invited.
It is important to point out here that Ranaut’s ascension to politics through a vindictive Twitter campaign, preceded by her sister Rangoli Chandel’s malevolent tirades, is perhaps less dangerous than how men have progressed in politics in our country. The two biggest political parties in India and their leaders are tainted by the responsibility of organised pogroms that killed thousands of innocents. Rahul Gandhi may have been a teenager during the Sikh massacre of 1984, but his party members were accused of orchestrating it and his family still holds the reins to the Congress. Modi ascended to power on the back of a pogrom that killed over 1,000 Muslims, then rode on a political rhetoric of Hindutva, and his reign has unleashed both the formal and informal hunting of Muslims and Dalits in India.
Ranaut’s rhetoric, though vulgar and ill-informed, is still almost ‘innocent’ compared with the men who rule the roost of politics in our country.
What rankles us about Ranaut now is what rankled Karan Johar when she called out nepotism—just like she was not a quiet rebel, she won’t be a quiet bigot either.
Prior to her headlong plunge into right-wing toxicity, I used to be often amused by Ranaut’s constant anger about the sidelining of Manikarnika. She doesn’t speak much about Rangoon, Simran, Judgementall Hai Kya or Panga, excellent films that she completely made her own. With her recent anointing as a right-wing heroine, her ‘anger’ about Manikarnika makes sense. She clearly doesn’t prop up the film because she was closely involved with it as a producer, but because it can be cut to fit the Hindutva-sized propaganda in India. It’s another thing, like this article in The Print points out, that Rani Laxmibai’s biggest achievement was forming a coalition of Indians from various sections of the society. Her army was led by a Dalit woman called Jhalkari Bai and a Muslim man, Gaus Khan. Ranaut’s politics stand for the opposite of Rani Laxmibai’s.
Now, Ranaut, the rebel actor stuck steadfastly to what seemed to be her belief about cinema — she consistently made films which delved into the inner lives and conflicts of women. Ranaut the politician, perhaps, doesn’t feel compelled to walk the talk.
While Ranaut claims to know the innards of Bollywood and how the ‘mafia’ works, she just gave an interview to Times Now’s Navika Kumar. It’s hard to believe she isn’t familiar with the role the Times Network plays in enabling Bollywood to function in the old, moth-balled ways it used to do. From the group’s ‘parties’ where actors and celebrities vied to be seen, to actors and others buying front-page space in Bombay Times for their propaganda, the Times’s coverage of Bollywood was considered the last word. In fact, Ranaut has often railed against the group’s subsidiary Filmfare, an enthusiastic upholder of nepotistic privileges. In Navika Kumar’s last outing in Bollywood, before she kicked off a witch-hunt against Chakraborty, she begged Saif Ali Khan to get Taimur to give a flying kiss on live television. Until Khan dashed her hopes by saying, “Taimur is on the potty.” That’s who Ranaut has chosen to be her newest truth-teller.