When Kangana Ranaut brushes away social discontent and trauma in India to win brownie points, she becomes complicit in the status quo.
Kangana Ranaut is the flag-bearer of pop-feminism. Her linearity of thought, lack of filters, and slick marketing combine to generate shareable memes that seem to say so much of what we struggle to articulate. It’s so easy to root for her.
So, it was a little alarming for liberal people, who appointed Kangana as their feminist icon, to hear her endorsing Prime Minister Narendra Modi as the ‘rightful’ leader of the country.
It was not an unthinking comment from Kangana. When most of us agonise over collating our various sociopolitical positions without sounding sloppy, she often blazes forth with the kind of confidence and candour I wish more women would try to project. Unafraid of picking up serious cudgels, she’s the epitome of the scrappy underdog that snarls her way to the top. Maybe that’s why liberals take it particularly personally when she falters or takes a misstep – something she’s been doing a lot recently.
This comes after a series of discomfiting behaviours from her, like when she laughed along with Jim Sarbh’s rape jokes, or when she refused to support a campaign for fellow star Deepika Padukone. The reiterated message is fairly clear. Kangana is a feminist, yes, but only for herself.
Feminism, when optimised for quick consumption, loses nuance and the ability to be intersectional. In a country like India, any feminism that is not inclusive is incomplete and dangerous. When someone like Kangana shows examples of personal courage, but repeatedly makes contrived statements that serve nothing but her own marketing, she poses a difficult conundrum to anyone looking up to her.
Two questions arise: can one cherrypick good behaviours? And does it really matter what Kangana Ranaut says? I think everyone has a very personal, contextual answer to both these questions. For me, as someone who often finds herself tired after a long day of trying to be a better woman and a better feminist, it’s not enough. When people around the world are putting their hearts, minds, and souls into being better version of themselves, into learning and educating, into pushing the boundaries of inclusion to make the world a safer space for themselves and those less privileged, it’s rankling to know that someone with so much public clout simply doesn’t see the impact her words have on people.
That is also why I think what Kangana says does matter. In a country that’s quick to make gospels out of paparazzi quotes, when someone with her platform brushes away the incredible amount of social discontent and trauma in this country to win a few brownie points, she’s made herself complicit in the status quo. She’s made it known that her platform, her privilege and her clout will serve only herself, and if we hope to find some kinship and solidarity with her, it’s only going to be one-sided.
This isn’t the first woke icon falling off her pedestal. She won’t be the last. The past few years have been a series of stark, uncomfortable realisations that most hashtag-friendly people we know, well, aren’t quite woke. From Aziz Ansari’s sexual misconduct, to Kanye’s Trump love, to Jim Sarbh’s rape jokes, to the tragic creative downfall of Nawazuddin Siddique – our heroes aren’t really heroic. And that hurts.
It’s just human to want to find someone who glows brighter than we sometimes do. That’s why I don’t think I’d blame anyone (and this included me at one time) for expecting Kangana to be the one person who gets it. The problem, probably, is that none of us quite know what ‘it’ is. We all have our own demands from feminism, and our own contributions to it. Maybe Kangana decided she didn’t want to give back, and that left a lot of us in a lurch.
Having said that, what Kangana said about Modi might not really be a ‘misstep’ for everyone in the country. No, seriously. Just look up #KanganaRanaut on Twitter, and you’ll see a bunch of people lauding her as someone walking away from the ‘hypocrisy’ of Bollywood.
But for those of us who are feeling let down by her, coping with such betrayals isn’t easy. It implies having to accept the fact that our truths aren’t always true. But here’s the thing: no one’s a hero. We are all flawed, and by creating icons, we only set ourselves up for failure and hurt. It’s horrible because we never quite learn. Coping isn’t something you can practice. It’s a raw wound, every single time.
Harnidh Kaur is a poet.