There comes a time in every actor’s life when it seems like it doesn’t get better than this. It happened with Vidya Balan in 2012 after Dirty Picture and Kahaani, with Deepika Padukone in 2013 with five back-to-back blockbusters, and now it’s happening to Kangana Ranaut. The only difference is that Kangana’s journey itself is worthy of a solid screenplay. If one had to make a movie on her life, the voice-over would go something like this: ‘In the spring of 2005, a 17-year-old girl from the hills walked into the hot city of Mumbai with 1,500 rupees and a suitcase. Today she sits in front of us, squashed up on her couch, in the lavish pad of an almost-new home’. The voice would be of a man who admires her and the scene would be cut to a viola piece softly receding into the background.
It’s a dramatic way to introduce the actress, but any other way seems too timid. Dressed in tiny black shorts and a loose white T-shirt, Kangana sits cross-legged on her sprawling leather couch. Her slender frame makes her look delicate. Her famous curls are bunched up into a messy bun, just the way she likes it. She hasn’t slept the night before, but she isn’t trying to hide it with make-up. Even her ‘I’m just out of the bed’ look seems straight out of a 1950s Hollywood classic. Her living room is dotted with vintage images of Guru Dutt and Marilyn Monroe, and a poster that says, ‘Work hard and be nice to people’. Her phone is constantly buzzing, and it has been since the last 12 hours. Friends and fellow actors are reaching out to congratulate her for her latest release, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, that’s well on its way to becoming one of the most watched and loved films of 2015.
“I would be lying if I say I’m not ecstatic. In fact, I have a swollen head right now. It’s hard to carry!” she says with a giggle. It was four years ago when Kangana charmed us with the rebellious Tanu in Anand L Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu. Weed and vodka were her poison. Love for her was very matter-of-fact and men were never to be taken too seriously. By the end of that film she got married to Manu, a man quite her opposite in every way possible. Now in the sequel, we are introduced to the same two individuals who can’t even get through marriage therapy without wanting to tear each other apart. The film is unapologetically real, and the biggest surprise in it is Kangana’s Datto, the most endearing Haryanvi athlete you’ll meet since Chak De! India.
“Films like these are given kind of second-citizen treatment, you know,” she says with a sneer. “It’s not a typical formula film, it doesn’t have superstars or glam dolls, and it’s not set in a dreamy world. People in the film are flawed and it could very well be a big slice of anyone’s twisted life. So when I heard that the movie’s making the kind of money it is, I was a bit surprised,” says Kangana Ranaut, as her sister and manager Rangoli fills us in on the latest box-office figures—“Nine crore on day one!” she squeaks.
Even Queen, which is now considered Kangana’s hallmark film, saw a slow start. So the response she is receiving for the sequel of a film that was once being rejected by every popular Bollywood financier is a feat. “Tanu and Manu both cross their limits in this one. It’s the part I love most,” she says. For an actress whose versatility has often been marred by a lack of good scripts, this was literally a double whammy Kangana had long dreamt of. “It was difficult to keep going back and forth between Datto and Tanu. Tanu is mean and manipulative, a bit of an attention seeker, and I had to pitch her against Datto, who’s already an audience favourite because in so many ways she is the ideal modern woman. It’s the end result of about four months of voice and body coaching,” she adds.
Kangana Ranaut’s hard work shows, as it always has. She has made unconventional choices and taken up roles most actresses like to steer clear of. So it should not surprise anyone that Kangana is the only Indian actress to have won two National Awards within a span of seven years—for Fashion (2008) and Queen (2014).
You’d think it’s the kind of success not every 28-year-old can handle, but she disagrees. “I have waited for this for 10 years and I could wait for another ten. But it’s come to me at a point when I know I can deal with it. My confidence in my earlier days, when I wasn’t this successful, was understood as arrogance. But when I became successful, it was called ‘attitude’. And when I will become even more successful it will be called ‘self- awareness’,” she quips. The last two years have seen a dramatic shift in her career and the way people perceive her, but she’s almost unaffected. “People will have many versions, but for me it is just faith in one’s own abilities and it is very healthy. If I don’t have it, how will I ever do things that I am doing? I’m very sure of who I am, and where I stand, and others’ acknowledgement of my abilities doesn’t really make a difference to me.”
Her candour could easily be misunderstood as a sense of ‘I’m better than the rest’, but it’s coming from a place of knowing rather than overconfidence. “When they used to ask me who this generation’s superstar would be, Deepika or Sonam, I used to be like ‘me’! They’d say ‘Don’t joke’ and just brush me aside, and that’s when I understood that most of my career people never realised what I’m capable of.” She points to the National Award ceremony earlier this month that created quite a stir because of the tapering silver gown she wore to receive her prize. “Why is it becoming such a big deal? I don’t understand how my gown became bigger than my award! It was a moment I knew I would remember the rest of my life. So I wanted to look the best I possibly could. I feel like a star in a gown. I wouldn’t feel the same in a sari or an anarkali. I think it’s important to pay heed to how you feel,” she says almost with a straight face.
