Kangana Ranaut has featured in this column a few times. Almost always, it was because of things people said about her on that hit TV show Happy Bitchy Insiders, yaniki Koffee With Karan. In one episode, Karan Johar asked Sanjay Dutt what his message for his female co-actors was. Dutt’s message for Kangana: “Wear a salwar kurta”. I don’t ever remember a female star being asked if she had a message for her male co-stars on the show. The next time, Sonam Kapoor delicately wrinkled her nose, saying Kangana needed to get English lessons. Because, how can you act in Hindi films otherwise, na?
Kangana Ranaut with her National Award
So, as the cliché goes, Kangana Ranaut has come a long way since then. She can tell you precisely how long — from a small town in Himachal to Rashtrapati Bhavan as opposed to the Monopoly-board-sized journey of some from, in her succint mapping, Juhu to Bandra. With that phrase she shows the mirror to Bollywood’s feudal class dynamics, even as she gets celebrated for being a gender bender on the professional front.
If anything marks Kangana as an instinctive feminist, it is this ability to see the complex undertow of hierarchy — the intertwined privileges of class, gender, caste and location. Her ability to not be content with equality within someone else’s paradigm, but her big-ass ambition to liberate herself from that paradigm by saying two magic words: So what? So what if it’s a role with the Khans? So what if you think I’m crazy?
Though her professional achievements have made her a universal darling, the public untidiness of her private life makes people a little uneasy. Why does a smart woman make bad boyfriend choices? But so what if she does? What’s so bad about making some romantic mistakes? A friend said to me, it would be a real pity if she turned out to be ‘another one of those neurotic types’.
What is that neurotic type? Aren’t all artists traditionally expected to be a little eccentric? Apparently not, if they’re women. If a woman breaks glass ceilings and challenges paradigms, people expect her to simultaneously exhibit a little restraint — also called dignity or feminine grace — to be a ‘lady’, yaniki upper class English woman of olden times. Heartbroken, hungry for love, or god forbid, angry, you must hold it all in and smile, pleasantly. You must wear saris when you win awards, instead of sauntering strapless into Rashtrapati Bhavan. You must attribute your successes to God, Mummy-Papa or guru-jis. But never ever to your own talent, hard work or crazy guts.
For women, angst is the final frontier. Men can be successful and tortured, misunderstood even though they have (yes, allegedly) killed people, they can use indiscriminate language in Wankhede stadium and then make a ‘comeback’ from a ‘low phase.’ But, women must always be seamlessly ladylike. If they come undone at the seams, they might reveal the nepotism or mediocrity of a system, not to mention, shudder, their uteruses.
They might refuse to be cowed down by your moral censure, yaniki bullying. When you call them crazy, immoral or indecent, they may render your standards meaningless, leaving you red-faced by saying — So what?
Two words for Kangana, a giant inner leap for womankind.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com