An actor slamming the nepotism in Bollywood and the Shiv Sena is a cardinal sin in Mumbai. But Kangana Ranaut has polarised the film industry and escalated her political clout by leveraging both victimhood and aggression, thereby whipping up a storm over Sushant Singh Rajput’s death.
There’s a telling scene in the movie Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. The lead actor Kangana Ranaut is embroiled in a friendly swordfight with three men. She had heard one of them mock his companion for fighting like a girl. Ranaut (read Manikarnika) jumps in to prove him wrong and takes on all three. She single-handedly defeats them and wins an elephant from Peshwa Baji Rao II, the Maratha prime minister, for her fighting prowess. After winning the prize, she remarks nonchalantly, “Who was fighting for the elephant? I was fighting for your blessings.”Many would argue Kangana Ranaut’s reel life has juxtaposed with her real life of late. Except, this time, it’s no friendly duel.
Ranaut’s verbal battle with political overtones against the bigwigs in Mumbai continues unabashedly. Like Manikarnika on the battlefield, it’s raising much heat and dust. It reached Parliament. Actor and BJP MP Ravi Kishan and Samajwadi Party’s Rajya Sabha MP and respected actor Jaya Bachchan waded into the Bollywood drug mafia fray Ranaut caused. But she remains unapologetic.
The actor has assumed the role of the persecuted outsider who is taking on the powerful nepotism gang in the film industry. She has confronted almost every A-lister in Bollywood levelling charges against them, from nepotism to narcotics. While other actors courted political power from behind the scenes, Ranaut has no such qualms. She called the Shiv Sena-led coalition government in Maharashtra “Sonia Sena” and equated Mumbai with “PoK” (Pakistan-occupied Kashmir).
In spite of various actors indulging in photo-ops with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and making sycophantic films, it is Ranaut who has real political clout. She is the first Bollywood celebrity to get Y-plus security from the Centre, which is given only to individuals who are believed to be facing a certain level of threat, though Ranaut faces no credible threats from terrorists or the drug dealers and least of all what she calls the Bollywood mafia. She has cleverly positioned herself as a binary character who is both the victim and the aggressor.Ranaut has become the most powerful film star in India.
Angry Young Woman
The current phase of the actor’s outbursts started in June when actor Sushant Singh Rajput, reportedly, died of suicide. She claimed that nepotism in Bollywood drove him to his death. She has contradicted herself on her own outsider status; during an award function, Ranaut told the host, “I think I am a part of Bollywood... And especially after Queen you know people have really shown so much love. So I really do not have any reason to feel like an outsider.” This time she has charged top Hindi film producers with sabotaging Rajput’s career as he was an ‘outsider’, just like her.
But not everyone believes her.
“Rajput had worked with top directors, his films were big hits and he was a talented actor. How could anyone, who hasn’t ever possibly met him, claim he was a victim of nepotism? What does she mean by the movie mafia?” asks Viveck Vaswani, senior actor, writer and producer.
It’s a viewpoint held by many in the industry.
“It’s good to call out people who meted out injustice to you. But, can you label an entire industry as movie mafia? How can you claim that your experiences in the industry are the same for others too?” asks Renuka Shahane, popular actor and theatre personality. She dismisses charges of nepotism. “Several outsiders, including Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan, have made it to the top on their own. So has Ranaut. It is because they are talented,” Shahane adds. Ranaut lambasted another outsider Ayushmann Khurrana as ‘chaploos’ and ‘mediocre’ because he supported Rajput’s girlfriend Rhea Chakraborty. Her claims of ‘movie mafia’, ‘nepotism’, ‘Mumbai is PoK’, ‘drug addiction’ in Bollywood have united the industry, which is fuming like never before.
There’s a method to Ranaut’s madness. And there’s a method to her claims. Her political instincts, timing and leveraging social media have Bollywood baffled. “It’s uncomfortable and sad,” says actor and model Dipannita Sharma.
“I don’t know if all her claims make her a powerful star or not. But, surely, this whole issue has become a circus. We aren’t behaving in a civilized manner,” she says. Sharma criticizes her co-star as well as the Shiv Sena spokesperson Sanjay Raut who had used unparliamentarily language against Ranaut.
