“Laugh like a demoness would.” This was the only instruction Renu Dhariwal got when she arrived at Ramanand Sagar’s bungalow in Juhu, Mumbai, for an audition one afternoon in 1985. It took the 22-year-old a few moments to imagine herself as one before she let out a cackle that would win her the role of Surpanakha in the first televised rendition of the Ramayan, altering the course of her life.
“I was just a theatre artist before but after I appeared on national television as Surpanakha, people started to recognise me on the streets, in the bus, everywhere I went,” says the actor, who has since taken her husband’s last name, Khanolkar. “I shot for two months in Umargaon and got paid a decent Rs 30,000 for it. But more importantly, that laughter opened many doors for me. It got me roles in BR Chopra’s teleseries Chunni, Surinder Singh’s National Award-winning Punjabi film Marhi da Deewa and also Hema Malini’s directorial debut Dil Aashna Hai, before I gave it all up for a career in politics.”
Thirty one years since the teleseries went on air, Khanolkar’s famous laughter reverberated on national television after Prime Minister Narendra Modi likened parliamentarian Renuka Chowdhury’s laughter to that of Surpanakha’s in Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan (1987-88). To many people, the comment appeared a slight, a means of silencing a woman who had dared to laugh at the king in his own court.
The irony has not escaped 55-year-old Khanolkar. “I don’t think Modiji is aware that I am a Congress worker,” says the former vice-president of Mumbai Pradesh Mahila Congress, “But does it befit a Prime Minister, especially one who often harps on women empowerment, to make such a comment?”
A demon princess, Surpanakha in the Ramayan is widely perceived as the cause of the battle between Ram and Raavan, her brother and the king of rakshasas. “Valmiki has gone to the extent of saying there would have been no Ramayan without Kaykeyi and Surpanakha,” says Moti Sagar, Ramanand Sagar’s son, who directed the teleseries in the 1980s. Yet, Surpanakha in Ramayan is a “minor character” who features in just four episodes in a weekly series that lasted over a year. That also explains why there were so many dead ends in the search for Ramanand Sagar’s Surpanakha.
The internet, which usually has most answers, drew a blank. YouTube clips of the teleseries play without the credits. It didn’t help that “Surpanakha” is spelt in several different ways on the internet. Khanolkar’s co-actors searched their memories without success and Moti Sagar, in his 70s now, could not recollect her name either. A large part of the records and copies of the original material have been lost in the three years since he parted ways with his brother Prem Sagar. The only hope was scanning through the CDs in the Ramayan box set, available for sale on a Canadian website. Eager to help, Meenakshi, a producer and writer with her father Moti Sagar’s production house, dug out the family’s copy and one evening, messaged screenshots of Ramayan’s credits along with a possible name of the actor.
From there on, it was easy to track down Khanolkar to her plush Andheri apartment where she lives with her husband and 22-year-old son. When a source forwarded her number, it was labelled “Renu Khanolkar (Congress Surpanakha)”.
Seated on a couch in the living room of her three-bedroom apartment, Khanolkar is dressed in a crisp red cotton kurta; a big bindi sits on her forehead. “But everyone knows me … I’m surprised you had trouble finding me,” she says.
A Delhi girl, she moved to Mumbai in 1984, at the age of 20, to pursue her dreams. “I come from a conservative Punjabi family, the kind that would never allow their daughters to enter showbiz. But I wanted to be an actor, a decision my Bengali mother supported. Without telling my father the real reason for moving to Bombay, I came here and joined Roshan Taneja’s acting classes, where Govinda was my classmate. After that, I started to work in theatre. That’s where Papaji (Ramanand Sagar) saw me,” she says.
Khanolkar seamlessly switches between languages. She speaks Hindi with more than a hint of a Bengali accent but shifts to Punjabi as she mimics Ramanand Sagar from their first meeting at Prithvi Theatre. “He saw me play a mother in a play called Purush. When he realised I was a young girl, he was impressed and asked me to audition for Surpanakha’s role.”
It would be her first screen appearance but Khanolkar did not care if she made her debut as a demoness. While she understood the role could bring more opportunities, it was also the character that fascinated her. “Surpanakha is the sister of a powerful warrior and scholar, Raavan. She is a princess and a shapeshifter, and the one who becomes the trigger for the most famous battle in Hindu mythology. I didn’t see any reason to let go of the opportunity,” Khanolkar says.
