I am not sure which scene left the biggest impression. Was it the one in Queen, in which Kangana Ranaut, as Rani, gets drunk, drops her inhibitions and moves like she has just discovered dance in a Parisian club? Or, the one in Revolver Rani, in which she, as Alka Singh, a power-crazed politician-um-gangster with a John Wayne walk, drives into another politician’s public meeting and threatens him with a gun pointed squarely at his head as the police looks on? Or, were it those lust-fuelled bedroom scenes with her toyboy, which I gaped at not because of their antics on screen but because a mainstream Bollywood actress had the gumption to do something like that? I haven’t yet been able to find a link between the naive West Delhi girl who is dumped on the eve of her wedding and takes off on a holiday in “search of her soul” (as Ranaut puts it herself), in Queen, with the murderous, sexually ravenous Alka Singh, who talks as dirty as the boys and shoots as hard, in Revolver Rani. Much like Uma Thurman’s performance in Kill Bill etched itself into the memory of a generation of movie goers, Ranaut’s Revolver Rani will stay with us for a long time. Much like Vidya Balan did, when she amazed the nation with two contrasting performances in 2011, the 27-year-old Ranaut has worked her way to the top of the Bollywood heap. On a sweltering day in April, at Mehboob studio, where she is at an event to promote Revolver Rani, Ranaut looks every bit the fashionista she is considered to be. Dressed in a layered powder-blue skirt and a long kurta, she looks like an antithesis of her ‘rough around the edges’ persona in Revolver Rani. “But, then, you forget, even Alka Singh loves ‘Benice’ fashion. She is as much of a fashionista,” laughs Ranaut. The ‘Benice fashion’ she is referring to, for those who haven’t made their way to the theatre yet, is in the form of raunchy Alexander McQueen-style spiked metallic bras that she wears during her aggressive sexual encounters with her hapless lover, Rohan Mehra (played with consummate ease by Vir Das).
Alka Singh also wears outlandish Turkish pants with studded jackets. Ranaut says she travelled extensively through Europe with her stylist, Gavin, to rummage through sex shops. “I aspire for Alka’s style, since everything she wears is so crazy, from her vintage shades to her metallic bras.”
“Alka Singh is crazy and has a fetish for guns, blood and men, not necessarily in that order,” says Ranaut. “She is chaalis saalki bandit with a toyboy. My sister accompanied me to the film’s narration. Her face was ashen by the end of the session. She told me, ‘You can’t seriously do this film.’ But, I was kicked about the idea of playing such an outrageous woman. She is brutal, she has killed her father, she has killed her husband. The universe that Sai (Kabir, the director) and Tigmanshu (Dhulia, the producer) created was a dark and twisted one. We shot on actual locations near Gwalior. It is a world I could not understand. I come from peaceful Himachal Pradesh. I remember those languorous winter days spent in the sun…a world full of guns, gore, brutality and merciless heat was beyond my imagination.”
She sniggers. “No man who watches Revolver Rani will ever want to marry me.” Does she seriously worry about her portrayal of a controversial anti-heroine affecting how people perceive her in real life? “I don’t look at it this way. Marriage, to me, is an anachronism. The institution makes no sense in contemporary times. That’s why I don’t mind taking on films like these that go against the idea of a heroine or a good girl.”
Ranaut, unlike many of her contemporaries, has no qualms about appearing unattractive on screen. If in Queen she was a plain jane, in Revolver Rani she used a foundation darker than her skin tone to look like a tanned, blood thirsty politician. It took over eight hours of makeup to achieve the look. “I spent over a year living the characters of Rani and then Alka Singh. I am so consumed by cinema that I can’t see beyond it.”
Director Sai Kabir says Ranaut works extremely hard to get under the skin of a character. “That’s not easy to do, especially when you have no reference point for the milieu in which the movie is set. Kangana worked hard on getting the body language and the look right. She had to look unattractive. That’s never a cakewalk in an industry as competitive as Bollywood.”
SIX CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
GANGSTER (2006): “I was disappointed with the reaction I got because I think it was a much better performance than Queen. The film clicked, and suddenly I was on every brilliant director’s favourite actress list. But, not a single one signed me. It was a lonely battle.”
FASHION (2008): “My talent wasn’t helping me get work. I did some bad films just to remain visible. Life In A… Metro wasn’t my film, nor was Fashion. After Fashion, people thought I was a dopehead, and that was not a good feeling. And, then, I won the National Award.”
ONCE UPON A TIME IN MUMBAAI (2010): “I had very little screen-time in a male-centric film. Milan (Luthria, the director) really helped me with the character. In the second half, we had to establish that Ajay Devgn’s character gives up everything for this girl. Through my look, expressions and limited lines, I had to convey the passion that she feels for this man.”
TANU WEDS MANU (2011): “After OUATIM, I got offers, but nothing really exciting. Milan (Luthria) offered me The Dirty Picture, but how many times could I play the girl on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Anand Rai offered me Tanu Weds Manu, and that changed the game for me. Vikas Bahl was convinced I could play Rani after watching Tanu…”
QUEEN (2014): “I was confused about why Vikas wanted me for Rani. I’d played a supermodel (Fashion) and a superwoman (Krrish 3), how could I be Rani? I don’t think it’s a great performance. It’s the supporting cast that elevates it. Rajkummar Rao’s arrogance made Rani more vulnerable while Lisa Haydon’s liberated ways made her appear caged. There are films that do justice to your talent. This was one of those films.”