Her retaliation stunned Mumbai. She took on Uddhav Thackeray, calling him ‘tu’ instead of the usual respectful address ‘aap’. She used Twitter to portray Chakraborty as the fallen woman and drug peddler who corrupted an innocent Rajput.
The media frenzy that followed was stoked the most with fervent support from television channels. She has turned herself into a campaign smartly portraying herself as a middle-class Hindu icon. She wears her saffron shining bright. Last year, she built a temple in her hometown and posted a picture of herself praying on her Instagram account. “I need maximum tweets,” she demands from her followers of whatever hashtag she is promoting for the moment. On social media, Ranaut named film director Anubhav Sinha as not worthy enough to be attending high-profile parties.
Veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah caustically noted, “Nobody is interested to hear the opinions of a half-educated starlet who has taken it upon herself to get justice for Sushant.” Sinha, the Article 15 director, refuses to engage with her anymore. “These issues have gone way beyond my comprehension,” he says. She snapped back at Shah who has been vocal about the troubles of being a Muslim in today’s India, “Naseeruddin Shah... is angry because I praised Modiji and Hinduism and because I am proud of my religion and background, rather than being ashamed of these.”
Sinha isn’t alone. At the outset, many in the industry—from Prakash Raj, Taapsee Pannu to Swara Bhasker—had retaliated. Now few are ready to counter her allegations. “You cannot find purpose in people who say illogical things. They can say one thing today and say something else tomorrow, without any qualms. You can’t argue with that,” concurs Shahane.
Ranaut’s most ardent supporters feel hurt by her ‘drugs in Bollywood’ comment. She denied any involvement with drugs. However, she once was a self-confessed junkie herself who was forced to take drugs because she “fell into the hands of such people and all of this happened while I was still a teenager. Imagine how dangerous I am.” (She said it on video.) In a 2016 media interview, her former boyfriend Adhyayan Suman recalled getting into a brawl with Ranaut for refusing to do cocaine at her birthday party in March 2008 at a five-star hotel.
They had previously smoked hash together which, he claimed, made him sick. “What she says could be based on her own experiences. The few people she named do not own the industry, even though they try to make others feel so. There are lakhs of people working here. I am a teetotaler and know many people like myself from the industry. So the drug allegations are far-stretched,” says Ashoke Pandit, filmmaker and activist, who supported the actor. Ranaut has little love left for Bollywood.
Controversy’s Favourite Child
Bollywood has little love for her either. For a small-town girl from Manali coming from a strict Rajput family where nobody spoke English, Ranaut wanted to break into the big bad world of glamour. Despite her obvious talent, she wasn’t accepted by the powerful families, which controlled Hindi cinema. Her English language skills and pronunciation were derided by people like filmmaker Karan Johar. She decided to learn English and speak correctly by hiring a teacher on the sets. When the elitist Johar called Ranaut on his show, he asked her whether she would prefer to be poor and in love or rich without love. She remarked that Johar’s concept of poverty and hers was different and that he was the “flagbearer of nepotism”. Her fans hailed her for her “guts” but the industry made fun of her.
In a country, where most stars live in ivory towers honing their Insta looks, Ranaut could have become the voice against injustices meted out to ‘outsiders’ in Bollywood. But Ranaut, one of the highest-paid actors in the industry, has chosen to play the interloper card to her benefit instead.“During the promotions of Manikarnika, none of the big film reviewers or her colleagues praised her work. She was hurt that Alia Bhatt didn’t praise Manikarnika the way Ranaut had appreciated her work. She spoke how she felt like a child who was being bullied by the entire class.
Systematically, she started giving it back,” observes Karan Bhardwaj, an online entertainment journalist. Some tinsel town personalities believe that there is substance to some of Ranaut’s statements. Producer Pritish Nandy, for one, supports Ranaut when she says the industry could be mean to newcomers. “Bollywood is this exclusive club where newcomers get a traumatic welcome if they are outsiders,” he says. However, he disagrees with the name-calling. “I disapprove of what she has to say about her fellow actors like Taapsee and Swara,” he adds.
She had called them “B-grade actresses”.
“She felt betrayed when she received no support on charges of nepotism. She realised that she had to fight her own battles,” explains Bhardwaj. He attributes her fearless trait to something that worked both ways for her. “Ranaut has always been vocal about her personal life, her religion and political views. It’s a trait rarely present in celebrities. So it made her the darling of the masses while the industry hated her guts,” explains Bhardwaj.
