Although Kamlesh, who had come down from Chicago to try her luck in Bollywood, was pretty much Kangana Ranaut’s mother’s age, they shared the Asha K Chandra’s working girls’ hostel in Juhu—a popular orientation school for beginners in Bollywood. One evening in early 2005, Kamlesh and Ranaut stepped out to catch Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black at a neighbourhood theatre. As Ranaut recalls, “When I saw Rani Mukerji perform, I told Kamlesh aunty, ‘I can do this.’ She tried to calm me down, took me out for dinner to the JW Marriott hotel, and we talked at length about what I had said. Kamlesh aunty eventually laughed hysterically at the thought that I could actually act like Rani in Black.”
“It was hurtful. But was she right? Was I being delusional? That night I came home, stood in front of the mirror, imagining it to be the camera, and repeated scenes from the film—trying to be blind, using sign language, making blank faces and sounds, choking myself in such a way that I wasn’t actually choking myself... I knew I could do this.”
Given that I’d planned to have a conversation with Ranaut, 29, that would cover various turning points in her life that have led her to where she is now—a bona fide Bollywood star—I asked if Kamlesh aunty’s taunts that night didn’t count as the trigger. She was 18 then, living on her own, working as a part-time model in Mumbai, auditioning for roles in films.
“That was one instance, yes,” she says. Bhansali’s Black, quite literally a dark film, which centred on the female character, gave Ranaut hope: “Around that time, the film industry was dominated by beauty queens, item numbers and female leads who hardly got three proper scenes.”
But the dream had begun even before she moved to Mumbai, when she accidentally walked into director Arvind Gaur’s theatre workshop in Delhi’s India Habitat Centre. It had changed her life. Incidentally, it was Gaur, a veteran of Delhi’s Hindi theatre scene, who pushed her to move to Bollywood. “There’s no money in theatre,” he’d told her; Gaur wasn’t able to make enough to pay for his ailing mother’s treatment at the time.
“Around that time, the film industry was dominated by beauty queens, item numbers and female leads who hardly got three proper scenes.”
“So I had already learnt how to break down performances or study characters,” Ranaut says. “When I came to Mumbai, I was essentially waiting for a break, desperate to work and make ends meet.” It was shortly after that movie date-night with Kamlesh that everything happened “all at once,” she remembers.
Ranaut landed a music video she’d auditioned for; got called to play the female lead opposite southern superstar Mahesh Babu in Puri Jagannadh’s Telugu film Pokiri (2006)—later remade into Wanted, which turned around Salman Khan’s career in 2009. And she was offered the part of a moll on the run, in Anurag Basu’s Gangster (2006). She had to pick one.
She chose Basu’s Gangster, which she’d been initially rejected from for being too young and skinny for the role. Actor Chitrangada Singh had first bagged that part, but was forbidden from acting by her new husband, golfer Jyoti Randhawa. Producers Mahesh and Mukesh Bhatt were in a fix at the last minute. Ranaut came on board, and finally made her Bollywood debut in 2006.
It does make sense to break down Ranaut’s journey into plot points. Not just because her life itself reads like a film script—of which she is very much the hands-on director. But also since she’s used to thinking in that way, being a legit screenwriter; she has written a full-length feature that she hopes to direct, among many others, soon.
Excerpted from Elle's March cover story. To read the full story, subscribe to the print edition here.
Bias silk gown, Prabal Gurung. Metal, resin and pearl earrings, Dior. Sterling silver ring, Misho. Photographs: Prasad Naik, Styling: Malini Banerji,