If you want to know how good an actor Kangana Ranaut is, you don’t need to know that she’s won two Indian National Film Awards and is the highest paid actress in Bollywood – a term she abhors, by the way.
It’s not even vital to know that Raakesh Roshan, film producer and father of Bollywood heart-throb Hrithik Roshan, had to serenade her to accept the role of the mutant in his 2013 monster hit Krrish 3.
You just have to know this: Kangana Ranaut can make you feel like the most intelligent person on earth, or a total dunce for asking the silliest question, with just a sharp look of her large brown eyes.
When a journalist asks her at the promotion of her new film Katti Batti (Fighting/Making up) if she did a lot of research for her role, she looks at him in what appears to be amazement. Research for a role in a typical Bollywood film? What planet has he stepped off?!
And then, when the questioner begins to feel the teeniest sense of discomfort, she fixes him with a gaze and says: ‘I did my due research, as I do on all my characters. There were months and months of preparation. There was a scene where I had to look like I could pass out any minute… So, I did not have food or water for four days… that was the only way to do it. There were many challenges I had to face…’
What could have been a regular fluffy Bollywood sound bite had now turned into a serious discussion about acting techniques. It goes without saying that Kangana is an ardent devotee of method acting.
The 28-year-old has that chameleon-like quality about her that the Bollywood big brass has only now come to realise – after the mega successes of her multiple award-winning Queen (2014) and this year’s Tanu Weds Manu Returns, which saw her playing two roles: Tanu, a bratty emancipated girl, and Kusum, a sweet-natured athlete – an honour reserved only for mega stars.
But it’s certainly not been easy getting there. ‘It was really a struggle, the kind one hears about but rarely believes,’ she says. ‘I went through all the problems an outsider breaking into the film industry could go through, and then some.’
Even after her smash debut as an alcoholic caught up in a romantic triangle in Bhatt Productions’ Gangster in 2006, she had her ups and downs before Bollywood realised she had box office clout with her groundbreaking performance in Queen. The film mirrored elements from her own life – a small-town girl who gets a few knocks in the big, bad city as she tries to make it on her own terms.
Kangana grew up in Bhambla (now Surajpur), a small town in Himachal Pradesh in northern India. The middle child of schoolteacher mum Asha, and Amardeep Ranaut, a businessman, Kangana was expected to become a doctor. But at 16, she decided to rebel, moved to the Indian capital New Delhi and became a model with Elite Modelling Agency. It sounds like a fairy tale, but was far from it, she says. ‘I had to fight with my father, who refused to understand my need to explore and find my own path. I drifted into modelling, but hated it.’
The problem was she didn’t know exactly what she wanted to do. Luckily, she chanced upon theatre, literally walking into a performance, and decided there and then that she wanted to try acting and joined the Asmita Theatre Group. Her talent shone out when one day, in 2003, an actor who was supposed to play a prominent male character didn’t turn up for a performance; she offered to step into that role and carried off both in style. ‘That was the point when I realised what I really wanted to do was act,’ she says.
Next stop, Bollywood. While the move was as easy as a train ticket from New Delhi to Mumbai, crashing the hierarchy-ridden male-dominated Bollywood system proved far more difficult. Kangana was given a hard time while making the rounds of producers’ offices, because she was perceived to be a small-town girl. With her strong north Indian accent and less than perfect English, she was seen as someone to be pushed around.
‘They made fun of my accent, my limited English,’ she said in an interview. ‘They showed me the worst side that a human can ever see of another human. And these people have double faces. They kept their worst side for me.’
Though it still smarts, Kangana doesn’t want to go into specifics now. But she just can’t forgive and forget either. ‘A heroine is always dependent on the producer or the hero, and I really couldn’t understand that,’ she says. ‘[What surprises me] is that no one thought, “What if she becomes Kangana Ranaut, a star, and then she will never work with me as producer or actor!”’
Initially, Kangana had to struggle not only with indignities suffered at the hands of boorish producers, but also with not making enough money to eat properly. At times she’d have to make do eating only bread and achar (pickle). Though her father offered to help financially, Kangana refused, which led to a further rift in their relationship.
But she’s also thankful for the struggle she had to undergo initially. ‘The most important part [of my life] has been when I struggled for eight to nine years,’ she says.
‘I think my life has been completely transformed. I am happy with the journey now, though I wasn’t then. Though I wanted all this – the offers, the treatment, the position I’m enjoying today – when I started out, I don’t think I deserved it. The struggle is what makes it all worth it, and today I feel that I truly deserve all this success. It’s like how dough is put into the oven and baked into a cookie.’ She bursts out laughing at her analogy. ‘I am now a nice crispy cookie!’
