It's not easy to like Kangana Ranaut. She's tempestuous, stubborn and almost flippantly unapologetic about it all.
It was 2011 and I was tasked with the uncomfortable job of asking Kangana, who was in a particularly foul mood that day, about her trainwreck of a relationship with self-confessed serial adulterer and girlfriend beater Aditya Pancholi. She warned me not to bore her with past nonsense. When I tried cajoling the answer out of her a second time, she threw me out of her vanity van.
If you knew what to look for, the impatience with which she suffered people and conversations was impossible to miss.
We've briefly crossed paths several times in the ensuing six years, but no future interaction could come close to that moment. Maybe it was her PR manager or the string of flops that blighted her career for the next few years that forced her to do it, but you could see she'd learned to rein in her volatility and acid retorts to "past nonsense". Even so, if you knew what to look for, the impatience with which she suffered people and conversations she wasn't interested in was impossible to miss.
I know that Kangana's attitude pissed many people around her off. It still does. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard friends in Bollywood bitching about her: she's 'fighty', arrogant, moody...it's a set list of complaints. Every time I hear the words, my mind starts a show reel of Bollywood brats who are exactly the same, but they don't seem to be hurting anyone's delicate sentiments. Why? Because they are afforded the benevolence reserved for anyone who comes with 1) a penis and, 2) with a cushy last name.
It has to be infuriating to the blowhards of Bollywood to watch her dance all over their fragile egos and unquestioned sense of entitlement.
The thing is, we don't have a problem with Kangana because she's unpredictable and difficult to pin down, we have a problem because how dare an outsider show anything but cloying gratitude for Bollywood and its so-called aristocracy.
We have a problem with her irreverence, her ambition. And most importantly, that she's talented enough to not give a whit about men and their rules — and, goddamn it, the lady seems to know it and wears the knowledge with stubborn pride. It has to be infuriating to the blowhards of Bollywood to watch her dance all over their fragile egos and unquestioned sense of entitlement.
It never fails to amuse me when "first family of Bollywood" so carelessly rolls off Karan Johar's tongue every time he introduces actors from certain film families. Is he completely oblivious to how laughably pompous that sounds? Imagine how ridiculous it would be if we all suddenly started calling the Murthys the first family of IT or the Tatas the first family of hospitality. The trollage for such crude fawning over an accident of birth would be unprecedented in any other industry; but not Bollywood.
Which is why, it is f*cking fantastic when someone comes along to make a Karan Johar squirm on his own hallowed couch. The fact that it was a woman doing it could make me weep with joy.
More than what Kangana did say (flagbearer or nepotism, Bollywood mafia), it's telling what she didn't. I love that Johar, who routinely eggs his guests to comment on controversies surrounding them, would not dare to touch the Ranaut-Roshan mess with a bargepole. Did she threaten to throw him out of the room if he brought up tiresome past nonsense as well? I want to think so.
I love that she speaks freely about not endorsing fairness creams, while sitting next to someone who has.
I love how, when Johar, on being called out for his snark, looks completely baffled and tries to cover up his discomfort with a stream of overenthusiastic (insincere?) compliments to appease a visibly amused Kangana. Maybe it's schadenfreude (god bless, Boston Legal), but watching that moment unfold was the television equivalent of the emperor being told, "Dude, you better go put on some clothes." That said, you have to give Johar points for not scissoring away the bits that make him look less than pretty.
I love when she informs Johar that she'd rather not work with any of the Khans if it meant playing an unequal part, while sitting on the couch with another Khan. I hope Saif Ali Khan takes that for the compliment it is.
When was the last time we saw a woman in the public eye give herself permission to be so thoroughly unlikeable?
I love that she speaks freely about her moral compunctions and the financial cost of not endorsing fairness creams, while sitting next to someone who has.
In an industry that is almost sycophantic in its desire to be likeable and never ruffle any feathers — especially the women — there's a very powerful lesson to be learnt from Kangana's behaviour, as sullen as it might be, at times. When was the last time we saw a woman in the public eye give herself permission to be so thoroughly unlikeable? When was the last time a leading Bollywood lady believed so unequivocally in the value she brought to the table that she demanded to be treated as an equal?
None of this is to say that she isn't flawed. In the grand tradition of hedging celebrities everywhere, her wildly oscillating and confusing stance on feminism often leaves me baffled. One moment she's proudly identifying as a feminist and in the very next breath she's levelling rather perplexing accusations at the ideology. It is painful to watch her explain away the circus around her last relationship debacle as a result of feminist pressure. In reality, everyone — including feminists, who, believe it or not, have taxing day jobs and too little time — often finds themselves becoming weary of the drama that seems to plague her very public personal life. And even as we nod vigorously when she wonders aloud about famous daddies and their middle-aged sons, it doesn't stop us from wishing that every once in a while, Kangana would conduct her private business, in, well, private. Even if you don't care about what people think, there is such a thing as personal dignity and overkill.
The rights we fight for affect yours, and what you, as a person with substantial influence, choose to normalise, becomes our normal.
No Kangana, we didn't rally behind you to score brownie points in newsrooms. We did it because we know that the rights we fight for affect yours, and what you, as a person with substantial influence, choose to normalise, becomes our normal. We rallied behind you because feminism needs more conversations to start, and when someone like you shows a willingness to add her voice to ours, it gives us hope.
But then you wonder, which feminist isn't a work in progress? Who amongst us has it all figured out? There's comfort to be had in the knowledge that we're all in this together, that we're all a bit confused and stumbling along the way. Like us, our feminist idols don't need to be perfect. We have to allow them to fail at some things, even as they spectacularly inspire us by doing others.