You hear so much about Kangana Ranaut these days and not always all good things, we are afraid. Most recently, she was grabbing headlines for calling Karan Johar, the granddaddy of Bollywood fluff and now, a daddy to adopted twins, “flag-bearer of nepotism” and “movie mafia.” She made these comments right inside Mr Johar’s sanctum sanctorum, the throne-cum-couch from where he sets the week’s Twitter trends and hashtags – Koffee With Karan. It took a while for Mr Johar to reply to her salty outbursts. When he regained his composure a week or so later, he said, “I am done with Kangana playing the victim card.” Kangana shot back with, “I am not fighting Karan Johar. I am fighting male chauvinism.”
It’s a classic outsider versus insider fight-to-finish. Mr Johar is born Bollywood aristocracy while Kangana is the girl from the hills who came in from the cold. She has the badass attitude of a street fighter. How and when did Kangana Ranaut become so big that she could take on Bollywood’s mighty and the powerful? When she did become so powerful herself that the NDTVs of the world started drafting her into their national feminism debate? When Jennifer Lawrence spoke out against the gender wage gap in Hollywood, it became global news. The Queen star, too, raised a similar alarm when she spoke about gender equality. “Who wouldn’t want to be called ‘lady Aamir Khan?” she said in 2015. But the truth is, she isn’t the female Aamir Khan. She’s more ‘Lady Nawazuddin Siddiqui.’ Her struggle as an outsider and finally having made it and the acclaims as a performer is strikingly reminiscent of Siddiqui. Both are ranked outsiders and both draw hefty pay packets now. Kangana started small and though her early films were hits, she wasn’t pronounced a star until Fashion, in 2008. When Tanu Weds Manu, TWM Returns and Queen were declared box-office gold, we knew Kangana has arrived. The media was now comparing her to Aamir Khan, in terms of being the box-office queen.
In Kangana, the industry has found its most trenchant critic. She operates within it and yet, retains the freedom to show the mirror to showbiz. Along with Vidya Balan, she has been dubbed a revolutionary figure in recent Bollywood for creating the slot for female-oriented cinema in a male-driven industry. Together, they set the blueprint for the modern Bollywood heroine – badass, speaking her mind and fighting for equal opportunities in a Man’s World. Unlike Balan, it helps that Kangana also knows how to work the media. Her outrageously bold retorts sometimes have a practiced air, something said for effect and she knows it will get her the numbers. She’s definitely the most enviable female star around but critics also feel her range as an actor is limited to the emotionally unstable girl she essays so savagely on screen.
Because Kangana has gained a major footing since Queen, her breakout hit, we often forget that her earliest playground was the Mahesh Bhatt school of cinema where she was encouraged to play the feisty woman – just the way Mr Bhatt likes it. Now, directors write roles keeping her mind. At least, that’s what seemed to be the case in the recent Rangoon, a box-office disaster where Kangana walked away with all the applause. Director Vishal Bhardwaj had faith in her and she didn’t disappoint.
Kangana’s biggest achievement so far is that not only high-ranking directors like Bhardwaj think of her as a muse and customise characters for her, but also that she has brought respectability to the Hindi film heroine who suffered the most in the 90s. There was a time when Madhubala, Nutan, Meena Kumari and Madhuri Dixit powered films on their own, without being a prop for the male star. Kangana has proved that she is a hero who doesn’t need a Khan by her side to race to the Rs 100 crore box-office. But the trouble is, she isn’t an outsider anymore. She is fully co-opted into Bollywood. That’s why when she accuses the bigwigs of the movie business, one finger points back at her. Instead, it would be refreshing to see how she takes her popularity to the next level. It would be equally refreshing to see her move from dominating gossip columns and scandalous sections of newspapers to some place more meaningful. And what that place might be, only Kangana Ranaut can define.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)