But her then friend and actor Rekha Sahay (now married to Congress politician from Ranchi, Subodh Kant Sahay) thought differently. Khanolkar says she was Sagar’s first choice for Surpanakha but turned down the offer because she found the character “horrible and ugly”.
Actor Mansi Singh had her concerns too, over two decades later, when the Sagars chose her to play Surpanakha in their production of Ramayan for Zee (2012). “I asked the casting director, ‘Will I have to look kuroop (ugly)?’. When I was assured that will not be the case, I took up the role,” says Singh, adding that her parents and friends were not too impressed when she told them that she would be playing Surpanakha. Singh, too, considers it an important role: it was her first grey character. Her performance in the show later helped her bag other roles, including one of a witch in a play and that of Parvati in another.
Sahay and Singh’s concerns are rooted in popular perception of the character. “In Valmiki as well as Tulsidas’s Ramayan, Surpanakha is a widow, an old hag who uses her powers to change her form and seduce Ram and Lakshman. She then attacks Sita, infuriating the brothers who mutilate her to teach her a lesson. This is how we showed her too,” says Moti Sagar. The teleseries, which is an adaptation of Ramcharitmanas, shows Surpanakha turn into a demure, more conventionally beautiful woman, a brief role played by another actress. After being rejected by the two men, in fury she changes back into the demoness. Lifting her hands, she looks up and laughs out loud before attacking Sita, who she believes is “the only thing stopping Ram from marrying me”.
This sequence is mirrored in other renditions of Ramayan by the Sagars, first for NDTV (2008), and then Zee. Eventually, the sequence ends with Lakshman chopping off Surpanakha’s nose on Ram’s orders. It took Khanolkar 16 retakes before delivering the final shot as each time the sword came down, she would pull back in fear.
Over the years, feminist readings of the Ramayan have underlined its sexist mores. Surpanakha has been reimagined as a beautiful princess, who is punished and mutilated for expressing her sexual desires. In her book Lanka’s Princess (2016), Mumbai-based writer Kavita Kane shifts the focus to her early years, and how she comes to be known as Surpanakha because of her short temper and long nails. Says Kane, “In my book, I haven’t tried to paint her white or black, I was more interested in the greys. I have simply told her story, without judging, condemning or glorifying her. Her name was Meenakshi, and I wove her story round this lovely name. Kamban’s Meenakshi is a beautiful girl with large, fish-shaped eyes unlike Valmiki’s Surpanakha who is an ugly rakshasin, pot-bellied, cross-eyed, with sparse hair and a growl. The Surpanakha in Lanka’s Princess has her shades of darkness. She is neither a vamp or a victim but a woman – a princess, a sister of a powerful king, a wife, a mother.” She also wonders about the fuss over the cackle: in Valmiki’s Ramayan, Kane says, Surpanakha never laughed.
When the PM made the jibe at Chowdhury in Parliament, other BJP ministers burst out laughing too. Yet, it is Surpanakha’s laughter that became the butt of the joke. “Surpanakha’s laughter is an indication of evil, of a woman who is wily, consumed by her ego and lust for a married man,” says Moti Sagar, explaining why the Surpanakha in their Ramayan laughs.
Bhagyashree Mote’s Surpanakha in Siya Ke Ram was different. She is neither “ugly” nor outright “wily”. In this Ramayan retelling from Sita’s point of view, which aired on Star Plus in 2015-16, Surpanakha is a lonely woman in search for love. “That was the brief I was given when I was offered the role by Triangle Films. Later, I did my own research to find out that her husband, Dushtabuddhi, was killed by Raavan, her own brother, making her a heartbroken princess who finds it difficult to trust men,” says Mote.
“Just the way history always belongs to the winner, Ramayan is also told from the point of view of Ram, the victor. If it showed the soft side of Surpanakha, how would her mutilation be justified?” says the 23-year-old actor. Although the series allows for a reimagining of Surpanakha to an extent, eventually, it shows Surpanakha’s desire for Ram as “impure”.