REVOLVER RANI (2014): “It is so unlike Queen. It is outrageous,and you can’t relate to the character. It’s a completely dark character, and the film is darker. I sort of knew that people would like that.
Vikas Bahl, who directed Ranaut in Queen, says she is like a chameleon. “She completely transforms in front of the camera. In real life, she displays a bit of bravado. I guess that’s required when you are an outsider. But, when the camera rolls, she is no longer a woman out to prove herself. She owns the film, the role, the character. Yet, at heart, she is still that small-town girl. When casting for Queen, I wanted someone who came from the same world as Rani. Otherwise, there would have been a high chance of the character becoming a caricature. That is why she [Ranaut] fit perfectly.”
Ranaut was thrown out by her family because she dared to tell her father she would hit back if he slapped her. She was 15 then and had just informed her family of her desire to be an actress. “My mother married when she was 21. I am 27 now, and, even today, they cannot understand the world I belong to. The only future they can see for me is marriage. They are rather sweet. They always had unbearable expectations of their son, but very few of their daughters. Women in India are trained for a life serving their in-laws.”
She acted in plays and learnt acting in Delhi, before heading to Mumbai. Mahesh Bhatt’s Gangster (2006) was her debut, followed closely by an underrated Woh Lamhe (2006), again by Bhatt, a film loosely based on the life and times of Parveen Babi.
“My first impression of her was of a vulnerable girl who didn’t know what she was getting into.” That is how veteran film-maker Mahesh Bhatt describes the girl he met nine years ago. “But, she proved to be feisty. I remember she came in for the audition [of Gangster] without any makeup on. In India, an actress thinks she needs to look her best to land a role.
Kangana, on the other hand, asked
Anurag (Basu, the director) for her
character sketch and her look.”
Unfortunately, what followed the two Bhatt films, were a spate of average movies. Ranaut’s filmography is bursting with forgettable movies such as Game, Double Dhamaka and No Problem, redeemed once in a while by gems such as Tanu Weds Manu and Fashion, for which she won a National Award for best supporting actress.
“These [average] films gave me my bread and butter,” she says. “I am an outsider in the industry. I needed money to survive. There was nothing unusual about my struggle, though. In Bollywood, it takes people some time to start giving importance to others. Besides, there are people who like this kind of cinema. Who am I to call them trashy?”
When I met Ranaut in 2007, she was just a few films old and spoken of in the media as a starlet who loved fashion more than cinema. She appeared apprehensive, reluctant and somewhat of a recluse. She only opened up in front of the camera, as we photographed her for the January 2008 cover of MW.
Now, Ranaut seems a little less nervous. Often mocked for her accented English (these days she is almost never grammatically incorrect and speaks with clarity and flair), she faced immense criticism in her early days. “I was this small-town girl with very little exposure to the world. I have travelled over the past few years, read a lot, polished my language skills. I thought I had to prove myself since I didn’t belong to this world [Bollywood]. Here, the insiders are the actors who come from film families. Others have to work really hard.”
Tigmanshu Dhulia says she may look like a “porcelain doll, but has a layer of steel underneath. And, I love her candour.” Sample this: Ranaut says she has nothing in common with young stars such as Varun Dhawan and Ranveer Singh. “I meet them, but can’t figure out what to talk to them about.” Or this: she says developed her refined fashion sense to “over-compensate for the fact that I come from a small town and was made to feel that I do not belong here.” Or this: she doesn’t believe actors should want to be role models. “That means you are looking for validation outside yourself, but the audience can be very fickle. Today, they love me; tomorrow, they may hate me.”
Ranaut makes interesting choices. Right after completing Queen, she decided to move to New York for a few months to study screenplay writing. “I recently made a nine-minute film on a boy who has a healing touch – he can heal people with his touch.” When she started out, she was worried about finding any kind of work. Now, she can afford to take off to do her own thing. “Next, I am planning to take a baking course in Paris.” She intends to learn how to cook vegetarian food, now that she has given up meat. “I used to cook dum murgh really well. I am still getting used to the idea of being a vegetarian.” She is also writing a period romance. “I took it up as an assignment in the film course I did in New York. I would like to see it become a film.”
Ranaut, who is rather vocal about her dislike of self-obsessed directors and actors (“I know people who do more important work, like trying to find a cure for cancer or running the government, but they do it with such ease”), believes the only way she can avoid the trap of beginning to take herself too seriously is by doing different things. “Maybe I will go to Germany to learn something else. That’s what I believe every woman should do: earn and learn her way through the world.”
For Kangana Ranaut, Bollywood, despite all its flaws, is still a place of mystery, glamour and excitement. But, her rendezvous with it, she says, will never be complete till she makes it as a director. And, knowing her, she might just fearlessly get behind the camera any day now.