Although Kangana’s fans and critics would love for her to be crowned, unlike her B-Town (Bollywood) counterparts, it is an accolade she would never accept. Kangana Ranaut doesn’t relish and dwell on the attention that comes with fame; her focus is more geared towards what she does as an artist and how she goes about doing it.
Like Hollywood, the B-Town film fraternity is a nepotistic circle of filmy family and friends plus the company and contacts (FFFCC) they keep. Unlike Hollywood, nepotism in Indian Cinema isn’t necessarily frowned upon. It is an openly discussed secret, but it is accepted that in Mumbai’s film business nepotism without talent is futile, and many star kids, who shall remain nameless, have proven this point over and over again. Those outside the circle may be granted a pass in if:
(A) They are a beauty pageant winner or contestant
(B) They are a fashion model
(C) They have 'fair enough' acting ability with a 'fair' chance to prove themselves
(D) They possess great talent and preparation no matter who they are
For Kangana Ranaut it is points B and D, with aspects of the innuendo of point C. However, Ranaut’s road to B-Town was an unplanned and unforeseen foray into the spotlight. An outsiders pass into the inner circle of the FFFCC which she never set out to achieve.
Relying on her inner strength, instinct, self-proclaimed rebellious spirit and her determination never to succumb to conventional roles expected of women in society, the small town girl who dared to dream, left her home in Bhambla, at the age of 16, for Delhi to find her own path. Kangana would eventually sign as a model with Elite Model Management, but the path she was destined to take became more evident when she joined the Delhi based Asmita Theatre Group, under the tutelage and brilliance of renowned Theatre Director, Arvind Gaur. Being on the pulse of provocative and socially relevant theatre with an impact, Gaur’s theatrical themes tackle social and political issues that pervade human existence and expression, similar to the subtexts prevalent in what is referred to in India as parallel cinema (independent or art house), the genre in which Azmi, Patil and the incomparable Naseeruddin Shah have extracted some of their most profound film roles.
Arvind was impressed by Kangana’s commitment to her craft, and her uncanny ability to “get into the skin of the character”. Kangana sharpened her innate talent for acting with Asmita for nine months, and the alignment between the young, unconventional and independent minded Ranaut and the acting process of Gaur’s theatre group created a symbiosis that would prove to be beneficial towards her approach in future film roles. Though Kangana had no intention of being an actress in films, nor Arvind an aficionado of mainstream cinema, circumstances would later prompt him to advise her to consider acting in motion pictures. Kangana relocated to Mumbai to continue her studies as an actress.
To better understand how timing played a crucial role in shaping Kangana’s success, one has to take into account the following story:
Once upon a time in the land of B-Town, there existed a mould that categorised commercial Hindi cinema in the 80’s and 90’s. A mould that churned out mass produced eye candy and cake embellished with the formulaic ingredients of: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl then wins girl back by appeasing her father, a wedding, hero flicks of the badshah Khans and Kapoors, item numbers with the gyrating hips of the gora gora rang variety, a wedding, sprinkles of Johnny Lever humor, subservient character roles written for female co-stars, a wedding. Many mainstream films used this same mould and formula pulled from the pantries of the FFFCC. It was expected. The mould was set. Then in 2001 magic happened. Two visionaries by the name of Farhan Akhtar and Ashutosh Gowariker created two seminal films called Dil Chahta Hai and Lagaan, respectively. Those two films broke the mould forever, and the filmmaking formula of B-Town was never expected to be the same ever again.
Bollywood was changing. New approaches were taking place. Films were no longer expected to look, feel and sound the same. As the Indian economy improved, and the middle class expanded, new market segments and production values began to dictate how films were being made and who they were made for. Viewing patterns were shifting, and though the formulaic mould wasn’t gone all together (nor does it have to), there were new ideas and breakthrough moments in commercial Hindi cinema shining through year after year. Farhan Akhtar remained an influential driving force behind many of those breakthroughs as actor, producer and director.
Sensitive topics such as sexual identity, AIDS and child sex abuses were being noted on screen: My Brother…Nikhil, Page 3, Bombay Talkies. Great biopics came to the forefront: Paan Singh Tomar, Milkha Singh (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag) and Shahid Azmi (Shahid). Cinematic gems such as Parineeta, Johnny Gaddaar, 3 Idiots, Karthik Calling Karthik, Udaan, Shor in the City, Peepli [Live], Band Baaja Baaraat, Lootera, The Lunchbox, Ship of Theseus, Ugly and Masaan are being produced. Male-driven roles are being redefined by the formidable creativity exerted by Irrfan Khan and Ronit Roy. Assertive female-driven scripts are being written and performed by great actresses who are breaking the myth that only male-driven films are successful with critics and audiences: Rani Mukerji in Black, Konkona Sen Sharma in 15 Park Avenue (English), Sridevi in English Vinglish, Vidya Balan in Kahaani, Anushka Sharma in NH10….
