THERE IS A CLICHÉ—content is king—that almost every Bollywood personality spouts, but nobody really believes in. Content is of course not king. On the chessboard of a movie’s essential components, it may be a rook or a knight, maybe even a pawn. But it certainly isn’t a king. A Hindi film’s success is dependent on a vast array of other things, from the way a film is positioned and marketed when it is released, to the way the film’s star projects him or herself.
Perhaps nobody understands this better than Kangana Ranaut, the star of Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. Films do not work because great actors star in them. It is because brands do. And Ranaut has been working on her brand, at least for half a decade ever since her break-out film Queen released; that was arguably the first female coming-of-age story in Bollywood, where a naive girl embarks on a journey of self-discovery after her fiancé calls off their wedding. One can perhaps argue that by the end of the film, it isn’t just the lead character, Rani, who finds herself. Even the actor playing her, Kangana Ranaut, does.
There are two ways you look at the phenomenon known as Kangana Ranaut. There is Ranaut, the fearless feminist. The talented woman from a small town who may have no industry godfathers but is unafraid of calling out the hypocrisy and nepotism in the industry. People don’t want her in the industry, she tells us, because she is an outspoken woman. Then there is the other view. As Karan Johar once said, “You cannot be this victim every time and have a sad story to tell about how you’ve been terrorised by the bad world of the industry.” She has built a church on stones nobody has really flung at her. Some of her recent collaborators claim she hijacks projects.
The truth is probably somewhere in between. Ranaut is an outsider who has made it in one of the most competitive and protected industries on her own. She is also smart enough to know that the only way you can win here is by breaking rules. She has converted what one would imagine could serve as impediments in the film industry—her accent, the fact that she has no film connections and hails from a small Indian town—into advantages and weaponised them.
It is not her fearlessness that has brought her here, or her talent. It is her smarts. And being smart sometimes requires being duplicitous.
Bollywood is at an interesting point. The end of three Khans appears to be near (they have begun delivering turkeys). And there is a bunch of young stars vying for super stardom. What few appreciate is that Ranaut is also gunning for it. She, of course, has disadvantages. Big names in the industry will probably stay away from her projects. Hence, the need to also direct her own films.
Ranaut has a long list of people who think her comeuppance is long due. And in recent years, most of her films failed. This probably explains why despite having a following among liberals— feminists, for instance, and media columnists who write in her favour—she made a strategic shift to the right end of the political spectrum, cosying up with godmen and politicians, and dissing liberals.
By all box office evidence, the shift appears to have paid off. Manikarnika has reportedly made over Rs 50 crore in the first five days in India and about Rs 11 crore overseas. Cumulatively, it is gradually inching towards the Rs 100 crore mark.
But the story of her stardom is not just about numbers. Hit films by some male superstars sometimes make four times that amount. Unlike the other films, which are made by the cream of the industry, Manikarnika (despite the loud protestations of its co-director Krish) is almost all Ranaut. It reaffirms the unique space she occupies in the Hindi film industry.
That’s what makes her success different.