Through her films as well as criticisms of Bollywood, Kangana earned a reputation as an assertive feminist. Her criticisms of nepotism and elitism particularly had sparked conversations on Bollywood culture. But in reality, Kangana uses feminist and anti-elitist discourses for her own gain, avoiding any real engagement with structural problems. She also furthers casteist and sexist rhetoric and organisations in the process.
Elitism & Bollywood
Kangana often describes Bollywood as an “elite nepotistic Mafia.” Her claims that Bollywood supports actors who are good at networking is undoubtedly true. But Kangana is now one of the most powerful and well-connected actors and has benefitted from these networks. Her “victimhood”, then, is both dishonest and opportunistic.
In the last two decades, celebrity culture around Bollywood has drastically changed. Characters- like actors- often live lavish lives that audiences can’t relate to. This is unlike 1950s-80s where characters portrayed by Amitabh Bachan or Raj Kapoor were visible in public consciousness as paragons of working class anger. The distance has increased with the advent of social media, as well as the shift from the melodramatic films of olden times; actors don’t seem “larger than life”. Combined, audiences feel like they can’t access celebrity spaces because of material inequalities. One person noted:
It is at this key point that Kangana came forward, naming “elitism” and corruption within nepotistic circles in Bollywood as these inequalities. These had already become buzzwords in layman critiques of politicians and industrialists in India, and she weaponised the same in her own favour. However, with regards to her claims of elitism, a few concerns are raised:
1. Who is an “Outsider”?
Kangana’s claims of being an “outsider”- and what it even entails- has shifted over the years. In 2017, when she first spoke of not being favoured because of nepotism, her main issue was with the way some directors mocked the “inherent” talent of new actors, who weren’t as trained as star kids.
At the time she acknowledged- and even took pride in- the fact that many directors and producers had recognised her apparent star quality early on. They offered her roles accordingly, and even recommended her to others. She also refuted the term “outsider” as she had become a powerful figure and household name.
This stance has shifted in the past year, as Kangana claims that she is completely “self-made”, did not benefit from networking, or have and of the same benefits as star kids. She also used to claim that her issue wasn’t with people, but “ideologies”, but now verbally harasses other stars:
Finally for the first time Bullywood mafia wishing that Sushant wasn’t killed and Kangana wasn’t pushed against the wall, for the first time they are regretting their cruelty, sadism and silence. For the first time they are wishing they could turn back time and bring us back🙂— Kangana Ranaut (@KanganaTeam) September 23, 2020
Kangana would be subject to many of the same criticisms that so-called “insiders” face. She was born into an “elite” Rajput family in a small town in Himachal Pradesh, and her father is a businessman. Even if she didn’t have godfathers within the industry or come from a metropolitan city, she still had capital that helped her within and outside the industry; She was able to hire a speech therapist to change her English accent. She had “gurujis” who trained her in theatre and advised her even before going to Bollywood. Through her social capital, she was able to get opportunities to walk in foreign runways, and change her image into a “fashion icon”.
By the late 2010s, Kangana had fostered enough power and connections in Bollywood that she could challenge her scriptwriters and cast mates without being negatively affected, as in the case with Simran and Manikarnika. Anurag Minus Verma writes that so-called outsiders like Kangana often harass newcomers when they become powerful. Plus, despite having many flops since Queen and Tanu Weds Manu, she continues to get roles in movies with a “strong female lead” because of her self-presentation and connections. If she really was an “outsider”, she would not have been given so many second chances, especially after extensively critiquing powerful people in the Industry.
2. Is Nepotism a Bollywood/Congress Issue?
Kangana Ranaut’s critiques of nepotism especially come across as insincere and self-serving as she only acknowledges it when convenient to herself. In an interview, she likens quotas fixed for “elite” families in her own pre-medical examinations to the favouring of star kids in Bollywood. However, while she has extensively critiqued the latter, Kangana finds no faults in seats being reserved for upper-caste, upper-class, privileged families.
Kangana's father businessman,— Suraj Kumar Bauddh (@SurajKrBauddh) August 25, 2020
Mother teacher, Grandpa IAS,
Gr8 grandpa's freedom fighter,
Kangana's Kshatriya Jamindar.
Despite of this, Kangana has taken QUOTA in pre medical examinations. Then what's problem with SC/ST, OBC quota? @KanganaTeam pic.twitter.com/JN3n6eypgp
This was very similar to the claims of elitism and nepotism that the BJP was making against Congress and the Gandhis just a few years prior when propping up Modi. As his surname is largely associated with rich bania castes, they had made it a point to present Modi as a lower caste “chai wala“. This is despite the fact that the BJP and RSS largely have upper-caste leadership. Even in the current parliamentary session, Nirmala Sitharaman used “dynasty politics” to deflect criticism from the BJP, who have been in power for two terms.
The BJP did not need to do this to gain votes from Dalit, OBC, or Adivasi groups. Instead, both the BJP and Kangana use the “outsider” narrative to mobilise young Savarna anxieties around “merit” and reservations. Instead of looking at a lack of seats in colleges, Savarna youth argue from a “caste blind” approach that reservations only help the “elite” and hurts middle-class students. The vagueness of the terms also don’t alienate working class or rural groups, who actually do struggle against elitism.
