In Madhur Bhandakar's Fashion (2008), I believe there's a moment that characterizes Kangana Ranaut's career in one extended, unbroken shot. Appropriately, it is wordless.
This shot begins backstage, leading up to a heavy-duty designer's latest fashion show. Arrogant supermodel Sonali Gujral (Ranaut) is primed to kick-start it, as the prestigious "showstopper". Dressed like a golden princess with a streaming red robe, she's in her own world, distracted by her cellphone and a glass of red wine. Oblivious to the panicked assistant barking orders, Sonali, in a split second, puts on her game face. She thrusts the glass away, and launches into her stride even before she hits the ramp.
Her first few steps are exaggerated. The camera tracks ahead in front of her, as she gathers rhythm and poise. The music, the opening piano notes of Mar Jaawa, begins just as the dim corridor gives way to a circus of light and glamour – and rising applause.
Her edgy saunter has turned into a purposeful march. Soon, she's in full flow, hips swaying and eyes pinned straight ahead. She pauses, raises her hands and poses in a hall full of celebrities. It's almost as if they're invading her space, and she loves it.
As it turns out, this shot cuts to the semi-appreciative face of Karan Johar in the front row. He claps politely; her presence is undeniable.
The conventional concept of an actress's artistic evolution dictates a lighthearted, "pretty" beginning before qualifying for more serious, author-backed and risky roles. More than being a genre, romance is an entrance exam for mainstream newcomers. But Ranaut's graph has been a freakish reversal of norms; she graduated from being everyone's go-to train-wreck stereotype into somewhat of an everywoman manic-pixie avatar. She has carved a career – a defiantly self-aware aura – out of her flaws. The iffy diction and irreversible pahaadi accent is now a weaponized paean to the ditzy middle-Indian, frog-in-well existence. Ironically, it's this deliberately awkward comic timing and quirky small-town gait that has made us sit up and admit: now, she is a serious actress. Now, she is today's Sridevi.
More than a burst of hidden talent, there has been a strategic shift of attitude between these phases. Her last performance was in fact designed to be the most complete Kangana package. As pre-independence film star Julia in Vishal Bhardwaj's period drama, Rangoon, she attempted to straddle a bit of each career mood: an eternal love story with a rebel soldier, troubled theatricality as a powerful producer's mistress, as well as her dose of skittish everywoman humour to conquer the language barrier with the Japanese troops. It didn't come off, though, because the film was bigger than her.
On the eve of Hansal Mehta's Simran – a dramatized (read, Kangana-fied) true story that lies squarely on her shoulders – here's a list of her top five performances in Hindi cinema:
5. TANU WEDS MANU (2011)
I wasn't a big fan of Aanand L. Rai's film – or Ranaut's slightly overhyped "breakout" rom-com performance – back when it hit cinemas in early 2011. It was hard to appreciate her obvious eccentricities, with Deepak Dobriyal and Swara Bhaskar providing (hilarious) side perspectives in the same environment. But Ranaut's turn as Kanpur-prowling firebrand, Tanu Trivedi, acquired context and novelty mainly with respect to where it appears in her filmography. This was a phase that highlighted her desperation to break out of her urban-troubled-tragedy phase.
Tanu was a bolt-out-of-the-blue anomaly in a period full of misguided commercial tomfoolery: Knock Out, No Problem, Ready, Double Dhamaal, Rascals, Game, Tezz, Shootout at Wadala and even Krrish 3. She was trying, in vain, to fit in and conform to Bollywood's mediocre genre standards – the comedy was screechy and crude, the action corny and vain. Tanu was the first spark of identity – and anti-typecasting and voice – amidst the wreckage. Finally, a director had chosen to normalize her imperfections, instead of trying to iron them out.
4. LIFE IN A…METRO (2007)
There was something immensely sad and fragile about Ranaut's Neha in Anurag Basu's perceptive multi-narrative drama. Trapped in a dead-end relationship with her married boss (Kay Kay Menon) to climb up the corporate ladder, her lost-little-girl vulnerability was a little more dignified – and therefore more disturbing – in context of the ambitious generation she represented. One might assume that her torrid personal life back then bore resemblances to this disquieting role, or this "breed" of characters she became synonymous with. Either way, the channeling worked.
The moments she spent alone in the flat, escaping the gaze of her more sorted roommate, hoping for a cleaner future – Basu's scattered film was made of these vignettes. Her body language emanated unusual restraint, too, given that she constantly held back from using the besotted new boy (Sharman Joshi) as a lifeboat. This was, incidentally, her only truly successful supporting performance. Except for a scene or two, Fashion was undone by her words, and Kites, too, was a frightening example of Ranaut's darkness being an all-or-nothing investment.
3. GANGSTER (2006)
Her first film, again directed by Anurag Basu, was a stark glimpse of the "tone" that Ranaut's raw-outsider credentials might have inspired her to embrace. Simran was her name, and she drank, slurred, loved, lusted, cried, lied, cheated and screamed her way to debut glory. If she sounded strange and messy, it was because anyone in her cinematic shoes would. As the girl torn between a passionate gangster (a terrific Shiney Ahuja) and a gooey-eyed singer (Emraan Hashmi), she becomes the naïve face – and jittery voice – of toxicity. Her heightened emotions fit perfectly into the cold, blue, gloomy winter of Seoul, giving this performance a thematic edge over her next, Woh Lamhe. Mohit Suri's film, based on the late Parveen Babi's stormy equation with Mahesh Bhatt, converted Ranaut into a genre she couldn't escape for the foreseeable future.
2. TANU WEDS MANU RETURNS (2015)
I've mixed feelings about Aanand L. Rai's much-loved sequel, not least due to the uneven politics of an older Tanu's flaky embrace of her indecisive, diva-ish core. Hers is inherently an unpredictable, narcissistic and almost unlikeable temperament, and this overpopulated film barely supports these whims. But it's Ranaut's turn as Tanu's doppelganger, a crude shorthaired Haryanvi athlete named Kusum, which virtually defined this franchise. I've never seen a mainstream actress so seamlessly disappear – and not just by way of her physicality – into the folds of a culture primarily at odds with her 'signature' role.
The inimitable Jatt twangs and carefree Banno thumkas rescue a bloated movie in danger of consuming itself. She is unrecognizable, unsure and yet prematurely wise, and I often found myself thinking about Tanu and Kusum as the work of two separate actors. Even Shah Rukh Khan, who came close to emulating this double-role illusion in Fan (2016), couldn't pull it off this organically.
You can watch the film on Eros Now here
1. QUEEN (2014)
Tanu Trivedi lit the spark, and Rajauri's Rani made it an Olympic torch in Vikas Bahl's cleverly acted coming-of-age tale. Her role as the diminutive middle-class Delhi girl on a solo European honeymoon signaled the end of Ranaut, the trier. All the baggage had been shed. For once, she didn't have to externalize her vulnerabilities. One could almost sense Rani – and Ranaut – discovering the intricacies of reacting to herself instead of striving to make us react to her.
The creators took pride in her defects instead of camouflaging them. She made us chuckle at her tears and cringe at her naïve joy, and humanized the caricatured Indian notion of orthodoxy and conventionalism. The expression of her resolution lay between – and not at – the cinematic excesses of 'behenji' and 'babe'. As the years have passed, the opening breakup scene at a café initiated by her sheepish fiancé, played by Rajkummar Rao, has acquired an air of consequence because of the kind of "behavioral" cinema the two actors went on to become synonymous with.
You can download the script of Queen here