When a battle is on, what decides who you root for? Bollywood is currently witnessing an open war, and it’s not hard to see who’s rooting for whom. The war between Karan Johar and Kangana Ranaut.
When it began, it was supposed to be just a gossipy chatter. Ranaut appeared on Koffee with Karan on February 19, along with Saif Ali Khan and Shahid Kapoor, to promote her film, Rangoon. Johar, who is known for poking his guests to get most controversial answers out, asked Ranaut about the person who’s given him the unnecessary attitude. In a startling turn of quips, she took a dig at him.
Kangana Ranaut said with an articulate nonchalance. In my biopic, if it’s ever made, you’ll be the stereotypical Bollywood biggie who is snooty and completely intolerant to outsiders; the flag-bearer of nepotism; the movie mafia,
In the past, both have worked together in Ungli, and evidently, it didn’t really set the warm-clock ticking.
Johar’s taking it on his chin with a smile on his talk show was interpreted as an act of grace, before he responded to Ranaut a few days later during a session at London School of Economics.
Karan Johar She deserves all the National Awards but I am done with Kangana playing the woman and victim card. You cannot be this victim at every given point of time, always telling the sad story of how you were terrorised by the industry. If it’s so bad, leave it.
A few days later, on March 9, Mumbai Mirror readers opened their morning paper to find the latest volley from Ranaut, sharply directed at Johar. The elaborate interview had many pointy missiles, voiced with precise words.
Kangana, retorting to KJo But what is pertinent here is: why is Karan Johar trying to shame a woman for being a woman? What is this about the ‘woman card’ and the ‘victim card’? This kind of talk is demeaning to all women, particularly the vulnerable because they are the ones who really need to use them. The ‘woman card’ might not help you become a Wimbledon champ, or win you Olympic medals, or bag National awards. It might not even land you a job, but it can get a pregnant woman who feels her water is about to break a ‘ladies’ seat on a crowded bus. It can be used as a cry for help when you sense a threat. The same goes for the ‘victim card’, which women like my sister, Rangoli, who is a victim of an acid attack, can use while fighting for justice in court.
Candid answers of a chat show have erupted into a full-blown warfare, and it has opened a can of worms ― an examination about freedom of expression, hierarchy of power and the ways with which the Hindi film industry functions.
Clearly, the outsiders, which includes observers, strugglers, and disbelievers, will root for Ranaut. Because her brazenness has opened a dialogue regarding the feudal nature of the industry. Because it makes for popcorn entertainment, which is alive, unscripted and seriously juicy. Because it makes the starters see it as a woman-against-all-odds fable, giving them a ray of hope that entails freedom and stardom together.
On the other side, the Hindi film industry itself is likely to not cheer for Ranaut, clearly evident from the fact none of the fraternity members have praised her, in person or on social media. The industry also prefers to wait and watch, as it did during the Shah Rukh Khan-Salman Khan fight. Because friendships and fights don’t last long here.
We have to wait and watch whether Johar decides to get back to Ranaut again, considering Ranaut has mentioned his deceased father and his newborn daughter (Johar became a single parent to twins born through surrogacy recently) in her Mirror interview. There’s no denying of the clout he has, his position as one of the elite members of the film fraternity is unmistakable in his successes, his friends and his protégés.
For the media, Johar might be losing the battle of wits to Ranaut whose words have seriously impacted the prudently fashioned image he has, but it’s unlikely that the second generation filmmaker will lose his power position. After all, he has money and he’s a man.
The concern, however, looms large for Ranaut. Though she has great support for her proverbial outsider stand, her supporters know Bollywood’s ways of favouring a certain camp or someone. Last year, she was engaged in a verbal brawl with Hrithik Roshan over an alleged affair, and by doing that she has already broken industry’s open secret code. But that was over an affair. Here she is standing against Karan Johar, one of the influential figures in the industry.
So where does she go from here? This is an interesting question because Ranaut’s case is one such that perhaps has no precedence in the Hindi film industry. In an era when we think twice before putting out a tweet, Ranaut engages in a duel with a behemoth in public, without even blinking twice.
She is no art-house actor, who can afford to have a socialist outlook, and no-nonsense attitude. She is a star, the breed that stays in headlines without treading controversies. It’s a delicate position because a lot of money riding on her would look for assured outcomes. Don’t we know our stars cowering down to political bullying before a film release? Because financiers want certainty, not risk, when a star is involved.
Ranaut is a woman, and female stardom comes with a strict expiry date here.