Ranaut’s power comes from her box-office successes first. At 33, she is a three-time National Award winner, a phenomenal achievement for an actor with just 14 years of experience. She can command a weekend opening just like any of her male co-stars. She doesn’t play second fiddle to her co-stars and doesn’t act in multi-starrers anymore. “She is the most powerful star in cinema. Despite antagonising everyone in Bollywood, a distributor knows that her films will sell. They will not hesitate to pick it up because ultimately you have to sell cinema,” claims Pandit.
Her rebelliousness makes the industry uncomfortable. Should she be worried about her image? “Ranaut speaks her mind. But that does not make or break her image as a star. Ultimately she will be judged on how successful she is as an actor. She must wisely choose her roles and play them well. That is how she will be remembered,” says Nandy. Controversies surround her innings in Bollywood. The men in her life have often been fodder for gossip columns.
She called superstar Hrithik Roshan “a silly ex”. When the fallout with Roshan reached the courts, he called her an Asperger’s syndrome patient. She never kept her relationships with married Aditya Pancholi and aspiring actor Suman secret. She has accused her mentor Mahesh Bhatt of harassment. She has called Sonam Kapoor a “mafia bimbo” for supporting Rhea Chakraborty. “We have an actor who speaks her mind. It may be genuine, false or outright foolish. But when she talks, people listen since they connect with the small-town girl in her,” observes Bhardwaj.
Her next film Aparajita Ayodhya will be directed by Ranaut herself. Movies under various stages of production include Dhaakad, Tejas and Thalaivi. Recently, renowned cinematographer PC Sreeram posted on Twitter that he refused a project with her as he was uncomfortable working with her. Some would say she is a rebel without a cause. She has cleverly tied up every issue in the country with her own struggles.
“She has picked up her battles based on cues from her films,” explains Bhardwaj. She is the angry young rebel who fights stereotypes. Be it Panga, Manikarnika, Queen, Tanu Weds Manu or the upcoming films like Thalaivi or Tejas, “one could say that just like her character in Thalaivi (based on Jayalalithaa) she wants to be the star who became a successful politician,” he adds.
The Political Pawn
Ranaut’s political leanings aren’t a secret. Even though every political party, including the BJP, was displeased with her shooting from the hip, her allegiance to PM Modi has always been out in the open.
There’s hardly ever an actor in Mumbai who has gone full throttle against the Shiv Sena, the way Ranaut has. “The way she spoke about Maharashtra CM Uddhav Thackeray made her a pawn of the Centre. She does not need to get caught in the brawl. I think there is overreach there. One can always share one’s political beliefs but why get caught in politics unless you are ready to do it full time?” asks Nandy. Her critics say Ranaut knows her game well.
She has equated her office demolition with displacement faced by Kashmiri Pandits. The civic workers who razed down her office were called ‘Babar’ (the Mughal ruler) by her. She announced how her ruined office is now her ‘Ayodhya’ and she will fight for the cause of women.“If anyone was to see her tweets there is no difference between a BJP troll and her. The support she has got from the BJP for abusing the city of Mumbai by calling it names is evident. She is nothing but a glorified and unofficial spokesperson of BJP,” says Priyanka Chaturvedi, Rajya Sabha MP and Shiv Sena spokesperson.
Ranaut has maintained that she has no intentions of joining politics. But her activism mode leaves little room for any speculation. The BJP is yet to openly accept her as their own even as whispers of her joining the party grows louder. Union Minister Ramdas Athawale visited her after her office was demolished. Her mother thanked Home Minister Amit Shah for providing her daughter security. She publicly announced switching her loyalties from the Congress to the BJP. Her father compared his daughter’s fight as the battle of Lord Krishna against the evil forces.
“The anti-elitism narrative has struck a chord with her fans,” says Anup Sharma, a Delhi-based strategic communications consultant, who has worked on several political campaigns including that of three CMs and two ministers. There is no doubt that she is a loose cannon whose shots sometimes hit the mark. “Her campaign ‘Justice for Sushant’ worked well in Sushant’s home state Bihar. His demise has become a poll issue which is being appropriated by political parties of three states (Maharashtra and poll-bound Bihar and West Bengal), and several federal agencies got involved. Ranaut could have used or misused the system, only time will tell as voter sentiments during political campaigns are prone to change with each passing day,” Sharma adds.
