It is quite common that we associate actors to the kind of roles they portray onscreen. We put them in boxes and label them as romantic heroes, action heroes, sex sirens, damsels in distress and what not. And that is what happened to Kangna Ranaut, too. After the success of her first few films–Gangster, Woh Lamhe, Life… In A Metro–she got boxed in as the “neurotic woman”. Add to that an array of fashion faux pas, bad hair days, quirky diction problems and a string of problematic relationships, the image started solidifying. It was in a rather strange way that Ranaut broke out of all this finally. Last October, a television interview she gave went viral and suddenly people sat up to take notice of not just her brand new accent and sense of style, but also the candidness and honesty with which she spoke. She discussed things that are usually left to roam around as elephants in the room in other well-rehearsed, stage-managed interviews. But one look at Ranaut’s past interviews and public appearances would make it clear that she has always been brutally honest and has always spoken her mind. Then why this fuss? “That is exactly what I don’t understand,” says Ranaut, with a laugh. “One day suddenly people are like Oh! she is so honest and intelligent. Maybe they could never look past my body, clothes and hair all this while.”
Ranaut is thankful that now they have finally started doing so. The audience did not have much of a choice, I would say, after her spellbinding performance as Rani Mehra in Vikas Bahl’s Queen. The 26-year-old actor blended in so perfectly into the skin of the Rajouri Garden girl who goes on her honeymoon alone after being jilted by her lover just days before her wedding. It was as if she was living Rani’s life, there was not even a trace of Ranaut visible in the film. There wasn’t a drastic physical transformation of the Mathew McConaughey variety, but it was a subtle one that directly connected with the viewer. She walked with a slight hunch hugging on to her bag tightly and wore ill-fitting clothes that had long gone out of fashion. When the drunk Rani loses herself and breaks out into a dance on the streets of Paris, the audiences found themselves literally “laughing their backsides off”. “Honestly, while shooting we had made her very happy with good food and there was champagne also,” says Bahl, who apparently wrote the script with Ranaut in mind after seeing her performance as a wild child in Tanu Weds Manu. “If Kangna would have said no, I wouldn’t have even made the film. I knew she could relate instantly to my character because of the background she comes from.”
Although she, too, hails from a middle-class background, Ranaut says, that she is nowhere close to the character Rani, when we catch up with her during the promotions of her next release Revolver Rani, which she says is a no-genre film made in a “sasta-sahitya” or pulp format. It has been busy days without an end for Ranaut, with promotions, interviews and shoots. She has also squeezed in some time to fly to New York to complete the scriptwriting course she had enrolled for earlier this year. “We are as different as chalk and cheese,” says Ranaut, about Rani. “She is not at all confident about herself and is always scared. I have never had any self-esteem problems like her.”
In fact, she seems to have had a confidence overdose. The reason why she decided to pack her bags and leave her home in Manali to pursue her dreams at the age of 16. “My father is a government contractor and mother a teacher and we had no one in our family who was even remotely connected to films,” she says. Ranaut was a bright student which is why her parents wanted her to become a doctor. She knew she wanted to tread an entirely different path and requested her father to let her take a year off to “figure out” what to do with life. To add to it, she expressed her desire to do modelling. “He was shocked and dead against it,” she says. “That was when I decided to leave.” Looking back at her younger self, Ranaut says, that she feels proud that she had the guts to follow her dreams. “Then, I was like I have nothing to lose, I have to leave,” says Ranaut. “It was that impulse that made me what I am today. Now, I would think a hundred times before taking a decision like that and leaving everything behind.”
What followed was a perfect 70s style Bollywood script. Small town girl goes to big city, gets into both good and bad company, makes a few mistakes but finally finds her feet. It was not all rosy, with daily phone calls from home with her mother acussed her of being the sole reason for her father’s deteriorating health. Or messages sent through others like that from her grandfather who asked her to drop her surname to avoid bringing shame to the entire family. However, Ranaut doesn’t agree that she has reached the final phase already. “I am still a struggler,” she says. “I struggle with every thing I do. The fact that I do not take anything for granted is what brings out the best in me,” she says. The only difference is that now the struggle has moved to another level, says Ranaut. “With every film of mine, be it Queen, Revolver Rani, Rajjo, Gangster or Krrish, I have struggled a lot. I never thought I could ever do what I have done in these films.”
