Kangana Ranaut doesn't care if filmmakers think she is interfering Advertisement

Kangana Ranaut doesn’t care if filmmakers think she is interfering

She calls herself "inherently opinionated and a badass"

By Mayank Shekhar  May 26th, 2017

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 neighbour-hood 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.

“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.

Kangana gangster

Kangana Ranaut in Gangster (2006)

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.

A few years after Gangster, when the films that were being offered to her, or ones she was picking up—Knockout (2010), Rascals (2011), Double Dhamaal (2011), etc—didn’t match her expectations, Ranaut took off to do a short-term course in film-making at the New York Film Academy.

“Direction was my Plan B,” she says. “The idea was to gain complete creative control. As an actor, you are supposed to promote a film with conviction, yet one has to sometimes beg to even see the poster before it’s out. Actors are often seen to be interfering in the [film-making] process.” 

By the time Ranaut was back from the US in 2013, having directed a short film, Touch, a pilot for the feature she has in mind, Queen had opened in theatres. It turned out to be the unexpected lever that catapulted her to unprecedented stardom: “It’s ironic that just when I had decided to quit [acting], this happened.”

kangana ranaut in queen

Kangana Ranaut in Queen (2013)

I remember checking out pictures of Ranaut’s birthday party after Queen’s release. Few images denote this kind of arrival in Bollywood, with the who’s who, Amitabh Bachchan onwards, lining up to wish her. I had attended her birthday a year or two earlier. It had been a quiet, sombre affair.

Queen had captured the zeitgeist, resonating in particular among young girls in cities and small towns. Ranaut is also co-credited for the film’s dialogues. Her character, Rani, who travels solo in Europe, hails from cosmopolitan Delhi, but shows the naiveté of her roots in Rajouri Garden, a middle-class neighbourhood. The story mirrors Ranaut’s own life in many ways—of someone who cracks social codes of a world so distant from her own, and on her own terms. 

She was raised in a village, off Mandi, in Himachal Pradesh: “The arc is huge. The places I go to seem like a culmination of five to six lifetimes. I’m the only rags-to-riches story. No one’s come from the grassroots [in Bollywood].”

This is true. The top female actors currently dotting the landscape in mainstream Hindi cinema are often kids from film families—Sonam (Anil Kapoor), Sonakshi (Shatrughan Sinha), Shraddha (Shakti Kapoor)… One didn’t witness this phenomenon up until the mid 2000s, when film families were wary of sending their daughters to work in Bollywood. The outsiders as well—Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma— come from relatively affluent homes, even if from small towns, in some cases.

Ranaut was barred from watching movies or television while growing up. Her contact, if any at all with showbiz, was through the gossip pages of the newspaper Punjab Kesari, which she would occasionally gawk at. She says she found those heroines to be “utterly unreal”.

Studying science in Chandigarh, rooming with fashionable girls from the North East, was her first window to this other world, to urbane chic: “Giving up a shirt and salwar kameez for a sleeveless top, or skinny jeans, was huge for me, but it’s hardly high fashion in a showbiz sense.”

She picked up most of the latter on the sets of Madhur Bhandarkar’s Fashion (2008), engaging with the film’s stylist Rita Dhody, carrying clothes from the set to try out at home. (Nowadays, it’s no longer even novel to see her sitting front row at some international fashion shows; it’s like she’s been there all along.)

By then, of course, Ranaut had already been around in Hindi cinema for a couple of years. She was “expected to speak in English at press interviews and summits.” She evidently struggled with the language. She hired an English tutor: “I would express my thoughts to her in Hindi. She would translate the sentence back in English. This is how I would pick up new words.”

That her family back in the village had disowned her following her career choice is all too well known. “There were times,” she recalls, “when I had no food to eat. And I was a minor. I’ve been through situations no sane person should.” She tells me she’s currently building a holiday home in Himachal, takes at least three to four vacations a year, loves to shop… “But there’s no such thing as enough love or money. Humans are an ungrateful species,” she laughs.

Coming from a small town, or a remote village, as in Ranaut’s case—and breaking into an alien social setting, would instil in some a natural insecurity. She, however, wears her humble origins as a badge of honour. “Chutzpah,” a catchword from her current director Vishal Bhardwaj’s last film Haider (2014), comes to mind as you observe her swagger at public events, and candid interviews, where she takes on Bollywood biggies, like Hrithik Roshan (whether they were allegedly, or actually, dating). Ranaut calls herself “inherently opinionated, and a badass”, yet her barbs aren’t frivolous, anchored as they always are to some larger cause—perhaps freedom, or feminism. She inevitably sounds smart, or refreshing, at any rate.

Kangana koffee

Kangana Ranaut on Koffee With Karan (season 5)

Saccharine political correctness and mutual back-slapping has hollowed out public interest in leading stars’ lives, as Karan Johar also observes in An Unsuitable Boy (Penguin Random House, 2017), his recently published memoir. Almost as a rejoinder, Johar gets a taste of Ranaut on his popular chat show, as she brazenly calls him out on nepotism, classism, obsession with stars and gossip, before a national TV audience. The host sits there looking slightly gobsmacked on his own show. While I write this, that episode of Koffee With Karan is going viral. Given how far she’s travelled, it seems as if Ranaut has much more to prove than to lose by stubbornly being herself.

Queen, an overnight sleeper hit, was a game changer of sorts, as much for her, as for the Hindi cinema heroine. The films she’s picked thereafter have inevitably pivoted around the female lead, like Revolver Rani (2014), and doubly so with the Tanu Weds Manu sequel (2015), where she played two totally disparate characters for her second National Award-winning turn, after Queen.

Big on seizing the moment, Ranaut’s also made much-justified noise since to ensure pay-parity, based on the length of her roles, rather than gender. Which means, in Bhardwaj’s Rangoon, which released last month, her biggest budget movie yet, and where her character, a 1940s stunt star, is the protagonist, alongside Saif Ali Khan, a studio boss, and Shahid Kapoor, a soldier, her paycheque would at least match Bollywood’s leading men’s, if not top it.

Ranaut has come a long, long way. Having self-learnt her way to this point, along with a firm grip on the ground beneath her feet, I ask her if she feels like an outsider still. She pauses, then says, “I am showbiz now.”

Kangana Ranaut poses in this season’s most romantic pieces

Bias silk gown, Rs 1,20,230, Prabal Gurung. Leather heels, Rs 1,36,000, Christian Louboutin. Metal, resin and pearl earrings, price on request, Dior. Sterling silver ring, Rs 7,400, Misho.

Bias silk gown, Rs 1,20,230, Prabal Gurung. Leather heels, Rs 1,36,000, Christian Louboutin. Metal, resin and pearl earrings, price on request, Dior. Sterling silver ring, Rs 7,400, Misho.

Gauze dress, price on request, Fendi. Brass earrings, Rs 10,064, Pamela Love. Gold-plated copper ring, Rs 4,000, Suhani Pittie.

Gauze dress, price on request, Fendi. Brass earrings, Rs 10,064, Pamela Love.

Photographs: Prasad Naik; Styling: Malini Banerji; Art Direction: Reshma Rajiwdekar; Hair And Make-Up: Daniel Bauer; Production: Parul Menezes; Assisted By: Jahnvi Bansal (Styling)