The FFFCC star system “somewhat” give way as B-Town becomes an equal opportunity hero and heroine employer of sorts. The creative input of outsiders like Irrfan, Anushka Sharma, Rajkumar Rao, and one of Bollywood’s most intriguing success story, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, is proof of the positive and necessary influence of the outsider effect which is helping to create a shift in commercial Hindi cinema. A paradigm shift that brought with it innovative directors and ideas in filmmaking, and a revision of the hero-heroine archetype that has set the stage for the quintessential commercial heroine mould-breaker, Kangana Ranaut, to debut.
FADE IN: KANGANA RANAUT
Anurag Basu’s Gangster (2006) was the cinematic vehicle that launched Kangana’s acting career on screen. The film was produced and written by Mahesh Bhatt, the legendary godfather genius of parallel cinema, who wrote and directed the masterpiece that is Arth (1982), starring Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. With Bhatt and Basu, Kangana was in good hands and good company with her co-stars Emraan Hashmi and Shiney Ahuja.
In Gangster, Kangana fearlessly assumed the role of Simran, an alcoholic with two lovers. We see Simran scantily clad in various scenes, and indulging in an on-screen kiss which was a major taboo in Indian cinema. It’s the type of role any actress in B-town would shy away from. Gangster’s gritty formula was not expected to be a part of any serious Bollywood actress’s repertoire, but Kangana began to break the mould of expectation. It was an unconventional role in an unconventional film with an unconventional actress which created a good cinematic marriage. Kangana, Basu and Bhatt took a risk and the risk paid off. Though her acting wasn’t perfect, Kangana won the Filmfare Award for Best Female Debut.
Kangana’s next release was Mohit Suri’s Woh Lahme (2006) where she played yet another character of unconventional ways and means, Sana Azim, supposedly based on the life of actress Parveen Babi. Also produced by Mahesh Bhatt, and back together again with Shiney Ahuja as co-star, we saw Kangana depict a character coping with schizophrenia. Kangana leveraged both grit and glamor and delivered a convincing performance which was a bit restrained at times, but the charismatic energy between her and Ahuja made for great viewing. Kangana once again teased the Central Board of Film Certification with an on-screen kiss.
Kangana seemed more comfortable in her on-screen avatar when we saw her again amidst an ensemble cast in Life in a…Metro (2007). Maybe working once more with Anurag Basu, who directed the film, helped to put her at ease. Kangana began to exude maturity and confidence in playing her character choices which became more evident each time we saw her in the talkies.
The plotline of the 2008 film, Fashion, directed by Madhur Bhandarkar, reads as though it was made especially for Kangana: small town girl leaves home and family, moves to the big city, and hones in on fame by means of the fashion industry. However, the narrative was driven by former Miss World winner, Priyanka Chopra, with Kangana playing the supporting role of Shonali, a substance abusing model whose career ends up becoming quite dismal. Kangana’s performance was applauded by critics, though there were numerous gestures about her again being typecast as a neurotic character. Fashion allowed Kangana her first National Award for Best Supporting Actress.
My preferred choice of entertainment during long-haul flights from New York to India are Indian films and content, and in 2011, en route across the Atlantic, I was greeted with a treat: Anand Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu, in which Kangana played the character Tanu. In watching Kangana’s affinity with camera, cast and craft, I had the sense that her presence in B-Town will have a lasting and influential impact. Kangana’s portrayal of Tanu pinpointed to me that unlike her previous roles, this time she’s not just an actress who’s acting, she’s now in sync with the art of film.
Introduced in Gangster, creating a noteworthy imprint in Fashion, and already sharing screen space with mega-weights like Ajay Devgan, Anil Kapoor and Hrithik Roshan, Filmfare and National Award winning Kangana Ranaut continued her stride in Bollywood by establishing herself in the industry where she deservedly belongs. Unfortunately, like all actors who choose the film business as a profession, her choices of films after Tanu Weds Manu were a mixed bag of critical and commercial disappointments with some hits, neither of which allowed her to stand in her own light. Then came Queen, her shining moment.
Let’s talk about Vikas Bahl’s Queen (2014). Fashion may have been the film that was made for Kangana, but it is the character of Rani in Queen that she was born to play. In Queen, Kangana reigns supreme. It is her definitive mark in a definitive film. Bollywood’s Amelie moment. The movie is rare, well-crafted and internationally appealing from beginning to end without plateauing or failing to hold the audience’s attention. Expertly utilizing a multi-ethnic cast in an international setting without the usual Bollywood cliché of recreating an Indian town in Europe where everyone miraculously speak Hindi. Queen isn’t just a film; it is a transformative and shared experience between viewer and screen, driven by a female lead.
Kangana’s performance carries the film beautifully. Her portrayal of Rani frames our attention as we first see her at a fork in the road of broken dreams catalyzed by Vijay, played by Rajkumar Rao. Her ability to convey feeling in order to emotionally connect with the audience by using facial expression and body language to depict abandonment, loneliness, incognizance, fear, intoxication and euphoria throughout the film is uncanny. Her comedic timing is good. Changing the tone of her voice to reflect Rani’s state of being helpless, almost voiceless, at the beginning of the film to being outspoken and opinionated as the film progresses, is an effective use of her tools of craft. Her acting flows flawlessly, uncontrived, unbridled, and not for one moment losing sight of who and where Rani was and is throughout her metamorphosis. Kangana is completely in the skin of the character.
