By Maya Palit
What was really going on when, this Valentine’s Day, Kangana Ranaut distributed whips to women? The papers say it was a celebration of her role in Rangoon as ‘Miss Julia’, a Bollywood stunt-queen apparently based on the 1940s stunt actor ‘Fearless Nadia’, India’s first action heroine.
One report says it was about empowering women, but doesn’t really elaborate how this would happen. “The actress wants girls to recognise the[ir] superiority in a sexual relationship, take charge over the act, and their boyfriends,” wrote a DNAarticle, and its bizarrely muddled conflation of her role and real personality carried on, with a line about how Ranaut was clearly channeling her ‘daredevil persona both onscreen and offscreen’.
By now Ranaut has a reputation for being bold and brave. If you’ve seen her interviews over the last few years, you’d know that she seems to have an incredible no-bullshit approach to everything. There was the time she voiced her opinion on Rakesh Roshan, going on the offensive about her row with Hrithik Roshan.
Why do daddies with big names have to run to the rescue of their reasonably old sons when they are stuck in controversies, she asked, with a well-rehearsed eye-roll. And there’s her more recent and explosive cutting down to size of Karan Johar on his own show, where she accused him of nepotism and said he was a big snob.
Ranaut’s straight talk and frank take on the murkiness of Bollywood, and its suspicion of new actors from other backgrounds, makes for a great breath of fresh air.
But it’s been a long journey, from the frankness of Ranaut — who in May 2016 said in an interview that a sexually active woman is labelled a whore or a psychopath by the public — to the frankness of the Karan Johar conversation in 2017. And somewhere along the way, Bollywood has found a revenue model in ‘the breath of fresh air’.
Publicists promoting her most recent film Rangoon, and the media too, has been latching on to the sliver of real-life personality to do a lot of irritating cult-building. So much so that a Cinestaanarticle attempting to suss out why Ranaut was chosen for the role in Rangoon settles on three conclusions. That Ranaut, like Nadia, is an outsider to the film industry, that she has become a ‘feminist ideal’ in Bollywood, and that she is renowned for her fearless statements, and brutal honesty.
Does this hyped-up personality cult end up being particularly harsh on the women actors in question? Because, after all the marketing gimmicks (the whip-distributing) and the press building up of Ranaut’s persona prior to the film, it nose-dived because of her madly boring role in Rangoon. Forget headstrong or fiercely independent. This was a film that began with Ranaut as the doe-eyed and half-witted mistress of a melodramatic writer and British chamcha named Rusi (played by Saif) who calls her “Kiddo”.
Rusi has a Pygmalion-type relationship with her, because he ‘discovered’ her off the streets, so naturally can baby talk and manipulate her into hare-brained schemes, like going to Burma to boost soldiers’ morale. Then comes along a macho soldier (played by Shahid Kapoor) – an INA spy and bastion of patriotism. They fall in love and roll around in mud (while a Japanese soldier they’ve captured and tied up plays the harmonica) and then she parrots his one-liners about why God made beautiful women foolish.
The persona of Ranaut’s character in Queen lived up to all the ‘Bold Badass Babes’ spiel in articles about her, because her role as a shy, ‘un-glam’ woman travelling on her own to escape her moronic husband-to-be was fun, broke out of the conventions you tend to see in Bollywood films, and gave her enough to do. But since then it feels like Bollywood has used the public’s love for Ranaut against them.
The Koffee with Karan episode being peddled as Kangana telling the ‘truth’ and nothing but in blazing capital letters, and channeling her ‘fearless’ character in the film while bringing down Bollywood, got tiring really quickly. As did the instruction to echo Kangana by having an ‘I Mean Business’ attitude and not developing personal equations in the workplace.
It all reeks of a madly myopic view of what strong woman and persona have to look like.
And then, after all the relentless publicity and media jumping down people’s throats about how Ranaut, on-screen and off, is a model for fearlessness, Rangoon just doesn’t deliver by making her role so forgettable.
As a friend said when I was discussing it with her afterwards: “You know, it’s not that we don’t want female heroes. It’s just that we want Bollywood to write them a half-way decent script or two.”