Kangana Ranaut: I want to be like Clint Eastwood
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Kangana Ranaut’s career will always be looked at as before and after Queen (2014). The movie, in which a naïve Delhi girl finds herself on a solo trip to Europe after she is dumped by her fiancé, marked the beginning of a new phase. Ranaut’s roles got bigger but didn’t lose their complexity: be it a double role in Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015), which embodied two contrasting personalities, or the more recent Rangoon (2017), where her Fearless Nadia-style action hero towered over the movie’s two leading men.
But Ranaut’s transformation hasn’t been limited to her performances—she was always an interesting actor, as her performances in early films such as Gangster (2006), Life In A... Metro (2007) and Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai (2010) show. The real drama has been in her transformation from a starlet, mocked for her accent, to a formidable public figure, who has consistently displayed an outspokenness and irreverence that is rare in our movie stars.
Not only has Ranaut cultivated the persona of a fearless woman ready to take on patriarchy, she has chosen roles and spoken on issues that strengthen that image. In a public falling-out with actor Hrithik Roshan in 2016, she bared intensely personal details. Early this year, on Karan Johar’s chat show Koffee With Karan, Ranaut launched into an attack on nepotism in Bollywood, accusing the producer-director of being a repeat offender.
Controversy, as if following a pattern, returned when the poster of her new film, Simran, was launched in May. Her name appeared as additional story and dialogue writer ahead of screenwriter Apurva Asrani, who accused Ranaut of “stealing” his credit.
Ahead of Simran’s release on 15 September, we meet Ranaut at the Sun-n-Sand hotel in Mumbai at the end of a day that she says has been particularly stressful. In a TV interview earlier that day, Roshan has come up again, Ranaut has confessed to having a mini-breakdown and says she is coping with the absence of her sister Rangoli, also her manager, who is pregnant. And yet, on a day when she feels “life slipping away from her hands”, Ranaut seems to be in control of her own narrative.
With Simran, Ranaut wants to branch out beyond acting. In the interview—in person and on phone—she talks about her role as Simran, in which she plays a Gujarati divorcee living a life of crime in the US, launching herself as a director with Teju, her worst performance so far, and her views on marriage. Edited excerpts:
What made you sign up for ‘Simran’? You’ve also written the additional dialogue and story for the film.
Hansal Mehta came to me with a one-line idea, based on multiple incidents he read about, of these robberies in gas stations and on highways in the US. They are done mostly by Asians. They never carry arms or explosive material, but just point their fingers through their hoodies. The prejudice and xenophobia in America is so much that they’ll give anything if you wear a burqa or are Asian.
Rather than finding it scary or thrilling, I found it funny, funny in a painful way, because that’s how America sees brown skin. I thought we could take potshots at that. We’ve made it lighthearted. At the same time, we aren’t trying to justify it—a criminal is a criminal.
The initial idea wasn’t that I co-write it, it was more like mentoring, because they needed the budget. When you get involved with a project at this level, where you don’t have a script, what do you say? You don’t say I will work on whatever script you give—you say as and when I like the script, we go ahead with it.
I was in the same capacity as Hansal and the producer, where we all take a call okaying which version we go ahead with. I wasn’t happy with the writer’s (Apurva Asrani’s) work. Apurva’s first instinct was to make it a thriller along the lines of The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013), with a drug-addiction backdrop. We pursued it for some time, but then we collectively decided that it’s not the script (we wanted). A story about someone who uses a lipstick to rob can’t possibly be a thriller. I didn’t want to manipulate and corrupt and show her having arms because people like her can’t afford arms, that’s why they rob gas stations.
Hansal decided to write one-two drafts. I was like, okay I will write two-three drafts too. It became very messy later, but anyway, that’s behind us.
What was your main contribution to the script? Have you been this closely involved as a writer in any film earlier?
My major contribution was in the arc of the character. Changing it to the story of a Gujarati divorcee was Hansal’s idea. Now we have a lot more single women and men, but there aren’t many divorced characters, especially women in their early 30s, in our mainstream films. There’s a huge difference between adding a few things here and there and doing dialogue like I did in Queen, and actually sitting down and writing drafts. During Queen, when Vikas (Bahl) told Anurag Kashyap that Kangana has written most of her dialogue, and he said, wonderful, she should get the credit, I had said, what will I do with the credit? They said, why not?
