The first thing that catches your eye in Kangana Ranaut’s ruggedly designed living room in suburban Khar is its unmistakable out-of-doors feel and a big fat cushion that rests on a couch in the midst of some nondescript pillows. It stands out for a message written on it in bold: “Maybe some women aren’t meant to be tamed. Maybe they need to run free until they find someone just as wild to run with them.” It’s not hard to guess that it spells out the guiding principle of its free-spirited owner and would ring a bell with many other such ladies of the unfettered ilk.
Kangana is running free and wild at the box office at the moment. The irrepressible dash of Tanu Weds Manu Returns (TWMR) is currently the big story in Bollywood. What’s most remarkable is that she has managed to do this on her own terms. It has not just been about being the quintessential outsider in the incestuous, closed world of the Hindi film industry but also about exercising unconventional choices when it comes to the films and roles and then going ahead and turning this double drawback to her own advantage. Here is an A grade heroine who unlike Deepika, Katrina, Priyanka or Kareena doesn’t boast a Khan prop-up on her roster of films. She is yet to star with any member of the Holy Trinity. Yet with her latest film, she has delivered a mammoth Rs 38 crore all-India weekend, almost as huge as the Khans. Having amassed Rs 55 crore in five days, the film looks set to race to the cherished 100-crore mark sooner than anticipated and could well become the biggest “heroine-oriented” film in the history of Bollywood. “The film and its success have rested on her shoulder alone,” says Shailesh Kapoor, founder and CEO of media insights firm Ormax Media. Tanu Weds Manu Returns has also come like a monsoon shower in the drought-hit industry that has had only two bona fide big hits in the first half—Piku and Gabbar is Back. The 100-crore mark, which seemed so easy to reach till recently, has proven elusive. Will Kangana prove the lucky charm?
The mercurial, wild-at-heart Tanu and the tomboy Datto, the two characters Kangana plays, have endeared themselves to the masses despite not being the standard, predictable heroines. They are far from perfect, gorgeous beauties. In fact, till date, most of Kangana’s onscreen avatars have been anything but “regular”, more in the quirky, eccentric zone (see infographic). She is not the quintessential desirable ‘Dream Girl’ that the No. 1 heroine has been traditionally but a flawed, pretty girl-next-door who you can relate to, with all her blemishes and inconsistencies.
Tanu Weds Manu Returns lyricist Rajshekhar envisions Kangana in her own characters. “She seems to have bits of Tanu, Datto and Rani (Queen) in her. It isn’t as though she sought these roles out but they were lurking somewhere within her,” he says. Just like Rani, he imagines Kangana too would gorge on laddoos to get over a heartbreak. Uncannily spot on. Only, she’d do it with cupcakes (see interview). It’s this connect that has made her recent characters elicit an intense response—love as well as disenchantment. TWMR has disappointed many with what they see as “faux feminism”. That it offers a very progressive take on relationships, shows us a glimpse of love, lust, longing and licentiousness in small-town India but restores the order and moral core in the end. That it pushes the envelope only to seal it with the glue of tradition. “A rebellious girl who would slip from your hands suddenly begins talking about holding hands,” says Rajshekhar, pinning down the problem.
Didn’t the ‘taming’ of Tanu and Datto at the altar of colourless man Manu disappoint Kangana? Wasn’t it against the grain of that “thoughtful cushion” of hers? She prefers to keep a healthy distance between real and reel, prefers to look at it from the point of view of her character Tanu. A character whose rebelliousness may have struck a note with the audience but whose defiance feels more facile to the actress herself, specially in comparison with her own independence. A rebel without a cause, as she calls her. Tanu’s choice of Manu over Raja would then be perfect in Tanu’s own world. “Raja has this rowdiness, rawness to him which you might like in your boyfriend but for a husband women look for men who are a lot more polished like Manu,” she says. Also who knows where things would go from here? A fickle Tanu might get bored of Manu all over again and the heartbroken, still wet-behind-the-ears Datto might go on a journey of self-discovery like Rani in Queen.
Much as everybody tries to see Kangana in her characters and vice-versa, she seems to want to break free of them. She sees herself as a far bigger rebel and much more unconventional and confident than the reckless and wanton Tanu. Anand L. Rai, director of Tanu Weds Manu (both the first and the sequel), considers this confidence and fearlessness as her trademark. “She is not scared of doing anything, has no rules or regulations to live by and never thinks about who she is competing with or how she will score over the others. She is focused on her own work, is in a competition with herself,” he says. The characteristic tight curls casually held up in a bun, shorts matched with a GAP tee, with nary a hint of make-up on her face, Kangana is a woman comfortable in her own skin right down to those natural, unplucked eyebrows. Minimal, measured in her words, precise in her thought, this is a girl who knows her mind which makes her pack quite a punch in her fragile frame.
Most directors agree she is a phenomenal acting talent, her much-criticised, jagged diction notwithstanding. “She has self-belief, the courage to tread her own path, and is clear-headed. She has carved her own space and proven that she can draw the crowds,” says Hansal Mehta, soon to launch a film with her. Madhur Bhandarkar, who directed her in Fashion, agrees that her biggest strength is sticking to her convictions. “She picks roles that she believes in, goes by their strength than the length,” he says.
