Kangana Ranaut looks back on her rollercoaster ride to superstardom
Meet our favourite rebel heart. From taking on bullies to single-handedly delivering box office hits, she’s a real player
Kangana Ranaut is counting her scars. There is a scar right next to her nose on the left side of her face, the result of trying to jump like Shaktiman. Six stitches. There’s another, the result of a fall on the road when she was eight. It cleaved her lip almost in half and broke her tooth. Four stitches. When she was 12, she was dragged by a motorbike for 13 feet, which got entangled in her skirt. It virtually crushed the left side of her face, broke her left leg, and left countless small scars all over her body. Sixty-four stitches on her leg. It took her a year and half to learn to walk properly again. When she was shooting Tanu Weds Manu (2011), she came under the tyre of the rig she was on, and injured her left foot in three different places. Thirty-four stitches. And most recently on the sets of Manikarnika: The Queen Of Jhansi (2019), she was hit between the eyes by a half-kilo sword. “An artery broke, my face was covered in blood and my forehead was the size of a tennis ball,” she says, laughing. Twenty stitches.
There are other psychological scars, wounds inflicted by herself and by others. “When I started out,” says the 32-year-old, “there weren’t many like me. I came from a small town, I had curly hair, I was skinny, I wasn’t able to express myself well in English, I was feisty, I wanted to be paid as much as the men, and I refused to toe the line. Now the spectrum of the leading lady has stretched from Neena Gupta to Tabu, but it wasn’t so then.” That was 2006, when she burst on to the screen in Anurag Basu’s Gangster (2006), setting the stage for a series of neurotic characters, which reached a peak with Fashion (2008). “The best quality about Kangana as an actor is that the deeper and more human her character’s pain is, the better she is at playing it. And that’s because she has seen enough [pain] in her life to understand it,” says Basu.
And there were the mistakes she committed almost knowingly. “When I was 16 or 17, I fell into very bad company,” she says. “I was virtually under house arrest. There was this particular moment when I looked around me as if I was out of my body and wondered how I had ended up in this shithole. How did I make these choices that brought me here?” She thanks her parents for pushing her to study science, even though she is a high school dropout. That logical mind propelled her towards reading Swami Vivekananda, starting with the Vedanta. From the ages of 18 to about 22, she subjected herself to some harsh practices, eating boiled food, wearing a particular kind of clothing and doing pranayama. Vivekananda became a guru, through his teachings. She sought control over her body and mind, becoming aware of herself. “I’m immensely proud of my internal journey,” she now says, sitting in the airy living room of her Khar apartment, filled with photos of her family, acrylic posters of artist Frida Kahlo, and framed quotations of Swami Vivekananda.
She worked on her English, taking tuition, developing her ability to listen. She also carefully curated her fashionista image. “I don’t judge people by how they speak or how much they spend on their clothes, but I realised there are people who do. If I have to survive, sustain and someday become a voice of my own, it was through them. There are so many worrisome things about fashion, wasting so much fabric, being bullied for repeating outfits. I feel a lesser being for accepting them but I am aware of it. I know how to play the game.”
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Jobless for two years after Fashion, she began life afresh with Queen (2013). That movie came at a time, post-Nirbhaya, when women were ready for an empowered heroine. It gave her the confidence to take charge of her profession. But she isn’t ashamed of the films she did in the run-up to Queen—the ridiculous No Problem (2010), Rascals (2011) and Double Dhamaal (2011). It helped her pay for her sister Rangoli Chandel’s 57 facial surgeries after an acid attack, as well as a two-month screenwriting course in New York. Queen made her pretty much the first choice for anyone who wanted to make a strong woman-oriented film. There have been some rough patches, but Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) and Manikarnika have kept her star power alive, and allowed her to coast over one controversy after another, whether it was the battle over writing credits on Simran (2017) with Apurva Asrani, or the public airing of details of her relationship that went awry.
“After Queen, I was flooded with offers for movies with big male heroes, but I had tasted blood. I had seen the love and appreciation, and now had the confidence in being a brand of my own. That rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. I used to get threatening calls for refusing films. Then my own relationship went wrong and all those I was ignoring, the big media houses, the ex factor, all came together, in a big smear campaign, with me being projected as a witch, practising black magic. Things went a bit supernatural. They tried to shame me, my sexuality, my past relationships. I was put through many tests,” she says, but it didn’t fluster her at all. “The industry is so vile,” she adds, “worse than a small village.”
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She has two films in various stages of readiness: Mental Hai Kya, directed by Prakash Kovelamudi, and Panga with Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari. She wants to direct movies, make TV series, and act in films that challenge her. As she cuddles her excitable German spitz, Pluto, she says she is not sure about children, given that her sister Rangoli has a child and is planning to adopt a girl now. The sisters, not close when they were growing up, share a deep companionship now. “Rangoli’s accident, though cruel, taught me many things. I remember standing in the middle of Hinduja Hospital and thinking how wrong my notion of bad times was—failing in an audition or a relationship. It was an overwhelming experience,” she recalls, shooting for Life In A Metro (2007) in the morning and doing shows to raise money for her sister’s surgeries in the evening, and being at Hinduja Hospital at night. “Rangoli’s ear had melted, her eye was damaged, one breast was dysfunctional. A kind of superhuman energy was driving me, like I could do the job of 100 people,” she now says.
Since then she has also found a guru, Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev, to whose work she was introduced by her sister. Initially reluctant, she was drawn to him because she found that while her life was disciplined and focused, it had no joy. “Swami Vivekananda’s work makes you fiery, hot-headed, gives you muscles of iron and nerves of steel, That’s why I relate a lot to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, We both come from humble backgrounds. I started to follow him in 2014 and then did a deep study of what he stands for, what the opposition had against him.” But she herself is hesitant about joining politics, despite offers this time. “I have to be very competent at what I do,” she says. “I don’t know enough about politics to be good at it. I may have cultivated a 100 mini super powers, but to be a leader in India you have to be selfless, without family baggage, with no weakness at all. And be totally dedicated, have that much time and passion. Can I be that person?”
She is in no hurry to find love, to be in a relationship and have the life force sucked out of her by a needy man. “In my late twenties I found myself quite desperate to tick that box. But once I turned 30, I realised I no longer seek it or crave it.” Her craft is improving. “Earlier my work was good, but in Manikarnika, I felt it was the fine work of a fine artiste.” It is inevitable, she says, as she has grown as a human being, she has also evolved as an artiste. Her Panga director Iyer Tiwari calls her a “badass super girl with a heart full of love for those dear to her.”
Kangana wants to be somebody who was a real player, who made something from scratch, who made a difference. Try and stop her.
Kangana Ranaut embraces risqué fashion for ELLE’s July issue.
Photographs: Ricardo Abraho; Styling: Malini Banerji; Hair: Ali Pirzadeh; Makeup: Anil Chinnappa; Fashion Editor: Rahul Vijay; Assisted by: Pujarini Ghosh (styling); Location Courtesy: Aurélienne House on Frejus city Région Var, France; Special thanks to Grey Goose