SHE IS FIERCE and outspoken. She does not accommodate outsized egos and gives the appearance of a bull in the delicate china shop of Bollywood, willing to call out people for who they are, be it Karan Johar, Hrithik Roshan or Saif Ali Khan. This was visible again last week in TV interviews where she took on several celebrities.
In India, stardom is all about worship. It is about people bathing a poster of Rajinikanth’s latest release in milk, of queuing up outside Galaxy Apartments or Mannat for hours to catch a fleeting glimpse of Salman or Shah Rukh Khan celebrating their birthdays.
Ranaut’s appeal—and it is immense—is different. It does not rest on the deification of a superstar, but on relatability. A person just like you and me, from a small Indian town perhaps, someone who may speak English with a halting accent but who is unafraid to raise her voice against unfairness. In a way, this appeal is representative of a new India. If in the past Amitabh Bachchan’s success was based on the identification people had with the image of an angry young man against an unequal order, Ranaut’s appeal is the emergence of a new confident middle-class in India, especially its women, and why—as they move from small-towns to large Indian metros or foreign shores with cosy male clubs like Bollywood or some corporate setup—they don’t need to be embarrassed about their origins. This image came to the fore in her breakout role in the film Queen—in which her character, despite her marriage not taking place, refuses to cancel her honeymoon and goes alone on a trip to Europe and discovers herself and her confidence—and has attended her public persona ever since.
The appeal of such a personality is potent, and face to face with it, other stars and directors appear like fools. And it is also an image that Ranaut carefully stage-manages. There is a scripted bluntness about her, a rehearsed wit to some of the things she says. The way she called Karan Johar ‘the flag-bearer of nepotism’, for instance, reduced a vast number of entertainment journalists to moving from one press conference to another for many weeks, asking any celebrity they could get hold of, “What do you think about the nepotism issue?”
Earlier this year, Saif Ali Khan, Varun Dhawan and Karan Johar cracked a joke at an award function saying, “Nepotism Rocks.” It was something that wouldn’t have created a flutter in the past. But not with Ranaut and the popularity she enjoys. The fury that it created, especially online, where the joke was seen as a way of bullying Ranaut, even though it could be interpreted as a wider jibe aimed not just at her but also at themselves, an admission that they owe their success to the film dynasties they hail from. Nepotism of course exists everywhere in India, not just in Bollywood, although it might be the most obvious there. It exists and is promoted among members of the very middle- class so upset at Johar and company for being beneficiaries of nepotism and taking on Ranaut.
Ranaut currently stands at an interesting crossroads in her career. While she has become a household name, barring the success of Queen and the two Tanu Weds Manus, none of her films in recent times has been successful. For all her popularity, she may also not be as subversive as she appears. There have been accusations of how she wrangled a writing credit for her latest film Simran, or how she had Ketan Shah removed as director for an upcoming film on Rani Laxmibai. It is clear that Kangana Ranaut wants to make a Kangana Ranaut film, just as Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan make Salman Khan and Shah Rukh Khan films. But then, that in itself is quite an achievement in an industry where female actors usually occupy supporting roles.