How Kan­gana Ra­naut is shak­ing up Bol­ly­wood


She is fierce and out­spo­ken. She does not ac­com­mo­date out­sized egos and gives the ap­pear­ance of a bull in the del­i­cate china shop of Bol­ly­wood, will­ing to call out peo­ple for who they are, be it Karan Jo­har, Hrithik Roshan or Saif Ali Khan. This was vis­i­ble again last week in TV in­ter­views where Kan­gana Ra­naut, a lead­ing Bol­ly­wood ac­tress, took on sev­eral celebri­ties.

In In­dia, star­dom is all about wor­ship. It is about peo­ple bathing a poster of Ra­jinikanth’s lat­est re­lease in milk, of queu­ing up out­side Gal­axy Apart­ments or Man­nat for hours to catch a fleet­ing glimpse of Sal­man or Shah Rukh Khan cel­e­brat­ing their birthdays.

Ra­naut’s ap­peal — and it is im­mense — is dif­fer­ent. It does not rest on the de­ifi­ca­tion of a su­per­star, but on re­lata­bil­ity. A per­son from a small In­dian town per­haps, some­one who may speak English with a halt­ing accent, but who is un­afraid to raise her voice against un­fair­ness. In a way, this ap­peal is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a new In­dia. If in the past Amitabh Bachchan’s suc­cess was based on the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion peo­ple had with the im­age of an an­gry young man against an un­equal or­der, Ra­naut’s ap­peal is the emer­gence of a new con­fi­dent mid­dle-class in In­dia, es­pe­cially its women, and why—as they move from small-towns to large In­dian met­ros or for­eign shores with cosy male clubs like Bol­ly­wood or some cor­po­rate setup—they don’t need to be em­bar­rassed about their ori­gins. This im­age came to the fore in her break­out role in the film Queen —in which her char­ac­ter, de­spite her mar­riage not tak­ing place, re­fuses to can­cel her hon­ey­moon and goes alone on a trip to Europe and dis­cov­ers her­self and her con­fi­dence—and has at­tended her pub­lic per­sona ever since.

stir­ring change: in­dian ac­tress Kan­gana ran­uat

The ap­peal of such a per­son­al­ity is po­tent, and face to face with it, other stars and di­rec­tors ap­pear like fools. And it is also an im­age that Ra­naut care­fully stage-man­ages. There is a scripted blunt­ness about her, a re­hearsed wit to some of the things she says. The way she called Karan Jo­har ‘the flag-bearer of nepo­tism’, for in­stance, re­duced a vast num­ber of en­ter­tain­ment jour­nal­ists to mov­ing from one press con­fer­ence to an­other for many weeks, ask­ing any celebrity they could get hold of, “What do you think about the nepo­tism is­sue?”

Ear­lier this year, Saif Ali Khan, Varun Dhawan and Karan Jo­har cracked a joke at an award func­tion say­ing, “Nepo­tism Rocks.” It was some­thing that wouldn’t have cre­ated a flut­ter in the past. But not with Ra­naut and the pop­u­lar­ity she en­joys. The fury that it cre­ated, es­pe­cially online, where the joke was seen as a way of bul­ly­ing Ra­naut, even though it could be in­ter­preted as a wider jibe aimed not just at her but also at them­selves, an ad­mis­sion that they owe their suc­cess to the film dy­nas­ties they hail from. Nepo­tism of course ex­ists ev­ery­where in In­dia, not just in Bol­ly­wood, al­though it might be the most ob­vi­ous there. It ex­ists and is pro­moted among mem­bers of the very mid­dle- class so up­set at Jo­har and com­pany for be­ing ben­e­fi­cia­ries of nepo­tism and tak­ing on Ra­naut.

Ra­naut cur­rently stands at an in­ter­est­ing cross­roads in her ca­reer. While she has become a house­hold name, bar­ring the suc­cess of Queen and the two Tanu Weds Manus, none of her films in re­cent times has been suc­cess­ful. For all her pop­u­lar­ity, she may also not be as sub­ver­sive as she ap­pears. There have been ac­cu­sa­tions of how she wran­gled a writ­ing credit for her lat­est film Sim­ran, or how she had Ke­tan Shah re­moved as di­rec­tor for an up­com­ing film on Rani Laxmibai. It is clear that Kan­gana Ra­naut wants to make a Kan­gana Ra­naut film, just as Sal­man Khan and Shah Rukh Khan make Sal­man Khan and Shah Rukh Khan films. But then, that in it­self is quite an achieve­ment in an in­dus­try where fe­male ac­tors usu­ally oc­cupy sup­port­ing roles.

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