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Under the bright lights in a Parisian club, Rani from Rajouri finds some solace at the bottom of many a glass of wine. The alcohol offers her a few revelations about her current state: on her own in Paris, on a honeymoon without the fiance who thoughtlessly jilted her two days before their wedding. The past 24 hours in the French capital have been overwhelming, Rani has had to cross the busy streets on her own, run away from the Eiffel Tower looming large in the distance, and wrestle her way out of being mugged in an alley. “Rani is such a poor thing,” says Kangana Ranaut indulgently about her character in Queen, a film that has made Bollywood sit up again and take notice of the actor who delivered a pitch-perfect performance as a naïve Delhi girl who goes on a journey of self-discovery against the odds and emerges a winner.
Seated crossed-legged at the centre of her plush vanity van, Ranaut, 27, speaks unhurriedly about how the timing of the film worked in her favour. Her last few films had been disappointing, with the exception of Krissh 3, and she was hesitant when writer-director Vikas Bahl approached her to play Rani. “ She is not a quintessential heroine. You will miss her in a group, she is called behenji and bullied. But Queen is changing the way my contemporaries perceive me,” says Ranaut.
“I wrote the story of Queen with Kangana in mind. Once she liked the story, I worked on the screenplay. She figured out the character and completely transformed herself. Those superficial non-layered characters don’t excite her so much. She likes to be challenged,” says Bahl. Ranaut also co-wrote the dialogues of Queen. Most of Rani’s lines were written by the actor. “When I first read the script, there were very exciting dialogues. However, in terms of giving it my own feel and texture, I added some lines. Other than the Gupta uncle line in the trailer, the rest are mine,” she says. Queen is also that rare Bollywood movie that has passed the Bechdel Test and Ranaut finds woman-centric films fun to shoot. “I get a chair with my name written on it. And I say ‘wow’. You are the hero of these movies and the story follows you. Otherwise, you have to match your dates with the hero,” she says.
A certain amount of risk is involved in taking up such projects. Ranaut signed Tanu Weds Manu (2011), soon after the success of Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai (2010), when director Aanand Rai was a nobody. “I knew, the only way I could make Tanu Weds Manu work was by getting the casting right. I did not know Kangana. From whatever I had seen of her in interviews, I sensed she is still a small-town girl with middle-class values intact. Luckily for me, she agreed to do it. She must have been trying to break out from the limited range that was created around her,” says Rai. Producer-director Mahesh Bhatt concurs: “It is the limitation of writers and directors who could not create better roles and explore her range as an actor”. After Queen, perhaps the tide will turn in Ranaut’s favour.
It’s been a long journey from Mandi in Himachal Pradesh to tinsel town in Mumbai. “My introduction to films was through Doordarshan and Amitabh Bachchan movies since there were hardly any cinema halls there. When Mohra (1994) and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge (1995) were released, we didn’t watch the films but we danced to the songs,” says Ranaut who belongs to a middle-class home; her father worked in the construction business and her mother was a teacher. It wasn’t before long that 16-year-old Ranaut made her way to Delhi, much like other teenagers eager to find their moorings in a big city. But by then, the childhood dream of becoming a doctor and an interest in science had taken a backseat. “I had a roommate who was a sculptor and she was a huge influence on me. In Delhi, I started painting and joined a theatre group,” says Ranaut, who worked with Arvind Gaur’s Asmita theatre group.
But it took a crisis to make Ranaut realise that she might actually have some serious acting chops. Barely an hour before the show of Girish Karnad’s Rakta Kalyan, Gaur received a message that the actor playing the role of a cunning priest had taken ill. A frantic search within the group revealed that none of the other actors were confident enough to attempt it at the last minute. Ranaut stepped forward. She essayed the role of the priest apart from playing an old woman, switched between a sari and dhoti and saved the day. “I decided to pursue acting after I received a favourable response from the audience,” she says. Soon, she packed her bags and left for Mumbai.
There, she continued to train at Asha Chandra’s drama school in Andheri, where she completed a four-month course. Chandra was impressed with the spark and determination she showed. “Once, the crew for a foreign show held an audition. Kangana did an exercise involving a personal tragedy. By the end, she had real tears. The crew was impressed but that project never took off,” says Chandra.
After making her debut with Gangster in 2006, Ranaut tasted success but had to work harder to avoid being typecast. “I was stuck with neurotic roles. I made a conscious effort to come out of it. I refused some really good films such as The Dirty Picture in 2011. I took up a relatively less-exciting film in term of names, such as Tanu Weds Manu. It became a huge hit and now we are shooting the sequel,” she says.
But there were some missteps too, playing eye candy in films such as Double Dhamaal, Rascals (both in 2011) and Tezz (2012) did nothing for her career. “For the longest time I believed I was not going anywhere, even though I had won the National Award for Fashion (2008). Now, Queen has taken me a step ahead. With that kind of feeling, I don’t want to wait for another seven years to land a project like that. As an actor, I have to satisfy my creativity. So I would like to do different things now. I would like to write and direct,” says Ranaut, who has made a short film about a dog and a four-year-old boy.
Earlier this year, she attended a scriptwriting course at the New York Film School. “I thought that if I knew the technicalities of writing, I would be able to convey my thoughts better. Joining this course was one of the best things I have done for myself. I have been working for eight years. Being in the school was so refreshing,” says Ranaut, who will return to the school in June to complete the course.
But before that, she will be seen in Revolver Rani, where she plays Alka Singh, a “badass politician” in Chambal with a toy boy in tow. This is no ordinary dame, a thin line divides the protagonist and the antagonist from merging into each other. Ranaut won’t call herself a method actor, but is known to immerse herself into the character’s mindset. “Every actor has his or her own method. I give a lot of importance to the appearance of the character. I start to think and behave like her. You also have to see what you want to convey and if that’s coming across on camera,” she says. Sai Kabir, the director of Revolver Rani, calls her “a good rebel”. “She has spontaneity and wants to try something new,” he says.
It is this very eagerness that has also made Ranaut score high with fashion bloggers. Gone are the long, flowing anarkalis and over-the-top jewellery that drowned her petite frame. She is now seen front row and centre at fashion weeks, and sometimes on the ramp as well, her latest appearance was at the Lakme Fashion Week, Mumbai, two weeks ago in a silver blingy gown.
When she’s not working, Ranaut doesn’t hang out with the swish set. Instead, she sticks to her group of close-knit friends. “When we have time, we organise house parties or catch up over dinner,” she says. She also travels a lot, especially on her own, with France and America being her favourite destinations. An avid reader, Ranaut is constantly looking for new books. Although she is partial to non-fiction, especially titles related to filmmaking, she finds spiritual books the most engrossing. “I have a big library. When I meet someone interesting, I ask them about their favourite book and buy it. At least, I can take one book home,” she says.