"She'll say anything and everything," said a grinning gent who works at a wine shop in Bandra. He'd been watching clips from Kangana Ranaut's appearance on Aap ki Adalat on his phone.
"Her problem is that she thinks she's Salman Khan, but there's only one Bhai."
The comparison seemed a little unfair, I said, without getting into details (like Khan being the exact opposite of an outsider in Bollywood, and singularly lacking in the acting department).
"See, she thinks she can get away with doing anything, but it's not that easy," he explained.
Indeed it isn't, but Khan's version of "anything" was allegedly running over a homeless man, I pointed out.
"Haan," he nodded, "so she's doing the same to Hrithik Roshan, right?"
Thanks to the interviews she’s done promoting her new film (Simran is released tomorrow), Ranaut is a hot topic again, but not for particularly professional reasons. Every interview that she has given of late has been a platform to talk about two men from her past: Aditya Pancholi and Hrithik Roshan, with a significant emphasis on the latter.
The largest chunk in each of her recent interviews has been about Roshan – her recollections of conversations, anecdotes about Valentine’s Day spats, allegations that he hacked her email, stories about birthday parties together, anger at his father’s inaction, and an oft-repeated demand that the Roshans apologise to her.
We, the public, are shameless gossips, but Ranaut has also chosen to feed the beast. She’s insisted on talking about this episode and hasn’t even pretended that it has any connection to Simran.
So much so that, to this wine shop Bandra man and many of the rest of us, Kangana Ranaut in 2017 is most defined by an anti-Hrithik Roshan stand, rather than any of the others she’s taken over her decade in Bollywood. And there have been many.
Her distinctly fearless habit of calling out every layer of misogyny and oppression in a deeply misogynistic and oppressive film industry has built in us, rightly, an instinct to applaud her every word. There is no doubt that her story – that of an outsider who battled exploitation, abuse, sexism, and exclusion and rose to the top – is worth applauding.
The upside of this is that we hang on every word she says. The downside is that there is no room for nuance.
Because now, in her unprecedented position of awesomeness and influence, she has chosen to make gossip about ex-lover Hrithik Roshan the centerpiece of her persona.
We've come to expect more from Ranaut because there are so few actresses in Bollywood whom we can turn to for feminist fist-bumps – most of them are scared of the word "feminist". It feels disappointing that Ranaut just wants to discuss her heartbreak.
From Vir Sanghvi to Karan Johar, there’s a long list of influential people who have sly-tweeted or commented disapprovingly about Ranaut for raking up what is essentially an ex-lovers' spat. The fact that they won’t address her directly speaks volumes about the stature that Ranaut has earned today.
To criticise her, as Sona Mohapatra discovered, is to unleash a torrent of righteous outrage. Mohapatra’s claim that Ranaut was doing a “disservice to feminism” by talking about her past relationships is excessive. Ranaut’s sister Rangoli’s counterattack (“you are a black spot on womanhood”) is equally over the top, but fits into an effective PR strategy that has equated criticising Kangana Ranaut with criticising womanhood itself.
How did this happen?
If we discovered her as an actress in Queen, Ranaut’s celebrity status came as a result of how she gave provocative, honest answers on national platforms with casual ease.
When she said on Koffee With Karan that she wanted to be a heroine in her own right and not via working with a Khan; when she told Hindustan Times that she’ll never endorse fairness creams because it would be irresponsible in “a country of brown people”; when she told Pinkvilla that she won’t do item songs because she wants to correct the path prescribed to Bollywood actresses; when she spoke honestly about her own struggles: Stand by stand, Ranaut became our feminist hero.
She's grown from strength to strength in a near-unbroken string of films with her in the lead, no male superstar billing above her. She's fought misogynist relatives, directors, producers, actors, and even misogynistic audiences. Some battles she's lost, others she's won and, through it all, she's survived. And now she is flexing her muscles, as is her right.
But now, with us all hanging on her every word, the really relevant point about heroines being treated shoddily by the film industry has remained restricted to lip-syncing All India Bakchod's lyrics in "The Bollywood Diva Song", while her interviews have been dominated by details of how Roshan allegedly blubbered to Ranaut.
Talking about a past relationship is not inherently irrelevant. Consider, for contrast to the Hrithik story, Ranaut’s relationship with Aditya Pancholi.
Ranaut met Pancholi as a teenager who had just arrived in Mumbai looking to make it as an actor. She says he offered her an apartment and that was the start of an abusive relationship, with Pancholi stalking her and even hitting her on some occasions. Ultimately, it was a police order that would force him to stay away from her.
(Pancholi's response to these allegations has been to circulate copies of his daughter's Aadhaar card to prove Ranaut is not a year younger than his daughter, as she has claimed, but a year older. Classy.)
Even if the story is approximately a decade old, it is a brave one for Ranaut to have shared, and an important one to hold in the public consciousness. Indian society mutely accepts violence against women and the predatory advances of sleazy men who present themselves as guardians. Women are socialised into accepting victimhood, to which Ranaut's response was:
It says a lot about our general acceptance of violence against women — and Pancholi’s reputation perhaps — that these revelations haven’t shocked the public or got tongues wagging with as much enthusiasm as the details Ranaut has served up of an extramarital affair she claims she and Hrithik Roshan had.
Unlike the episode with Pancholi, there's no larger takeaway from the Roshan–Ranaut exchange. It’s an extramarital affair that ended in an ego battle.
This is sad for Ranaut and she has every right to talk about it, but let’s be clear on one point: By doing so she's adding to gossip fodder, not feminist discourse.
But to point that out, or to levy any criticism of her at all, is seen as being anti-Ranaut and therefore anti-woman in general.
So then you try to stand with her, only to feel that prickling sense of hesitation – because what exactly are you standing up for? Extramarital affairs? Better security protocol for Gmail? What is it that's expected of us, beyond an ear for her story of past heartbreak?
The fact is, Ranaut isn't obliged to be a feminist icon every time she steps out of her house and in front of the microphone.
She can also be an apolitical woman who wants her ex-lover to acknowledge her.
She can be a strategist who believes there's more to gain from talking about herself than her film.
She can be a diva who is difficult to work with, just as she may have to beat her head against patriarchy’s inability to accept the idea of a woman with a working brain. One doesn't make the other invalid. All of them together make a human being.
In the last five years, India has seen the mainstreaming of demands for women’s rights. In the same period, Ranaut has been one of our brightest lights in the struggle to get society to value women's stories. Losing sight of that just because she wants to indulge in a little gossip and some ex-bashing would be a shame.
But lauding the gossip and ex-bashing as feminist discourse would be just as shameful for our collective ability to see nuance in feminism.
Now to say a prayer for Simran and hope it has the feminist gaze and sensitivity that we’ve come to expect of a film that boasts of Ranaut and only Ranaut.
Contact Deepanjana Pal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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