In Manikarnika, Kangana Ranaut the actor and Kangana Ranaut the patriot have merged.
Manikarnika is certainly feeling the pulse of India these days.
At the end of the trailer of the upcoming Kangana Ranaut blood-and-pearls extravaganza, Ranaut-turned-Lakshmibai grimly intones, “Jhansi aap bhi chaahte hain aur main bhi. Farq sirf itna hai, aapko raaj karna hai, aur mujhe apno ki seva” (You want Jhansi. And so do I. The only difference is you want to rule over it, and I want to serve my own people).
Change Jhansi to Bharat, and this could be an electoral challenge from pradhan sevak Narendra Modi to shehzada Rahul Gandhi.
Manikarnika might be set in 19th century India but its nationalism is very 2019 indeed. And it could not have asked for a better ‘Bharat Mata’ at its centre than Kangana Ranaut.
She has already made her nationalism her USP. At a News18 summit, she said that when she mentioned in an interview that she was a nationalist, “people said ‘oh you are that type of a person’. I was like ‘what do you mean by that kind?'”. “I have come to this conclusion that if India does not grow, then I won’t grow. I am an Indian and born an Indian. I have no other identity,” said Ranaut.
That sounds almost as it was ripped from the script of Manikarnika. Art and life have fused admirably.
Safe to say that there is no chance that Manikarnika would ever get embroiled in the kind of angry buzzing controversy that engulfed Padmaavat. There are no Muslims anti-heroes, certainly none as dashing as Ranveer Singh who in real life will go on to marry the Padmavati of the film. There are no rumours of forbidden love dream sequences.
The British are the safest villains to rail against. No one will rise to defend them in India even as Kangana Ranaut’s Manikarnika spectacularly cleaves a British head in two. There is no danger of being accused of communalism. Or, minority appeasement. Everybody from Shashi Tharoor to Dinanath Batra can be united in decrying the evils of colonial Britain. But most of all, it has Kangana Ranaut at its centre insulating it from any whiff of being unpatriotic.
In these charged times, a film, whether it purports to be history or historical fantasy, is not allowed to be just a film anymore. The present seeps into the past.
When Kangana Ranaut appeared with Sadhguru Jaggi in her best Gayatri Devi chiffon-and-pearls elegant avatar, she railed against liberals and was accused of normalising lynching. Apparently in one scene in Manikarnika, she saves a calf. But it was changed to show her saving a lamb because we “don’t want to look like cow saviours”. After that they had a rather surreal conversation about lynching where the Sadhguru says those who debate over violence have not seen India and are “living in cities and endlessly talking about these things”.
Liberals gnashed their teeth in vexed frustration when the feisty star of women-oriented films like Queen declared she is a fan of Narendra Modi and thinks he is “the right role model“. That’s her choice and everyone’s surprise about it says more about their assumptions regarding her than about Kangana Ranaut.
Kangana Ranaut is probably one of the most interesting actors to have come out of Bollywood lately where stars are known for anodyne views, which get more anodyne as they climb up the ladder to superstardom. She, on the other hand, is not afraid to pick fights. Luckily for Kangana, her views are in sync with the country’s powers-that-be. So, nobody will ever ask her to go to Pakistan. After all, she even defended the call to ban Pakistani artistes from working in Indian films because “when you are talking about boundaries, you can’t go into an esoteric world and say ‘I am an artist'”.
She wants to remind us that “the Americans stand for their national anthem. Why do you feel ashamed of standing? If you want to learn something from Americans, then learn good things from them”. In reality, American football players are also taking the knee during the national anthem. And the issue was never about not standing for the national anthem. It was about beating up or arresting the person who was not doing it for whatever reason.
In a way, current Indian majoritarian politics has its perfect spokesperson in Kangana Ranaut, who is very confident in her liberalism. “In a diverse nation like ours, one has to be considerate of people’s emotions. Why is it hard for the so-called liberals to wrap their head around this? Being inconsiderate is not being liberal,” she says. But her liberalism and consideration seem wrapped around her worldview. For example, “If a certain religion worships cows, you can’t slaughter cows. I am vegan and I can’t see raw meat. I can’t be shamed for my choices. If it’s a sentimental thing, why instigate people?” That liberalism might require us to stay out of each other’s lunch box and refrigerator or not lynch dairy farmers transporting cows in Rajasthan seems to escape her. That fake WhatsApp forwards can be used to instigate people also seems to elude her.
This majoritarian version of “liberalism” has many takers in India these days, especially those frustrated with the smug self-righteousness of politically correct old-school liberals who, as she put it, won’t include you in their group “if you don’t hate the same people as them.” Ultimately whether it’s Bollywood or politics, it all boils down to the Old Boys Club in India. “The earlier government played on dividing basis majority (sic)and minority because the latter sticks together and votes flock in. The truth is majorities run the risk of being wiped out by the minority-friendly governments.” This is music to the paranoia that fuels majoritarianism.
Manikarnika is supposedly a period film about a historic character. But as Padmaavat showed us, nothing in India is in the past. Everything is now. And in Manikarnika trailer, when Kangana Ranaut snarls Har Har Mahadev, face and teeth streaked with blood, one almost expects to see a Babri Masjid or two come tumbling down. But that’s another movie for another time.
Sandip Roy is a journalist, commentator and author.