She cocks her head, bird-like, while she talks. When she feels she’s not said anything out of place, she smiles and continues: ‘I am happy as the person I am today. I’m happy with the way I perceive a character today, and the way I approach them.’ So what does she want to be now? She has a surprising answer: ‘I want to be a normal person.’
For Kangana, normalcy is not having to suffer the ugly trappings of stardom – being mobbed, cut off from real life, unable to play ‘real characters’, and doing things for the wrong reasons – for money, or power.
‘I want to be able to do my kind of projects, which take from about six months to a year, and also be in a position where I can take a break between them, and travel, study, write, just experience life, which after all is the lifeblood of an actor,’ she says.
Kangana is in that sense a star who eschews the trappings of success, while still avidly courting it. ‘I want to be able to travel the world, without an entourage or the baggage of my identity,’ she says, a touch dreamily. But she’s far from given to flights of fancy. She does travel incognito when she’s researching a character, or when she’s off on her jaunts of discovery.
‘I am just a normal girl, and like to explore,’ she says. ‘I come from the mountains of Himachal, a very normal background. It is very important to find that balance in me, which the film industry can take away completely from you. I took off sometime last year, all alone.’ She won’t say where, but admits she came back refreshed to take on the jungle of Bollywood.
She’s now very much in touch with her family, who were estranged over her choosing a film career. In fact, when her older sister Rangoli suffered an acid attack – reportedly by a spurned suitor in 2006, she was only 23 and still studying in college – Kangana brought her to Mumbai to help her recover. Today she’s Kangana’s manager. Her parents made up with her in 2007, after the release of her film Life in a… Metro.
Even as they accepted her choice, Kangana was, ironically enough, becoming what they had feared – a sex symbol as well as a fashion icon. She’s been on the Most Desirable Woman list three times, the Most Powerful Women twice, named the Best Dressed Personality by the Indian edition of People magazine, as well as Vogue India.
She laughs when this is mentioned, obviously pleased, but refusing to let it detract from her aim of doing what makes her happy – at present, acting. ‘All these don’t really matter,’ she says. ‘What matters is what you do with your life.’
Kangana finds it hard to deal with praise, though she’s a lot more comfortable with it now. ‘It’s because initially people in the industry treated me like I didn’t deserve to be spoken to,’ she said. ‘I couldn’t speak English fluently and people made fun of me for that. So dealing with rejection became a part of life. All that has taken a toll, I guess.’
It’s obvious she wants to break the Bollywood system where women are still only good enough to be window dressing to the heroes. ‘A few people are trying, like me [to break the system],’ she says. ‘It is still a very, very male-dominated industry but, yes, hopefully at some point it will be equal and I am going to make sure that happens.’
That’s why you hardly ever see her acting with any of the Bollywood superstars. Most of her films are heroine-oriented.
Now, in an attempt to control her career, Kangana’s started taking an interest in other aspects of film-making. She wrote part of the dialogue for Queen, has written and directed a short film called The Touch with an American cast and an Australian crew, and has completed a couple of scripts that may be filmed in future – and she says she’s open to offers from Hollywood.
‘With every passing film I feel I am so ready to direct a feature film and in my own little ways I try to get involved in the film-making process,’ she says. ‘But I don’t feel physically ready for it, because it is a very demanding job coordinating the activities of hundreds of people on and off set.
‘Humans are not machines, you have to have a spiritual understanding of them, and making them do implicitly what you want is a very tough job. When I write it’s fine, it’s just me and the script. Of course, I’ve done a short film, but that was just managing a couple of people, on a very small scale.’
So for the time being she’s concentrating on her acting career. She learnt horse riding and sword fighting for her next project Rangoon – ‘a passionate love story set against the backdrop of the Second World War’ – being made by Vishal Bhardwaj. A historical movie based on the life of Indian warrior queen Rani Laxmibai, directed by Ketan Mehta, is also on the cards. And breaking up the sombreness of such big-budget ventures is Simran, ‘a really loopy script’, by maverick film-maker Hansal Mehta.
It’s time to wind up. As a parting shot I ask her what advice she would give a small-town girl who wants to become an actress. ‘The formula for success?’ she asks. ‘Well, no two persons are alike. So what works for me need not necessarily work for another person.
‘You have to make your own journey. Everyone needs to find their own path.’