Despite a great start, Ranaut’s career has seen its own share of ups and downs. Even after delivering a National Award-winning performance as a model struggling with substance abuse in Fashion, Ranaut found that she wasn’t being offered any meaty roles. It was either the “arm candy type” in male-dominated films like Rascals and Once Upon A Time In Mumbai or the “mental type”. That was when Aanand L. Rai came to her with Tanu Weds Manu. He was a newcomer and as luck would have it Ranaut was also offered The Dirty Picture by Ekta Kapoor at the same time. It was a tough choice and she decided against doing The Dirty Picture, which went on to earn Vidya Balan her National Award. A decision which many still feel was the biggest mistake in her career. “I do not consider it a mistake. TWM came to me at a time when I yearned to do something different and it was a good script,” she says. “It has done only good things to my career. There are so many other films that I did but turned out into huge mistakes.” These were all stepping stones, she claims, without which she wouldn’t have achieved what she has now.
For instance, the character she plays in Revolver Rani is that of Alka Singh, a whacky politician from Chambal, who has murdered over 30 people and, as the title of the film suggests, loves revolvers. “If I was offered Revolver Rani even four years ago, I would have been confused and wouldn’t have been able to make out head or tail of it,” says Ranaut. “It is only with the experience I have garnered from every film, however small my part be, that my understanding of the craft has grown.” Agrees Rai, who is gearing up for the sequel of his huge success TWM: “Kangna is an actor who surprises me every time I see her on screen. When I see her playing Alka Singh today, I can see what a fine and matured actor she has moulded herself into. Such performances do not happen overnight.” It wasn’t easy, agrees Ranaut, to make the role of the 40-year-old woman look beilevable. “There are a lot of layers to her character,” says Sai Kabir, writer and director of Revolver Rani. “On one hand, she is manly and violent, but there is also some part of her that seeks validation, love and a normal life.”
A lot of preparation went into getting the look and feel of the character right. Ranaut was clear that she didn’t want to work out and make her body look like that of a man. “I wanted her to be very much a woman and yet intimidating, powerful and scary,” she says. “I started with revolvers, because she really loves them.” In a quest to make the character as authentic as possible, her eveybrows were thickened, her skin roughened and scars made. A prosthetic artist was flown in from London just so that her nose looks more menacing. After having put in so much effort and spent so much time on every character, Ranaut says that it is tough to detach from the character. She calls it the biggest challenge an actor goes through. “You end up being a bit confused because sometimes you psyche yourself to such an extent that you start feeling like the character,” she says. “Even after the film, it does surface at some point. For instance, after Queen, I went through this phase where I had coninced myself that maybe I was also not being loved and appreciated like Rani is in the film.”
Although there has been praise being showered on her from all quarters, Ranaut knows very well that she has to work equally or much harder to keep it coming always. “I always felt that I didn’t get the roles that I deserved. But with Queen and Revolver Rani, I think I have got more than what I deserve,” she says. “The appreciation, the respect and the love that I get now is very special to me.” She doesn’t want to endanger this by doing all the work that comes her way. There is a clear filtering process now, she says, and if circumstances allows she would want to restrict herself to working in just one film every year.
Just like Rani, Ranaut’s life, too, has taken a positive turn this year. Being a self-proclaimed introvert who “closes all doors when there is a crisis”, Ranaut says she feels settled now, thanks to the Bandra pad she recently bought, and is now ready to look for love. Her history of controversial and problematic relationships–with the much older and married Aditya Panscholi, Adhyayan Suman, an alleged fling with Ajay Devgn and a short relationship with Briton doctor Nicholas Lafferty–does not seem to have discouraged her. She credits her newfound positivity to her recent shift to vegetarianism, regular practice of yoga and meditation.
Career wise, too, Ranaut wants to go beyond what is expected of her. Having written the diaologues for Queen and made a nine-minute long short film about the relationship between a dog and a four-year-old boy, she is thinking of exploring her options behind the camera, too. But before all that, she wants to first wind up her filmmaking course. “It is a whole lot of fun because I have never attended college,” says Ranaut. “Nobody knows me there and I am like just anyone other student who frets about my assignments and tests. That is the most exciting part of the course.” The thought of being able to lead a normal life puts a wide smile on the actor’s face. “It is strange, right,” she says. “I was the one who set to be someone in life and now I sit on an 18-hour flight so that I can be a part of the crowd.”