It’s a philosophy she has followed ever since she appeared on the big screen with a long sweater and a bottle of whisky in her first film, Gangster (2004). She was frilly-haired and had a wobbly walk. She had kohl streaming out of her eyes that spelt agony. She was angsty, yet passionate. She had a sharp tongue and spoke her mind. Amid a lineup of plastic dolls, she was made of a material that wasn’t afraid to crack. Her acting had a method to which she added her own madness. Kangana was the anti-heroine Indian cinema hasn’t really had, well, since Helen. “People took to me instantly. I was new and kind of broken. Who doesn’t like that?” she asks nonchalantly.
IT WASN’T as if Kangana Ranaut turned up in tinseltown with a whole lot of baggage. She had a peaceful childhood in Himachal Pradesh, where she grew up with a younger sister and an elder brother. What she always stood out for was confidence: since the age of three, she knew she was going to become famous. “When my mum would shout at me, I’d tell her, ‘I’m going to be famous one day, so don’t shout at me’.” Like the typical middle child who got away with most things, she was always eager to break rules. “If my brother got something, I made sure I got something better and bigger. If I was asked not to wander about at night, that’s exactly what I would do. I just somehow had the confidence in me that I would get through. That pushed me to push my limits. It’s not like I did not get into trouble, but I knew no other way of living.”
She left home at 17 and pursued theatre with acting guru Arvind Gaur in Delhi, only to soon realise the call of the arc-lights. “When I came to Bombay, I lived with four other girls in Sarojini Apartments on Juhu Tara road. I still remember each of us was given one mattress and a cupboard. I’d wake up everyday and go for auditions and come back and just live on that mattress.”
She was picked up by the Bhatt brothers soon enough, but the journey led her to the darkest days of her life. By her own admission, she invited too many unwanted people and situations to accompany her in her desperation to make it. Bad films, bad relationships and rejections, she was juggling it all. “It’s hard being young. When you’re young, you are so much more desperate to make it, and you want it for all the wrong reasons. Either you want to make someone jealous or you want to teach a lesson to your ex or you’re just comparing yourself with others. You’re mostly burning in your own guilt when you revisit some of the things you do. Now I feel so much more sorted and at ease, as opposed to being anxious and reckless and not the best version of myself,” she says.
Despite successful films like Life in a… Metro (2007) and Fashion, she was earmarked as ‘just another small town girl trying to make it big in Bollywood’. She did not have a famous family backing her and hence little guidance. She had to make mistakes so she would discover her own way. She wasn’t well read or well-spoken. She was judged all the time and was well aware of it. “People have always visited my work in hindsight. It’s like the guy who had an idea of an aircraft and people called him crazy initially, but only he knew what’s in his head.”
Her personal life did not make news for the right reasons either. Alleged troubled relationships with Aditya Pancholi and Adhyayan Suman underlined her image as the poster girl of distress. What worked for her was her attitude: she was never apologetic for her actions. “I’ve advocated living-in with your lover and I still stand by it. But I won’t ever be with someone who isn’t honest with me. The moment you’re honest, life becomes simple, and I’ve learnt that the hard way. The only thing that kept me going was the fact that I knew I would see a day like today,” she says.
What did not change all these years finally did with Vikas Bahl’s film Queen. It was a film that turned her life around for good. The way she sees it, they took her and placed her on the ‘A-list’ pedestal at last. “I played a virgin who can’t even spell her name without a quiver in her voice in that film. Basically, the exact opposite of me. I think I could empathise with girls in Rani’s place a lot more after that film. It grounded me, so to speak.”
It seems superficial of this society, but the fact that she can speak good English now seems to be working for her. I ask her how she became so articulate, and she gives me the most unexpected response. “Speech gets articulate if your thoughts get articulate, and thoughts are related to actions. Start with thoughts,” she says. “Yes, people around me changed. I’m still trying to figure out why. I did my job. I have always been doing it. Just that suddenly everyone is sitting up and taking note.”
Kangana Ranaut also seems a lot more introspective. “I had so much fun doing a writing course in New York recently. It’s these desires that keep you alive, right?” she asks. “Wake up early, maybe read a book, hit the gym, polish yourself, your abilities—it’s the kind of stuff that inspires you, right? I want to have a positive attitude. I want to travel. I have got what I have, but that’s not going to put a full stop to my life.”
She’s a powerhouse performer, as Tanu Weds Manu Returns makes clear, and has a story that many take inspiration from. Is this as good as it gets? “No, that’s yet to come,” she sums up in her inimitable way.