Volga, Telugu writer and feminist, believes that Surpanakha’s character needs to be viewed with more empathy. “If you look at Valmiki’s text, he describes Ram as pumstva mohana roopaya (the most good-looking). If that is the case, it is natural for a woman like Surpanakha to have sexual feelings towards him. The incident of mutilation is very inhuman. Violence for asking for love? How can one do that?” she says. In Volga’s collection of short stories, Liberation of Sita (2017), Surpanakha meets Sita during the latter’s exile and the two women become friends —underlining how the wife of the victor and the sister of the vanquished are ultimately both victims of patriarchy.
Kane calls the mutilation of Surpanakha “one of the most violent episodes in Ramayan”. She sees it as a “chasm between two cultures, between two people who cannot comprehend each other; a stark divide between the two”. “The Ramayan covers five distinct places — Ayodhya, Videha, Dandak, Kishkinda and Lanka — all geographically different but spiritually significant. It is not just Surpanakha but also Tara of Kishkinda. When Ram and Lakshman meet these women, they find them entirely different from the women of Ayodhya. The confrontation between the brothers and Surpanakha reveals the cultural contrast between them, illustrated through their conversation where the brothers cannot handle a bold, sexually assertive woman. She, in turn, cannot handle a negative reply. The brothers try to temper their refusal with jest, which enrages her further when she realises that the joke is cruelly on her,” Kane says.
Moti Sagar is aware of Ramayana’s many feminist rewritings; his personal favourite is the one where Surpanakha uses Ram as a tool and her seduction as a device to trigger the battle and avenge her husband’s death. Since Ram had been able to defeat and kill some of Raavan’s greatest warriors, including Khar, Dhushan and Tadaka, she knew only he could take on her brother. “But these retellings won’t work on TV,” he asserts. “It’s a medium of the masses, who consider Ram as their greatest god. Any version that moves away from Ram’s deified image can lead to a situation.”
He recounts an incident during the serial’s telecast as an example. “In one episode during the battle, Ram and Lakshman faint. That sequence caused an uproar and people protested saying we were fabricating material because how can a god faint? At the time, Papaji had to prove that the sequence is actually written in the texts.”
But within the conservative storytelling of Ramanand Sagar, Khanolkar found a character she could relate to. “She was a powerful single woman in a man’s world, trying to live life on her own terms,” says the actor. “After Ramayan, I tried to do the same. I first joined the Congress youth wing in 1987 and later moved to the women’s wing, which I was part of until 2014,” says Khanolkar, who considers Rita Bahuguna Joshi her mentor. “I was focussed on my work and doing well, but men always see you as an ‘ambitious woman’, as if it’s a bad thing.”
Khanolkar, who continued her career in films and theatre while working for the party through the 1980s, found neither the space nor the inclination to marry. “I was independent and self-sufficient. I didn’t see the need for a partner nor did I want to be tied down,” she says. However, as the years passed, her worried parents insisted that she find a match. “My mother would say I will never be respected the way married women are, especially if I am in politics,” she says.
Indian politics is not unaccustomed to single women. In fact, some of the most powerful leaders are single women, from Mayawati to the late Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee but they frequently face jibes about their marital status. On March 6, Uttar Pradesh’s civil aviation minister Nand Gopal Gupta called BSP chief Mayawati as the Surpanakha of Kalyug. “When Surpanakha came running to Lord Ram, lamenting that he had destroyed her family, he told her that in Kalyug, she would rule Ayodhya as Mayawati. But she would not get married,” the BJP minister said. He was speaking at a public meeting in Allahabad, in the presence of UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath, whom he likened to Hanuman. Gupta later issued an apology but not before his remarks were splashed on political posters in the days following the incident.
It took a few years before Khanolkar relented to her mother’s wish. At 32, she married a younger man. “I realised my mother’s words were true. It would often happen that at gatherings, the married women would sit at one table while we singles sat at another table. At that time, it wasn’t easy for a woman in her 30s to stay single all her life.”
With encouragement and support from her husband, Khanolkar continued a career in politics. However, her stint as the vice-president of the Mahila Congress ended around the time BJP came to power in 2014. Currently, she helps her husband in his real estate business, and runs two NGOs that work for women and child welfare. Having distanced herself from politics, she is also open to acting assignments. “The lack of unity in Congress has caused its doom. The party should have stood behind both Renuka and me, and raised the issue when Modiji said what he did,” she rues.
Her views on the demon princess are unchanged. “I’d do the role again if I had the chance, laugh out loud as Surpanakha and see who dares insult a woman who cackles.”