Bollywood has traditionally had strong, talented women – who have nevertheless bowed down to the invisible, strangling status quo that the industry works with. Women are meant to look pretty, dance well, be just coy enough to elicit questions about what keeps them coy, marry with adequate media glare marring the happy day to create a small scandal and then fade into oblivion. Women have borne the crass, downright offensive jokes directed towards them at award shows, simpered gently at the insinuations of them sleeping with powerful men in the industry, and carried on with gritted teeth and clenched fists. If some of them tried to speak up, their voices were smothered under the weight of expectations, duress, and fear.
And then, Kangana Ranaut, sprawled on the infamous Koffee with Karan couch, called Karan Johar the “flagbearer of nepotism” on his own show, as Saif Ali Khan looked on.
It wasn’t the first time Ranaut said out loud what people had been thinking for decades. She has carefully cultivated the image of the firebrand outsider carving her own path into the big, bad industry. It wasn’t even about what she said, really. It was about how she said it. No punches pulled, no sugar-coating, no embarrassed laughter trailing her words. She said what she had to say with a kind of rarely-found candour that left both the men in the room gaping at her.
Their responses, too, were very telling of the furore Ranaut’s words would go on to cause. Johar struggled to find his bearings while Khan sat with his face covered with his hands. They both laughed a little sheepishly, because they knew what she said was true – and they both had, at one time, benefitted from the nepotism she spoke about. Ranaut had managed to do what a lot of people had tried to – she had managed to, with a single line, make tangible the scattered injustices performed by the industry on its vulnerable members. She was invited to the most transparent celebration of Bollywood’s worst attributes, and successfully rattled the gatekeepers of the same.
She did this again and again through the year, calling out everyone who affronted her in the industry in the same feisty, unequivocally loud way. Her allegations of emotional and mental abuse against Adhyayan Suman, Aditya Pancholi and Hrithik Roshan (all of whom are, notably, much ‘better connected’ than she is in the industry) weren’t released anonymously. She gave interviews about them, actively raking up a controversy and expertly manoeuvring its consumption by a gossip-hungry audience. Ranaut was loud, angry and generating enough drama to have people joking about how ‘careful’ they have to be around her. Suddenly, she wasn’t just a canvas for fantasies to be projected upon. She was a thinking human being, very crucially a woman – and an outspoken one at that.
The first knee-jerk reactions she elicited were against her ‘vernacular’ accent, for how ‘brash’ she sounds and how she has no ‘respect’ for the ‘seniors’ in the industry. All this critique came from the men and women who benefitted from the existing toxic paradigms of silence and oppression. Interestingly, she received a lot of tone policing from the women, which was, at its crux, emblematic of how comfortable many women had conditioned themselves to be with the obvious disservice done to them. When Alia Bhatt said that not all star kids get ahead without hard work, she turned the conversation from a look at the idea of merit and privilege, as India understands it, to one about how Ranaut’s grudges were petty in nature.
Petty, like bitchy, is rarely, if ever, used to describe men. It’s a concept that allows a slow, insidious diminishing of the anger expressed by women. To pass value judgements on whether that anger is valid or not is another discussion. This one, specifically, is about the ability to express anger, frustration, a seething rage women are expected to reign in and brush away. Ranaut, in her personal capacity, has created an avenue for women in Bollywood to let this anger out. All of the past one year was her reclamation of ‘petty’, and a reaffirmation of the fact that she wasn’t backing down anytime soon. Suddenly, she had very little to lose in terms of ‘reputation’ – she was, very deliberately, creating her own narrative. She accepted the tags of someone who uses the ‘woman card’ and ‘victim card’ with aplomb, choosing to weave herself into a larger tapestry that positioned her as the upholder of feminism in Bollywood.
Ranaut’s expression of empowerment is linear, and thus makes for a great story. There are just two sides to the story – hers and the wrong one, and she holds grudges about these very, very close. When Shabana Azmi’s online petition in support of Deepika Padukone was passed around, Ranaut chose not to sign it while simultaneously clarifying that she supported Padukone as an individual. She took the allegation of being an ‘outsider’ and deftly made it into a brand for herself. Ranaut tapped into the throbbing raw nerve that had been exposed by the slow erosion of patience people have had for star kids and their debuts. It takes a lot of savvy marketing to become the perceived herald of change in a world as stratified as Bollywood – and Ranaut chose to capitalise on it.
Ranaut is not the change itself. She is the prelude to it. She could, in a way, be Bollywood’s proto-Harvey Weinstein moment. The echoes of her voice will, hopefully, carry ahead and push forward stories of how toxic Bollywood is, especially for women. Kangana finds herself in a position that is equally powerful and vulnerable. One misconstrued remark could change the tone of her entire campaign, and could put the Bollywood royalty very firmly back on the pedestal she managed to make them stumble from. The buzz she has created can fuel something larger than her, or it can consume her till she fades into the background, as Bollywood closes its ranks against the threat she is perceived to be. This volatile, high-risk undertaking will lead to an interesting exploration of what an emancipated woman should look, sound and be like – and it might just allow 2018 to be the year that make disruptions a norm.
Harnidh Kaur is a policy analyst, pop culture nerd and author. She can be found on twitter @pedestrianpoet.