Kangana Ranaut, the rebel with a cause — Birthday special

Actress, National award-winner, owner of the victim card and badass card, Ranaut is a phenomenon that the Hindi film industry is struggling to understand. As the actress turns 30, we look at the career of this new-generation rebel of Hindi cinema. 

Shriram Iyengar

In an interview with a tabloid this year, Kangana Ranaut said, "They can't kill my fierceness." It was a statement that echoed the personality of an actress that Hindi cinema is struggling to understand or contain.

After making her debut in Anurag Basu's romantic drama Gangster (2006), the actress has evolved into one of the staunchest independent voices of the female battalion in Hindi cinema. With three National awards to her name, it has become harder for insiders to cast her aside as an eccentric. That is why, when she walked on to Karan Johar's chat show Koffee With Karan and mocked him as the 'flagbearer of nepotism' and 'movie mafia', it rankled him to the core. It was not that Ranaut did not have the credentials to make the call; it was just that she is an outsider. Ranaut is the spanner in the works. The fly in the ointment. 

Since that episode, the battle between Johar and Ranaut has escalated. Hitting back at the actress, Johar advised her to 'quit the industry' if she thought it was so riddled with nepotism. He even accused her of playing the 'victim card'.

The debate has often threatened to divide the industry right down the middle. Recently, Shahid Kapoor, Ranaut's co-star in Rangoon (2017), said, "Kangana has a thing for one-liners. Some discretion is welcome. I wish her all the best. I wish she gets along with some co-stars. It will be good." 

In Ranaut's defence, her arguments have never been denied. Aamir Khan, flagbearer of intellectual and 'honest' cinema, said on his birthday, "It's normal human nature to try and help people you love and care for. It doesn't have to be someone from your family. So it's a very natural emotion."

In an industry where actors change names to maintain tradition, this attitude is not surprising. What makes Ranaut special is her ability to not let go of the fight, to not accept the status quo. 

Ranaut symbolizes a paradigm shift in the functioning of Hindi cinema as an industry. She is at the head of a wave of female stars demanding equal treatment. Priyanka Chopra, Swara Bhaskar, Anushka Sharma are some of the others carving their own path in the industry. However, most of them maintain a civil, sober style when making comments on the industry's functioning. They keep up appearances.

Ranaut is a street fighter from the hills. Compare these statements, on nepotism. Swara Bhaskar said, "Bollywood as an industry is based on relationships, it has always been star-driven and it has an element of feudalism. So, it would be difficult for an outsider...". Ranaut, on the other hand, said on Johar's show, "In my biopic, if ever it's made, you'll play that stereotypical Bollywood biggie, who is like, you know, very snooty and completely intolerant towards outsiders, flag-bearer of nepotism, the movie mafia." One feels like an attempt to soften the blow while the other is an uppercut that lands smack on the chin.

Born in a middle-class family in the small town of Mandi in Himachal Pradesh, Ranaut has been criticised for several things throughout her career. But with Fashion (2008), Tanu Weds Manu (2011), Queen (2014) and Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015), she has become too big for the industry to ignore. Her choice of films has been just as brave and radical as her statements. From Hansal Mehta's upcoming Simran (2017) to Krish's biopic on Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Ranaut's characters are unbridled feminist icons. 

Kangana Ranaut as Julia in Rangoon (2017)

This is not to say that Ranaut does not have the ability to keep up appearances. Her decade-long survival in the industry is testament to her ability to manipulate the system. However, she has mastered the art of making statements that ensure the attention remains on her. She also refuses to fit into the system that the industry often slots artistes into.

After her debut in Gangster (2006), followed by Woh Lamhe the same year, Ranaut was often cast as the vulnerable woman, emotionally unstable, constantly in search of love. Films like Raaz: The Mystery Continues (2009) and Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai (2010) are examples. As she has often pointed out, big-time directors would avoid her as she never fit the stereotype of the pretty girl next door.

During her much-publicized breakup with Hrithik Roshan last year, Ranaut was slandered with the same attributes that often defined her characters. Roshan famously accused her of suffering from 'Asperger's syndrome'. Nevertheless, Ranaut persisted and dragged the actor to court. In the end, the legal battle and infamy proved damaging to Roshan's image. 

Despite being stereotyped as a 'weird girl', the actress in Ranaut has been fighting. Since her breakout role in Tanu Weds Manu (2011), she has scaled new levels. She has consistently picked characters that are independent, real, and have a personality. And like the feisty Julia in Rangoon (2017) or Datto in Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015), Ranaut has started to speak her mind.

Directors like Vishal Bhardwaj are now looking to her as a muse. Bhardwaj's decision to cast Ranaut in the role of Julia was a statement. Fearless Nadia, an Australian woman, earned her nickname for daring stunts and her almost masculine image. Like Ranaut, Nadia had to struggle to fit into an industry standard before she decided to completely overthrow it.

There have been actresses before who shook up the Hindi film industry. Rekha, a standout example, continues to baffle fans and insiders alike with her enigmatic life. Tabu, Vidya Balan, Kalki Koechlin, Priyanka Chopra belong to a new generation of outsiders who are seeking to overturn the status quo and make a difference. They are fighting against the cohabited myth of a united and egalitarian society of artistes that Hindi cinema industry has maintained for so long. In some ways, they are fighting to make that myth a reality.

What sets Ranaut apart from these women is her blatant disregard for this myth. In his novel Sapiens, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari says, "Since large-scale human cooperation is based on myths, the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths — by telling different stories'. 

Ranaut is telling a different story to the world. Not many insiders will like it, but it is a story that needs to be told.