Three years ago, sitting on Indian television’s most famous couch, between one of the film industry’s top producers and an actor with a clipped accent and a genteel lineage, when a young actor from a small hill district in Himachal challenged the established order, the audience cheered her on. When Kangana Ranaut appeared alongside Saif Ali Khan in Koffee with Karan, a show crowded with insider jokes and catty one-liners, and called its host Karan Johar the flag-bearer of nepotism, she stirred something in everyone who had made the journey from small towns to big cities, who had hesitated to join glib conversations with their awkward accents and who had pushed at the gates of privilege and got in only to find they were still out.
She wasn’t the first outsider to break into an industry controlled by powerful families. Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan — some of Bollywood’s biggest stars — had been outsiders, but while they recounted their struggle almost fondly, Ranaut showed her battle scars and resentment instead. She may have gained entry into the charmed circle but she seemed to be telling its gatekeepers that the privilege was entirely theirs. Her brashness mirrored the rise of a new India, unafraid to speak its mind and ready to discard all gestures of political correctness as it called out its elites.
A few years later, Ranaut is mirroring the rise of another India — a nation in perpetual outrage, a hard boorish India that has little empathy for those at the margins, shouts down all dissenting voices and which has taken the brawl from the street to social media. In her toxic campaign against Rhea Chakraborty in the aftermath of the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, Ranaut has partnered with the patriarchy she once challenged. As the soap opera playing on television casts Chakraborty as the vishkanya who practised black magic, Ranaut has voluntarily taken on the role of the righteous other.
Ironically, there should have been no one better than her to understand the vilification of Chakraborty. In the very public unravelling of her relationship with Hrithik Roshan, an ex had accused her of black magic, too. But instead of recognising the strands that connect the web of misogyny, she has spun yet another. Just last week, labelling actress Sonam Kapoor as “mafia bimbo’’ on Twitter, she admonished Kapoor for comparing her struggle “to a small-time druggie who was living off a vulnerable and broken self-made superstar”. We shouldn’t have been surprised, though — she has, in the recent past, dismissed fellow actresses as B-Grade and needy outsiders.
Opinion | Give me Rhea’s fortitude any day
In politics, she has often shown her admiration for PM Narendra Modi, the man whose journey from grassroots politics to the country’s top job and whose takedown of Lutyens’ Delhi has often been likened to hers in the film industry. As she lashes out against what she calls the “drug mafia of Bollywood” and throws her weight behind the BJP, she has taken on the worst instincts and vocabulary of majoritarianism, calling the BMC Babur’s army for demolishing her office and comparing Mumbai with PoK. The outsider has now truly mastered the language of othering, a dog whistle perhaps, for an eventual political role.
In this new brittle role, one in which you could accuse her of over acting, it’s easy to forget the young girl who, with a mop of wayward curls in a uniform world of straight hair, had made such a splash. We rooted for her when she took on the role of a troubled alcoholic in her first film Gangster (2006) and followed her on a whirlwind solo honeymoon in Queen (2013). In her, we found a woman who spoke up about her vulnerabilities and her exploitation. As in life, so in films, she made unconventional choices, notching up many firsts and three national awards along the way. In an industry where the top billing still goes to men, she was one of the few actresses who could carry a movie on her own. Her success gave her a voice but she has used it increasingly only to bully and berate others and to amplify her real and perceived hurts.
As she bats for the Modi government in Maharashtra, the transformation of Bollywood’s most powerful disruptor to the establishment’s most ferocious warrior is complete. Ranaut could have become the flag-bearer of a revolution in Bollywood. It’s a pity she has chosen, instead, to become the symbol of a million meaningless mutinies.
This article first appeared in the print edition on September 15, 2020 under the title ‘Establishment’s Warrior’. email@example.com
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