I come from that school of thought. So, for Simran, I expected a credit. Hansal wanted me to take credit as well. Apurva said I shouldn’t, because he is the writer. And if I want I should take an additional writer credit and not that of a co-writer. I said fine, let’s do that. That was done months before he wrote his sob stories. I don’t know why he said the things that he did, because he was already given the credit that he wanted.... The drama was uncalled for.
(Lounge reached out to Asrani for a response and this is what he had to say: “They began shooting a bound script registered under my name. It was on set that Kangana decided to up the comedy...she also improvised some dialogue. When after I edited the film she demanded a co-writer credit, I refused as I believe that a bound script takes great effort to create and any credits must be decided before registration. After many discussions, I signed off on giving her an additional dialogue credit.”)
Apart from writing, you’re also planning to direct your first feature, ‘Teju’, in which you play an 80-year-old. Why did you feel the need to branch out beyond acting?
I could continue like this, but I do feel that my growth as a creative person would stagnate. Some people are happy just being performing artists, doing a variety of roles and working with great directors.... I can exhaust myself here, and then I’ll be out of work, just the way every leading actress is.... No matter how celebrated they are, every leading lady has her USP: Either you are a dancer, a beauty queen or a performer like me. You garner success with one trick, keep doing it, exhaust it…and you are out of the business.
I feel I can do a lot as a creative person. I can build material that is unusual, and has a fresh take. I want to direct and write and see how that adds to my growth. If that doesn’t work out, then at least I’ll realize this is my maximum growth.
You’ve said you need to build your own ecosystem. Why is that?
You are at the receiving end of a call or an offer, always waiting for the right opportunity, right PR, politically correct answers and right parties to attend, make the right friends. It’s very difficult. It’s easier to build an ecosystem (laughs). Some people might find this statement crazy: Oh, she is going to be this autonomous person and she finds manoeuvring around social hierarchy system difficult, is she insane?
I am not a social butterfly; I can’t play the social game well. I don’t have the filter that decides what will hurt whose ego when I speak. It’s exhausting and it’s unfair to me on many levels. I would rather take the much more difficult path.
Sometimes my mother doesn’t approve of things I say. People will have opinions, I hear that from her a lot. I don’t know.... I am not subscribed to the game where you bury your head when problems come.
How do you plan to build this ecosystem?
It will only be built after Teju comes out. That’s when people will start investing in my company and brand depending on how good I am as a director. Right now it’s simply riding on my star tag. I should be making films, not because I am an actor but (because) I am a good director. I don’t mind giving it time.
The process will begin after the shooting of Manikarnika, in which I play the queen of Jhansi, gets over in November-December. I have a new office space for my production house; I will be doing its interiors. As of now it’s called Manikarnika Films. I was told to choose a word that started with M, and I could only come up with this one. It’s a place in Banaras (Varanasi). I didn’t want to have a funky English name for my brand. If we keep a name that is a bit superficial and young, 15 years from now that will sound so wannabe.
Do you still get told what to say and what not to?
Earlier, I used to get unwanted gyan (advice) from people. Now, people are a bit, um, scared—they don’t know how to dictate to me. If I’m going for promotions, don’t tell me do this or do that. I am an independent individual.... I know how to tackle it, have faith in me, I will do everything to the best of my abilities...that’s how a team works. Now I don’t get to hear it that much, but people say it behind my back.
In all your recent films, you have played the hero. Are you deliberately signing only those films where you play the lead?
Thank you and no, that’s not true. Tomorrow, I want to be in a place where I work with people whose work I like. Look at Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, Ben Affleck: They are not hung up people. I want to be like that.... I want to be like Clint Eastwood. Maybe if I have a Taare Zameen Par (2007), which I feel is a story that needs some kind of support, I will not play the lead. I will be more than open to the task of directing and mentoring.
Do you have people around you whom you consider good sounding boards?
I am a huge believer in showing your content to a variety of audiences before the release. I don’t believe that a film should be made in a secretive environment, or that the edit has to be under wraps. If a film is made with that intention, it means somewhere there is the fear that’s stopping you from sharing it with people. There are films in which I wasn’t even allowed to see edits.
Hansal and I showed Simran to Rajkummar Rao. He said that in the second half, a particular character’s intention is not being conveyed and we must add a flashback or a situation there. Hansal thought it’s spoonfeeding; I said sometimes there is no harm in that. That’s the turning point of the character, so rather than being cool, you better be simple and honest.
Sometimes, I show it to people who really don’t like me and are waiting for me to fail and take their feedback. You can tell a good suggestion from a bad one.