Kangana’s Rani invites us on a journey we are willing to take with her from the very beginning because we can all identify with the universally relatable story scripted by Anvita Dutt Guptan and Vikas himself. “Rani” is in all of us. We root for “Rani”. We want to see “Rani” win. The writing, directing and acting convinces us to like her. The critics like Kangana’s Rani as well. Indian cinema expert Anupama Chopra stated, “Queen is proof that talent trumps any image an actor has.” Kangana garnered the National, Filmfare and IIFA awards for Best Actress for her contribution to Queen.
Let’s not talk about Revolver Rani (2014). A film which, on paper, was perched to be an instant cult classic, but in execution it just did not tie in well. It is worth noting that Kangana’s performance in the film did deliver a big punch in originality. She even darkened her skin with make-up for the role, which in the B-Town film industry and in a country known for its “enlightenment”, to be darker tone in skin color, regrettably, is a cardinal sin.
RAISING THE BAR
The commercial and critical success of Tanu Weds Manu allowed for its 2015 sequel Tanu Weds Manu Returns: one of the year’s most anticipated film release and major blockbuster hit, one of the most viewed and liked film trailers ever (which went viral), and one of India’s most successful film franchises. The film’s success is in part due to the fact that it is a good movie, and also largely on Kangana’s trajectory in popularity, likeability and demand since the 2011 prequel. In the film, Kangana played a dual role of both Tanu and Datto. In a promotional interview, Kangana’s TWMR co-star, R Madhavan, stated,
…Kangana has really raised the bar of the level of involvement and performance required in the industry…she has set the standard so high, that now you have to be an ‘actor’. Just merely knowing your lines is not going to be enough.
How does one describe Kangana Ranaut?
When all is said and done about Kangana’s success and what people might think of her, it is her backstory that gives us the most important description of all: relatable. Her relatability contributes to the adoration the public, critics, fans and cinema-goers have for her. In Kangana’s backstory we have the common man, the outsider, the small-towner as hero-heroine who proves that anyone from anywhere can be a part of the illusionary world of make-believe. Her story not only gives hope to thousands who embark upon the casting offices of B-Town each year to become the next Salman and Kareena, but also to anyone with the hope of achieving a goal. The story of “You can get it if you really want, but you must try, try and try, you’ll succeed at last." Kangana’s reality adds some truth to that story, yet for many, that story will remain an illusion.
Kangana represents the victory over the elusive and unattainable, quite literally the people’s queen of an illusionary world. In a strange way, for many, Kangana’s story fuels their hopes. Though in reality, Kangana’s advice might be to find the fuel within yourself. She found that fuel within herself when she arrived in Mumbai as a teenager not knowing anyone in the film business, or even a word of English in an industry where speaking English is as important as acting itself.
Relatability, outside of a role, is the best award an actor can ever achieve in the film business. It is the best reward given to their fans. In Bollywood, at the moment, no actor is more deserving of such an award than Kangana Ranaut and of course Nawazuddin Siddiqui. For different reasons, the great Smita Patil also encompassed that relatability factor.
TO BE CONTINUED…
I, personally, would describe Kangana Ranaut as smart. She is very aware that she is a part of a fickle business where anything regarding her career can change at any given minute. It’s an industry that lacks women behind the camera and good female-centric roles and themes on-screen. Commenting to Anupama Chopra in the Film Companion series interview, Kangana stated, “If I don’t get opportunities, I will create opportunities for myself.” Within the line of Zoya Akhtar, Farah Khan, Ekta Kapoor and of course Mira Nair, Kangana, I believe, will eventually become an integral decision maker behind the scenes. Unlike most actors or actresses in film, Kangana is unique in that she immerses herself in the entire filmmaking process as writer, director and actor. In 2011 she wrote and directed a short film called The Touch, and in 2014 she enrolled in a screenwriting course at The New York Film Academy. She is thinking ahead.
Although the era of Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1974) and Manthan (1976) has passed, like Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil, whose level of involvement and artistic output in Indian films are indisputable and unchallenged, Kangana Ranuat has raised and set a new level of expectation in the industry. There will never be another Shabana-Ji or Smita-Ji, yet it’s refreshing to know that there are still actresses, such as Kangana, who has the right gearing, individuality, spontaneity and talent to maneuver the subtleties of parallel cinema which provokes, and mainstream cinema which entertains; to dance between the craft of art and the crore of commerce.
Kangana’s next film release is Nikhil Advani’s Katti Batti, a romantic comedy co-starring the uniquely impressive Imran Khan--a great pairing. The release date is set for September 18th. Yet to be confirmed, there are talks of Kangana playing one of yesteryear’s greatest, Meena Kumari, in a future biopic.
Meena Kumari’s Pakeezah (1972), is the film that cemented my interest in the world of Indian Cinema.-pep boy