Meanwhile, the National Commission of Women has taken a suo motu cognisance of Ranaut’s claims of receiving threats and demanded immediate arrest of those guilty of abusing her. The actor had accused Shiv Sena’s Raut of openly threatening her against returning to Mumbai. It’s diversion tactics, say her political opponents. They claim Ranaut is being used by the Centre to shift focus from real issues such as rising cases of Covid-19, job losses, and the poor state of economy.
“Demolition of illegal structures have happened with many other celebrities too, under different regimes. Though I don’t support the timing of the demolition, the spectacle she created is interesting. The court has ordered the demolition of slums in Delhi and poor women have come out in protest. She should use her star power to shine light on those struggles and not cry hoarsely about herself,” says Kavita Krishnan, CPI(ML) Politburo member and secretary, AIPWA.
Ranaut has warned that if the “movie mafia ends her here” (read Bollywood), she would rise somewhere else (perhaps politics) and her end would be her beginning. “She is in the actor-activist mode. And she has picked up her battle far more intelligently than Deepika Padukone who stood up for JNU students. She provokes both the Shiv Sena and Congress. If they retaliate, she plays the victim card and takes refuge with her family. It helps her to consolidate her position among the masses. That’s what she wants,” says a BJP worker from Maharashtra on condition of anonymity.
Queen Reigns Over
The journey from Mandi to Delhi and eventually Mumbai hasn’t been without hardships. The 16-year-old boarded a bus to Delhi from Bhambla, a sleepy village in Mandi in Himachal Pradesh, with a suitcase and just enough money to last a month in Delhi. She had fought with her parents over her desire to become an actor. The Padma Shri recipient, who has done over 35 films and charges `12-15 crore per film, is yet to act with the Khan trinity. Her co-stars from her early days rave about her professionalism and talent. “She is a thorough professional. She would arrive on time prepared for her scenes and never gave anyone reason to complain,” says Vaswani, who acted with Ranaut in the 2007 release Shakalaka Boom Boom.
Ranaut’s coming-of-age film was Queen (2014). New India on social media scrutinise their stars closely. In the new world order, Ranaut represented middle-class dreams. Queen anointed her warrior status, the first time a female-centric movie joined the `100-crore club. She refused to be part of the clique when she criticised popular award shows. She was hailed the new feminist role model when she refused a muti-crore deal to endorse a fairness cream brand. “Ranaut is seen as someone who slammed the system sitting at the top. She gives people hope and her success allows them to dream. She is our anti-hero brand,” says Rajesh Sikroria, founder at Pontem Integrated, a Gurugram-based marketing communications firm.In spite of the fear and horror she inspires in Bollywood, her talent is admired by the industry. “Just because I don’t agree with her doesn’t mean that I don’t admire what she has achieved,” says Shahane. It’s still early to say whether her brand value has eroded.
Medium is the Message
The Ranaut brand of activism sells well in the modern world. She has close to two million followers on her various social media handles. She has detractors too. Of late, hashtags like #kanganapagalhai (Kangana is mad) has also trended on Twitter. Her Twitter account, which was till now run by her sister Rangoli Chandel, is now handled by the actor herself.
In the industry, Ranaut has often spoken about raising the bar of films around her. She wishes to direct and write scripts. Going forward she may or may not struggle to find work. For now, she is loud and brash, just like young India on social media, which wants immediate justice for every wrong in the world. Proof is not important, the mob is. For now, Kangana rules the mob. Observers believe that connecting Rajput’s death with her struggles has catapulted her star power among the masses. “Once upon a time, Amitabh Bachchan embodied the angry young man on the screen in Bollywood. People hailed him. Today, there is an angry young woman off screen, Kangana Ranaut. She is fighting the battles of the man on the street. People will not ignore her,” says Pandit. For Ranaut, the elephant as a reward in her real life, is already in the room. For now the sword fight continues.
“I am done with Kangana playing the victim card. You cannot be this victim at every given time... Who is forcing you to be in the movies? Leave. Do something else.”
karan johar, Filmmaker
“All her films have now become about herself. She thinks probably that is how stars make films. She is such a big star, but is she empowering people?”
Anurag Kashyap, Filmmaker