Last weekend, a top – if controversial – Bollywood actor was given one of India’s highest civilian awards. Kangana Ranaut, the curly-haired actor, received the Padma Shri from Indian president Ram Nath Kovind. The Padma Shri is a government award conferred on individuals for their significant contributions to the country. Ranaut’s contributions are many, one would say, a recent one being Twitter banning her for violating its hate speech and abusive behaviour rules.
Ranaut is not just another sparkly face in Bollywood, one of the world’s biggest film industries and, by far, the largest producer of movies. This is a country where politics and celebrities are deeply intertwined, with a whopping 1.3 billion people (16 percent of the Earth’s population, no less) to impress and influence. Add to that the vast Indian diaspora, and you can understand why Bollywood actors are almost treated like gods in the country.
Ranaut’s contributions are many, one would say, a recent one being Twitter banning her for violating its hate speech and abusive behaviour rules.
Over the last few years, though, Ranaut has emerged as a bizarre celebrity putting out bizarre opinions. Many critics say her public statements, be it on traditional or social media platforms, show clear allegiance to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Many, including prominent opposition politicians, have filed police complaints against her for using foul language.
In fact, in the tweet that got her kicked off Twitter, Ranaut urged Modi to resort to gangster tactics to “tame” a leading opposition politician. “We need super gundai (hooliganism) to kill gundai… Modi ji (a honorific) please show your Virat roop (larger-than-life form) from the early 2000s,” she then tweeted, an apparent reference to deadly communal riots in 2002 in Gujarat, when Modi was the state chief minister.
Owing to her celebrity social status, she almost always goes viral.
Last week, when Ranaut won the Padma Shri, she took to Instagram to remark how the award is a response to all her haters. “I’ve been awarded by the government of India for being its loyal citizen,” she posted to her 7.8 million followers. She also acknowledged the “many cases” registered in the court of law against her. “People often ask me… what do I achieve by speaking out as this isn’t my work. I’d say, this Padma Shri is a reply to them. It’ll silence so many people,” she added in the video.
Ranaut’s history of rabble-rousing is brief but rich. She’s locked horns (one-way, though) with international celebrities such as Rihanna, calling her a “porn singer,” and called Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg a “dumb and a spoilt brat” for supporting the ongoing farmers’ protest in India. During the peak of the country’s second wave of COVID-19, Ranaut claimed Indians don’t need oxygen. This came at a time when hundreds were dying due to acute oxygen shortage, but the Indian government denied it.
During the farmers' protests, which have been ongoing for over a year, Ranaut called the protesters "terrorists," and anybody who backs them – including Thunberg and Rihanna – "a fool." On November 19, the day Modi announced the repealing of the controversial farm laws, Ranaut posted on her Instagram that she's disappointed. "Lath (violence) is the only solution and dictatorship is the only resolution," she posted referring to India as a "jihadi nation."
Ranaut wasn’t always like this.
Shreemi Verma, a former entertainment journalist, told VICE that Ranaut was once an outlier who often took roles that many “A-grade” woman actors would shy away from. “She took on these damaged character tropes and was considered a remarkable actor,” said Verma. “That’s how she broke into, and even stole, the scene. It was a nice thing to see.”
Ankur Pathak, another seasoned entertainment journalist, said that Ranaut was the classic underdog success story, who came from a small town and broke into an industry despite its problems of exploitation, nepotism, and the limitations set on those not born to showbiz families. “She aligned herself as this person who challenged the status quo and addressed hot topics like nepotism not with the aim of dismantling it, but giving way for Bollywood bigwigs to at least acknowledge it,” Pathak said.
“Ranaut took on these damaged character tropes and was considered a remarkable actor. That’s how she broke into, and even stole, the scene. It was a nice thing to see.”
Ranaut also has a way of keeping herself in the news, Verma added, initially by giving “devastating responses” to entertainment journalists, which would send the “clickbait journalism” space into a tizzy. “The few entertainment websites, one of which even I worked for, would lap up whatever she said, most times just to create news out of nowhere,” she said. “But soon, I think, it became all about making a noise to stay relevant.”
A few years ago, she famously accused many bigwigs from her own industry of nepotism, a crusade that was lauded by many. Very soon, her tweets and media statements started generating controversy rather than conversations. In 2018, at a public event in Mumbai, Ranaut said that if “a certain religion” worships cows, we shouldn’t be eating their meat. This instantly turned into a hot item in Hindu-majority India where Hindu nationalists masquerading as protectors of cows have been known to lynch minorities such as Muslims, who trade cattle and eat beef.
Since then, Ranaut’s online and public opinions have continued to generate controversy and go viral. From championing feminism in her early days, Ranaut turned against her own equally successful women colleagues, labelling them “mafia bimbo,” “soft porn star” and “B-grade actresses.”