Kangana takes it all back to growing up in small-town Bhambla (Surajpur) in Mandi, Himachal Pradesh, and studying in boarding schools. “We were raised with a lot of freedom,” she recollects. Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt also considers her small-town moorings as the standout aspect about her as a performer. “She comes from a space called ‘real India’ that is finding takers. In the rooted narratives, an actor with her kind of fragrance works with the masses,” he says. It’s the rootedness in her and her characters that reaches out to the audience. There’s a moment in Queen when Rani shoves her sweater in the bag before dancing away in wild abandon, the bag still slung around her shoulder. Unlike say a Preity Zinta in a Karan Johar film, she wouldn’t throw away the sweater, she holds on to it. “It is a remarkable moment that spoke to me,” says Rajshekhar. “She is unfettered, soaring away but fully aware of the ground beneath her feet.”
For Bhatt, Kangana’s strength as a performer are her emotional quotient, total lack of inhibition and openness to unorthodox ways of enacting a scene. He remembers a scene in Woh Lamhe where her character, a take on Parveen Babi, is tearing up the pillows and mattresses to look for bugs and microphones that she is imagining in her head. “She did the take in a mad tone when I suggested that she should do it like a spy, like someone who is into a secret no one knows. And she tuned in immediately and perfectly,” he recalls. He finds a sense of abandon in her performance. Her chemistry as an actress works from within. Filmmaker Sujoy Ghose, who is likely to work with her in the future, also thinks that acting for Kangana has much to do with her own life. “You give her a character and she makes it her own, drawing from her own experiences. She would make her directors see things in the characters that they hadn’t envisaged,” he says.
Surprisingly for someone being feted unanimously, Kangana never wanted to be an actress. She was into preparing for medical and engineering. “I wanted to explore other arts—painting, dancing, theatre—and learn French,” she says. Her exposure to films was limited. Her home town didn’t have any cinema halls that attracted her and a free run at the TV wasn’t allowed at home. In fact, the first film she saw was Shahrukh Khan’s Devdas in Chandigarh when she was in Class 9. A brief stint with modelling in Delhi and theatre training under Asmita’s Arvind Gaur eventually proved to be the stepping stones to bagging her first role, in Gangster. It was a decision that didn’t go down well with her family initially but now they are basking in her reflected glory. “They have become mini celebs themselves,” she says with a smile.
Initial days in Bollywood were not too heady. The tumultuous personal relationships—with Aditya Pancholi and Adhyayan Suman—took their toll. But now Mumbai is home, the place she belongs to. The talk of her arrogance, of being difficult, floats in alongside the success story. But there is also the flip side—the tremendous grit in rising above the odds, be it her initial discomfort with spoken English. Or taking care of her sister Rangoli, an acid attack victim, and helping her go through multiple surgeries and a rehabilitation programme.
Meanwhile, her stardom continues to intrigue and befuddle the industry. There is a lot of scepticism and trepidation in the face of success. The inability to pin her down makes them unsure about hedging their bets on her in the long run. To every Queen there has also been a Revolver Rani and Ungli. “She doesn’t have a defined fan base yet and will need to deliver back-on-back hits like Deepika did last year,” says Kapoor. And, perhaps, get a little less “offbeat” to fit into the conventional Bollywood mould.
The future, however, promises to be just as unusual. If you assume that Kangana would now be going more mainstream, that she would be courting the Khans or that they would woo her, she has gone ahead and begun work on a romcom on live-in relationships with a Khan lesser than her—Imran. Hansal Mehta, with the political and realistic Shahid and Citylights behind him, begins work on a film with her soon. “She is my only choice, without her I won’t make the film,” he declares. As we go to press, Kangana has bagged what could arguably be the most exciting film of her career. She stars with Shahid Kapoor and yes, a Khan too—Saif Ali—in Vishal Bhardwaj’s most expensive and most musical film, Rangoon, set against the backdrop of the second world war and Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army.
Meanwhile, having tried a hand at co-writing dialogues for Queen, Kangana wants to write and direct a film independently now. Just as you think of it as a long-term plan, she clarifies that it will be coming soon, perhaps next year itself. The role models for her are actor-turned-directors Ben Affleck and George Clooney. “Actors have a lot of value, but a director is lot more responsible for a film, more in control,” she says. There is a restlessness much in evidence. “One has to grow in life, keep doing something new with the time on hand,” she says. Rai claims to have witnessed this “growth” in the four years between the two Tanu Weds Manus. “I haven’t come across anyone who has educated herself so well over the years,” he says. About films. And life as well.
There are other big plans hatching at her end. Building a villa for herself in the hills, somewhere near Manali. A retirement plan, you ask. The reply is pat: “No, a business strategy. I will prepare for my characters, think films, have readings in my privacy there,” she says. Immediate goal, however, is to travel “without a nanny, friend, family or an assistant”. After the Tanu Weds Manu surge recedes, she will take off for a holiday to New York. Alone. Like the famous cushion said, some women are meant to run free, on their own.
By Namrata Joshi in Mumbai