Speaking at the London School of Economics last weekend, Bollywood director Karan Johar said he’s “done with Kangana playing the woman card, and victim card” and suggested she should leave the industry (see the video here). This was in response to actor Kangana Ranaut’s frank comments on Johar’s own intentionally candid talk show Koffee with Karan, on which she called him the “flagbearer of nepotism”, pointed out how he’d made fun of her English, and called him out for making scandalising remarks about some of her intimate film scenes.
Sadly, Johar’s comments only reflect the sexism, patriarchy and exploitation that Kangana is so valiantly vocal about. Despite its massive reach and the revenue it receives from within and outside of India, Indian television and cinema continue to poorly represent South Asian women, largely thanks to the traditionalists (like Karan Johar) who reign over the industry. Through her brazen disruption of stereotypes, it is these very traditionalists Kangana makes uncomfortable. While she is not Bollywood’s first feminist, and the commoditisation of her feminism by the industry’s flagrant PR engines hasn’t gone unnoticed, today, on International Women’s Day we celebrate Kangana Ranaut, and all that she symbolically and activist-ically stands for.
1. She’s unapologetically career-minded, but doesn’t compromise on her values
Rather than being cast in their shadow, Kangana prefers to compete with the industry’s leading male actors by taking films in which she plays the lead role, meaning she’s demanding the highest salary she can, at the same time championing gender equality. As she pointed out on KWK, Kangana wasn’t born into the Bollywood bubble and like most artists in the real world, has to earn a living while doing creatively rewarding work.
Her strategy is smart – she waits for work that resonates with her and requires her talent over other actors, and as a result she can demand more money, have a longer career and even – dare we say it – leave a legacy.
2. She prioritises intellect over effervescence in public appearances
We’ve seen it all on the Bollywood interview couch, the gossip queen, the coquette, the girl next door, the fashionista, but rarely have we seen a female actor so silent, so not-smiley, so focused and so determined to convey intellect and nothing else, as Kangana. Some tire of her intensity, some want her to drop ‘the act’, but don’t we all have a more serious ‘work mode’? Aren’t we all conscious of perception in the professional environment? Why should the business of art and filmmaking be any different?
3. She challenges the patriarchal ideal of the chaste Indian woman
Let’s just remind ourselves of the hypocrisy of the mainstream Indian film industry: showing kissing on screen is unacceptable because that goes against the image of the chaste Indian woman, yet promoting films using an ‘item number’ in which a woman – like the term suggests – is objectified as an “item” for a room full of men, is entirely acceptable. Kangana challenges these industry norms by not avoiding films with intimate scenes and very much avoiding so-called item numbers.
4. She uses her fame as a platform for activism
Kangana’s accent was ridiculed when she entered the industry, coming as she did from a small village in Himachal Pradesh. She was dismissed for her unconventional looks, and told by some of the industry’s biggest names she would never ‘make it’. She now has three national film awards and uses every opportunity to channel her success, her story, and the antagonism she faced in those early days into a strong sense of activism for women. She’s often seen on national and international platforms talking about the discriminations and inequalities – both everyday and structural – that women and girls face. And ruffling some (ahem) powerful, hypocritical, and extremely privileged feathers along the way
Catch Kangana Ranaut as a 1940s stunt actor in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon, in cinemas now. While the film is worth a watch (especially if you like Bhardwaj’s work), it isn’t without flaws. But that’s probably because Kangana didn’t co-produce and direct as well as do all those stunts. Come on KR, get behind the camera soon, Bollywood desperately needs it.
By Sona Hathi.
Posted on 8 March 2017