You made a short film in 2011. How did you get interested in film-making?
I had almost given up on acting at the time I made that short film. There was a descent in my career graph: I did a number of neurotic roles, I tried to make the shift to the mainstream by doing frivolous films like Rascals (2011), Double Dhamaal (2011) and some dancing-jumping films. Taking up direction wasn’t very tempting, because it meant struggling again. So I had to do something and have an alternative, rather than just being optimistic about my acting career.
I was to direct a film in Los Angeles called The Touch, and they wanted me to shoot a prelude to it. They gave me the script. It was a bit of a superhero story but also a very intimate love story between a boy who has healing powers and his dog. I wouldn’t say I was too happy with it. But the film made me empathetic to my directors—although I know people think otherwise. That kind of opened up the beauty of cinema and (its) technicalities for me.
Then after I wrote dialogues for Queen, Vikas said I should professionally learn to write. I had time then. So I went to the New York Film Academy because I wanted to pursue direction.
I took up a screenwriting course. I learnt something very special there. In the older format of screenwriting, the hero had a villain outside of him, where another force opposed him. It’s called The Hero’s Journey. But a new set of writers have come up with The Neurotic’s Journey, where the villain is inside the hero: like it is in the case of Simran. It’s something clever to know, that I can write films where the force of redemption has to happen within. It’s a lot nicer.
Would you classify yourself as a movie-lover?
I can’t call myself one. I can do without seeing films for months. I don’t watch my own films, which is sad. I would give myself targets, such as watching 3 hours of some sort of a motion picture, whether it is TV or movies, and I can only catch an hour and sometimes none. Blame it on my upbringing, we were forbidden from watching TV. I can’t bear the noise of TV, cinema.
I like films that have a human fibre, which don’t come under any genre: like American Beauty (1999) or Children Of Heaven (1997). The last film that blew me away was Interstellar (2014), it was everything a film should be. What I like about such films is that even against the backdrop of science, the core is always spiritual, magical: whether it is the ghost of the friend who comes back in Gravity (2013) or the daughter’s love for the father in Interstellar. We think science doesn’t subscribe to these theories of magic and love, but that’s exactly what is at the heart of this great gigantic science setting. It’s so naïve of these great film-makers to allow themselves that silliness at the centre of the story that I can’t help but feel admiration.
What’s the craziest thing you have done to get into character?
For Tanu Weds Manu Returns, I wore Datto’s wig and buck teeth and mingled with people in the DU (Delhi University) campus and they didn’t figure out it’s me. For Queen, I went to Paris a few days before we were supposed to go. I wore Rani’s clothes and roamed the streets, it drew a lot of attention because she was one of the worst dressed (among the people there). Before you start shooting, it’s important to just glimpse the world through the character’s eyes.
You’ve said you are quite self-critical. Is there any performance of yours that you don’t like?
Woh Lamhe (2006) was such a bad performance. I was too young to play a schizophrenic character. Later, I read a lot of books on (the) bipolar (condition) and saw films like A Beautiful Mind (2001), Black Swan (2010). I had misunderstood schizophrenia as madness. It needed today’s Kangana to play that character, although there were loopholes in the script as well.
Why do you think your last film, ‘Rangoon’, failed to work?
My own understanding is there were three films in Rangoon: a warfare film, a beautiful dark love story of a film-maker obsessed with his muse, and a bit of a forbidden love story between a soldier and a girl. At the script level, it felt so good, like the greatest script I ever read. What I got from the audiences is that a lot was happening and they couldn’t follow characters through. Just when you start feeling for the girl, Russi (the film-maker) comes in. When the soldier comes in, Russi becomes the hero. I think people needed to follow one journey, perhaps the girl’s (Julia’s).
You have spoken about Hrithik Roshan again in a couple of TV interviews. Do you think people might perceive it as a publicity gimmick?
I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t care what people think. Next question please.
A new song from ‘Simran’ champions being single. You were rather anti-marriage at one point. You are 31 now and have said one of your goals in life is to get married. What brought about that change?
When you are younger, you have different priorities. Marriage is a kind of burden, you can’t travel on your own, can’t think on your own. I can go to parties with my sister, I can date people for some time, have relationships. But then people start drifting away from your lives. My brother has got married, my sister will have a baby soon. You feel like you can’t have a set of frivolous friends coming over on weekends when your family is busy with their own families. You want the same for yourself.
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