By Kahini Iyer
There’s something about Kangana Ranaut that makes you feel slightly guilty when you’re not on her side. It’s impossible not to adore her sweet, naive girl avatar Rani whose fiance dumps her in Queen, or sympathise with the troubled Sana in Woh Lamhe and the melancholic Shonali, a model with a coke habit in Fashion. Ranaut has never had to “de-glam” to be taken seriously; she has a knack for bringing you in with a raw vulnerability.
Which is why, on seeing the posters for Manikarnika: Queen of Jhansi, plastered with her screaming face, you were either excited, slightly nervous, or a mixture of the two. Few Bollywood actresses give us the kind of unselfconscious passion and emotion that we expect from Kangana. But even fewer are overshadowed by a personality that refuses to be ignored.
Even before the release of Manikarnika, the film was plagued by controversy. The Karni Sena threatened to riot at theatres if Rani Laxmibai was not portrayed to their liking. Rumours have piled up that Kangana is difficult to work with and caused actor Sonu Sood to quit, and that she all but kicked Krish Jagarlamudi from the director’s chair to take over. Kangana, naturally, has not taken the criticisms lying down. She told the Karni Sena that she, also a Rajput, will destroy them, and has said that Sood could not work with a woman director — a claim he denies.
Now that the dust has cleared and the film is in theatres, Kangana has been widely lauded as the best part about it. In FilmCompanion, Anupama Chopra points out that although Kangana has succeeded as an actress, believably committing to the ferocious Rani Laxmibai, she has not managed to show restraint as a director, and that is apparent in every aspect of the film. The story makes meta-references to Kangana’s life, like when Rani Laxmibai informs the (evil, obviously) Britishers that although she can speak English, her mother tongue is best.
It’s hard to deny that Manikarnika is full of pointed allusions to the actress’s own struggle in the industry. She certainly wouldn’t be the first self-indulgent director to feature in her own work — Judd Apatow has created an entire genre around stoner nerds, and Christopher Nolan’s psychological quirks are an integral part of his oeuvre. Closer home, Aamir Khan is well-known for being irritatingly involved and detail-oriented — accusations that have been levelled against Kangana — and for producing films that are an extension of his Satyamev Jayate avatar.
Is it the respect you’ve got to have for a woman who faced insurmountable barriers of class, region, and circumstance, and who is a top-class actor to boot? Or is it just the indefatigable vortex of personality it takes to be all of the above?
So the bald metaphor of Kangana as a lone warrior queen, slaying the bad guys left and right, might have been expected, especially from someone who frequently marries her personal and professional lives.
But, despite her A-list status after Queen (2014), Kangana has never worked with Karan Johar, or his favourite leads — probably because she never deigns to play the Bollywood game. On her one and only appearance on Koffee With Karan, it was she who first called Karan Johar the “flag-bearer of nepotism”, throwing into the spotlight a buzzword that continues to be relevant. It caused a long-running controversy only slightly less intense than the Hardik Pandya affair.
And after working with Hrithik Roshan on Krishh 3 (2013) and Kites (2010), she had a very public beef with him over an alleged relationship gone sour, and when his Super 30 was going to clash with Manikarnika, Kangana raked it all up again during promotions. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll remember how, in an interview with Pinkvilla, Kangana obliquely referenced an “ex”, at which point Hrithik, confusingly, slapped her with a legal notice. In response, Kangana insisted she was in a long-term relationship with Hrithik, who denied any such claims and blamed an unidentified hacker for leading her on with fake emails. Sticking to the formbook of politicians caught up in scandals, Hrithik went on to tell his side of the story on Republic TV.
He was calm, measured, and believable, but how could he compete with Kangana’s unwavering conviction, or her undeniable characterisation of Hrithik as an elite Bollywood star kid whose papa has “duniya bhar ke paisa”? Even before the #MeToo movement entered the public consciousness, people rallied to Kangana’s side, calling out industry insiders who supported Hrithik, and deploring what they saw as his shabby treatment of her.
Kangana has frequently had to defend herself in public. When she received a co-writing credit for Simran (2017), main writer Apurva Asrani was unhappy and called her out on social media — only for several other writers to accuse him of taking credit for their work on past projects. Director Hansal Mehta backed her up, and Kangana herself made no bones about being dissatisfied with Asrani’s work, and taking the script into her own hands.
Of course, her combative, no-filter style has not come with setbacks. Thanks to her inability, or unwillingness, to be diplomatic, Kangana has managed to alienate a large and influential chunk of Bollywood. It’s the reason that, even after doing a massive costume drama like Manikarnika, she’s not mentioned in the same breath as contemporaries (and Karan Johar’s faves) Deepika, Anushka, and Alia.
But, on the other hand, is this the precise quality that keeps people rooting for Kangana? Because she’s a real, relatable small-town superstar who voices the thoughts of millions like her? Is it the respect you’ve got to have for a woman who faced insurmountable barriers of class, region, and circumstance, and who is a top-class actor to boot? Or is it just the indefatigable vortex of personality it takes to be all of the above? With the success of Manikarnika, it looks like Kangana, as usual, has proved one thing: she’s ready to fight for her place in Bollywood — and to do it entirely on her own terms.
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