“Back when she was doing well in films, we would notice Ranaut taking on trolls who made fun of her,” said Verma. “But as she grew more toxic, she turned into an internet troll herself. She comments on things happening around the world, but her statements are not backed with facts, and she makes engaging with her deeply unpleasant.”
“Back when she was doing well in films, we would notice Ranaut taking on trolls who made fun of her. But as she grew more toxic, she turned into an internet troll herself.”
Ranaut’s journey also falls in line with the so-called taming of Bollywood by the government, with an increasing number of films showcasing nationalistic themes and pushing the government’s narrative. A critic said Manikarnika, a film Ranaut directed and starred in, was “[ticking] all the nationalistic boxes.”
A senior fashion magazine editor in Mumbai, who requested anonymity because of the controversial status of Ranaut, told VICE that while Ranaut’s great style and innate flair put her on some of the top fashion magazines in India a few years ago, her online behaviour has led some of those magazines to distance themselves from her.
“Earlier, part of what made her a great cover star was the fact that she was brazenly outspoken, for all the right reasons,” said the fashion magazine editor. “She would give great interviews – candid, pointed and honest. In fact, during my stint at another publication, I was told she was a delight to shoot. She regaled the editor (over copious amounts of wine) at her home, with stories about her dating life and how she thought Indian men needed to grow a spine. But when she started to make herself quotidian, a rebel without a cause, defined by her newly self-styled patriotism, magazines withdrew their support.”
“When she started to make herself quotidian, a rebel without a cause, defined by her newly self-styled patriotism, magazines withdrew their support.”
Earlier this year, two young Indian designers Rimzim Dadu and Anand Bhushan announced on social media that they would never work with Ranaut after she made the statement that got her banned from Twitter.
Ranaut’s rabble-rousing also has a chilling effect, as witnessed in 2019, when she infamously confronted an entertainment journalist at a press event, and slammed him for critiquing one of her films and calling her a jingoist. In turn, the journalist responded, saying, “This is not the right way to intimidate a journalist just because you’re in such a position of power.”
The Press Club of India put out a statement, expressing shock at Ranaut’s “uncivilised, uncultured, filthy and abusive language against the media persons.” The Entertainment Journalists’ Guild of India declared a ban on Ranaut, demanding she apologises to the journalist.
A journalist privy to the case but who requested anonymity due to the sub judice rule told VICE that this incident triggered many journalists to recount their own ordeal with the actor, who had similarly harassed them for criticising her. “It turned out that she was like this with journalists, but privately. That incident just brought out her actual behaviour in the public eye,” said the journalist, who also added that the actor’s behaviour instilled fear and prompted self-censorship among younger journalists.
Verma added that Ranaut’s online behaviour is not accidental. “It’s a carefully cultivated image. In my opinion, it’s because many from her industry are distancing themselves from her,” she said.
Ranaut’s online behaviour is “carefully crafted to fit into the ideological cannon of the present dispensation,” Pathak added. “Her thoughts give legitimacy to a specific kind of thinking which, a few years ago, people would feel embarrassed even talking about in private, let alone articulating them publicly.” This is also reflective of the larger political climate of the country, where intolerant and blasphemous statements are often made without any repercussions.
Ranaut’s Padma Shri drew a lot of criticism, which was exacerbated when the actor made another inaccurate, hence controversial, statement. This time, she spoke about how India’s independence in 1947 was given by the British colonists as “bheek” (alms in Hindi). The “real freedom,” she continued, came in 2014 – the year when Modi and his BJP came to power in India.
“Her thoughts give legitimacy to a specific kind of thinking which, a few years ago, people would feel embarrassed even talking about in private, let alone articulating them publicly.”
One editorial piece called her statement a testament to the “quid pro quo arrangement” between the current government and “its pets”, wherein the BJP gains every time such “diversions” steer the public’s attention away from actual problems in the country.
The Delhi Commission of Women (DCW) demanded that Ranaut’s Padma Shri be cancelled. Swati Maliwal, the DCW chief, added in her letter to the President that Ranaut “habitually spews venom against people of her own country and has repeatedly used vile language to attack those she does not agree with."
Pathak said that giving the award to Ranaut, given her recent conduct, only undermines the standard of the award itself. “Instead of there being a deterrent for her airing those views, we’ve actually incentivised it,” he said.
The larger question right now involves the implications of Ranaut’s online behaviour. In a country where social media enables and fuels disinformation and communal violence in one of the world's most populous and divided nations, Ranaut’s influence adds to the discord. “One random troll has the power to spread disinformation. Imagine what she, with millions of followers, can do,” said Verma, who also called out the entertainment industry for capitalising on her outrageous statements as fodder for their websites.
Pathak added that another casualty in all this is Ranaut’s own profile as an actor. “What she says online makes it very difficult for many like me to identify with her work,” he said.
“And that’s sad because she’s a great actor.”
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