This kind of articulation of nepotism ignores the structural basis of it in casteism, classism and regionalism. Nepotism is inherent to the structuring of all Indian job markets since traditionally children do the same work as their family. Even if they differ, most still follow occupations that are saturated by members of their caste. Because of this, and the continuation of the extended family system, they would still have relatives helping them out.
Besides, Kangana also employs her own family members in her production house and her sister works as her assistant. In the BJP every fifth candidate of is family member of a party leader.
Appropriation of Feminist Discourses
The “Good Woman” of Bollywood
In the past, Kangana Ranaut had been deemed a spokesperson for feminism in India. She was invited by brands such as AIB – who had opportunistically presented themselves as feminists- as well as left-liberal news organisations to speak on her experiences. However, much like elitism, Kangana appropriated the feminist discourse for her own personal gain, and to attack women she does not like.
Despite calling women “fake feminists” for not supporting her, she consistently attacks women for not fitting into Brahmanical standards of being a “good woman”. She attacked and cheered on when actresses like Deepika Padukone, Shraddha Kapoor, Rhea Chakraborty and Sara Ali Khan went through media trials and were questioned for alleged drug use. She also attacked Rhea for baseless claims that Rhea had caused Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide. She also called Urmila Matondkar a “soft porn star.”
Where was your feminism you dumb ass when Urmila called me Rudali and a prostitute? You fake feminist shame on entire woman kind, do you know a human don’t just have physical body we have emotional body, mental body and psychological body as well, rape isn’t just intercourse!!— Kangana Ranaut (@KanganaTeam) September 17, 2020
Ranaut’s criticism of the focus on sex, drugs and alcohol in Indian “feminist” entertainment has some validity. These are urbanized, and favour “elite” upper-class, upper-caste women. However, she is appropriating these critiques of liberal feminism to harass women, and sending mobs of fans after them.
Despite being critical of the MeToo movement in the past, Kangana also supported Payal Ghosh. In her statement, Ghosh had singled out a few other women who performed “sexual favours” for Kashyap, making it seem like those women were at fault for the alleged sexual misconduct.
Though she is “anti-elitist”, her feminism also lacks intersectionality. Most recently, Kangana spoke out against the brutal rape of a dalit teenager in UP, Manisha Valmiki, by four Thakur men. But she glorified capital punishment and police brutality and failed to mention that it was motivated by caste. Feminists have critiqued such responses, which don’t fix with structural misogyny and end up targeting marginalised men. In her statement, she also praised UP CM, Yogi Adityanath, despite his earlier misogynistic statements.
I have immense faith in @myogiadityanath ji, just how Priyanka Reddy rapists were shot dead on the very spot they raped and burnt her alive we want the same emotional, instinctive and impulsive justice for #HathrasHorror #HathrasHorrorShocksIndia— Kangana Ranaut (@KanganaTeam) September 30, 2020
This kind of feminism appropriates western radical feminist discourses- which centre violence against female bodies- to propagate brahmanism. As Ambedkar explains, one of the core tenants of Brahmanism is the control of women’s sexuality. Savarna women are venerated into goddess-like figures so that our protection becomes a matter of the community’s interest.
BJP often uses feminism to push Islamophobic and casteist rhetoric, and therefore have propped up Kangana as a “strong feminist”. BJP politicians like Nirmala Sitharaman and Smriti Irani also invoke their womanhood, motherhood and devotion to project themselves as “good women” who face threats from “outsiders”, especially when facing criticisms of the BJP.
Using Feminism to Mobilise Casteist, Sexist & Pro-BJP Sentiments
I am a Kshatriya woman. You can cut my head, but I cannot bow my head! I will always raise my voice for the honour of the nation. I live with honour, respect, self-respect and will live proudly as a nationalist! I will never compromise with the principle, I will never do it! Jai Hind.– Kangana Ranaut on twitter, translated from Hindi
As soon as Sushant Singh Rajput died, Kangana reiterated her “anti-nepotism” narrative. She argued that his depression was fuelled by nepotism and use of drugs, and that Rhea Chakroborty had abbetted the suicide. But she had mocked and dismissed claims that Sooraj Pancholi abetted Jiah Khan’s suicide. Though Kangana claims to be a feminist, her caste affiliation and Islamophobia seem to have motivated this differentiation. And even regardless of motivation, she was able to victimise herself and mobilise Rajput caste groups.
Subsequently, right wing media went from shunning Kangana as “crazy” and “obsessive”, to now propping her up. In 2017, when Kangana spoke out against Hritik Roshan, Arnab Goswami provided Hritik a platform, but not Kangana. Goswami prodded Roshan to dismiss Ranaut’s claims of elitism and misogyny. However, now they constantly invite Kangana to speak of drug use, elitism, nepotism and sexual harassment in Bollywood.
While BJP-supporting celebrities like Akshay Kumar presented an aspirational figure of masculinity, Kangana Ranaut becomes a “good woman” upon whom audiences can project masculine desires. Her boldness comes from her present political and caste location. But she portrays herself as someone without any political backing or support within the industry. While protestors were burning her images, BJP spokespersons also did not say anything in her favour. She also weaponised her victimhood as a woman when BMC broke down her illegal construction comparing it to rape. All this furthers the narrative of her as an outspoken but vulnerable Kshatriya woman who Savarna male audiences should protect.