Most of the views that want her to keep quiet is also out of a legendary parental concern that her reckless attitude is going to put her career in jeopardy. Stardom is a strange beast, and many Ozymandiases have been reduced to sand dunes under its unpredictable weather.
Ranaut has delivered big solo hits in Queen and Tanu Weds Manu Returns. The commitment to her craft gets lauded always but her performance at the box office has not been consistent. In such a light, Ranaut’s forthrightness seems outlandishly brave because here’s a woman taking on powerful men consistently, without caring for where it leads her.
Unlike most of her contemporaries, she seems unfazed of the consequences, whether this industry’s nifty nepotism would disown her. Conventional wisdom would call it foolish and suicidal, but can never play down the fearlessness of her words.
Some say, success is the best revenge. Madhuri Dixit, who dominated the ‘90s with massive successes one after another, was known to charge more than any other male actor. She was powerful, but like many of her predecessors, Dixit bloomed in diplomacy and was happy being goody two-shoes. Ranaut’s case is unprecedented because she is challenging the status quo openly. She has delivered box office successes and yet, questions the very nature of the industry that has made her a success. She is unlike her ancestors.
Bollywood always teaches its members to wear the protective shine of diplomacy, but Ranaut, with her frank answers and headline-worthy bluntness, is in stark contrast to her peers. She is clearly having the first mover advantage, the archetypal outcast who has made it on her own, and doesn’t mince words.
An interesting parallel can be drawn between Ranaut and Hollywood divas such as Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis. Both the Hollywood stars fought against the strict studio system, and clashed with the tall male power structure to rewrite history. Their assertive ways went a long way in shifting society’s expectations of women. And both did it with walking up the stairs of stardom in tricky stilettos, head held high.
Ranaut who began her career in Gangster took just a decade to prove that she is a legitimate star. Reports of her consistent creative interventions, and starry tantrums are abundant.
The conspiracy theorists also state that Ranaut’s directness is a brilliant tactic to garb the massive debacle of Rangoon, since the media is busy celebrating her as a feminist blaze while her commercial failures completely move out of the view. Some even question her intentions.
If she’s getting big, and the pictures are getting smaller, don’t worry, it’s the trait of stardom. The interference and tantrums are part of a star-culture, and all male stars of our cinema do such maneuvering to remain on top. Perhaps Ranaut has studied the general theory of stardom quite religiously, and aptly putting it into practice.
When Billy Wilder made Sunset Boulevard (1950) about a faded silent film star, his caustic take on the dark side of Hollywood earned the wrath of movie moghul Louis B. Mayer who publicly berated him for disgracing the industry that has made him and fed him. Mayer even suggested Wilder to be sent back to Germany. Wilder not only got back to Mayer with a vulgarity, he also prospered in Hollywood thanks to his continuous brilliance in filmmaking. This incident has a strange resemblance to Johar-Ranaut drama. About the hands that feed, and about moving out of an industry.
Ranaut works in a business where mentors/ collaborators play a huge role in forging long lasting symbiotic partnerships. The thumb rule of benefaction is about according the due respect, and Ranaut’s growing repute of alienating her directors one by one is only going to hamper her prospects. Reports suggest that director Anand L. Rai who made two career-defining films for Ranaut is growing discontent with her, much like Anurag Basu and Mohit Suri, the other two directors who repeated her in their films and then stopped. She will be next seen in Hansal Mehta’s Simran and Ketan Mehta’s biopic on Rani Lakshmibai.
Now that she has taken on the Goliaths of the industry, a lot will depend on her box office mettle.
It’s optimistic to imagine her being successful like Wilder, despite unmasking the hypocrisy of the industry. But Wilder was a male, who worked behind the camera in Hollywood that had a lot of immigrant luminaries. Ranaut, on the contrary is a woman, a star, working in the patriarchal universe of Bollywood. Clearly, huge odds to fight against if there’s not enough already.
Perhaps Ranaut would manage everything here that Wilder, Davis or Hepburn did in Hollywood. Perhaps she won’t. But she is definitely teaching Bollywood a lesson or two about how not to shut up, and how everything can be questioned. No sacred cow is free from debate ― this potent anti-establishment sentiment will inspire new blood in the game of thrones. After all, this sense of self-determination is the very essence of our throbbing democracy.
(The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise; he tweets @RanjibMazumder.)
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 11 March, 2017. It is being republished to mark Kangana Ranaut’s birthday.)