“She’s her own person. She is somebody who doesn’t need anybody to fight for her. She is not apologetic about who she is — physically or emotionally.”
National Award-winning actress Kangana Ranaut isn’t speaking about herself, but these words describe her character in her latest film Simran, out in the UAE on September 14.
In this Hansal Mehta-directed film, Ranaut plays divorcee Praful Patel, who has to move back home with her parents who live in Georgia in the United States after her marriage crumbles. Her existence isn’t blemish-free and the trailer indicates that she’s a kleptomaniac with a gambling habit and is back in the dating pool again.
She’s a flawed-yet-fierce individual and that resonated with Ranaut, whose personal life has come under intense scrutiny after she spoke about her alleged affair and fallout with actor Hrithik Roshan, and her allegedly abusive relationship with actor Aditya Pancholi when she was young, during the series of press junkets for this film. The actress feels that Simran may nudge the movie-mad Indians to question their own prejudices against divorced, single women.
“After a divorce, there’s always an unsettling environment for a woman where you ask yourself what is your place in that home and where do you belong… It’s hard to be in that place. In an Indian society, an unsuccessful marriage is equal to an unsuccessful individual and that’s so stupid. These are two different things and they have nothing to do with each other.”
Her words are eerily prophetic and can be applied to her state of being. The self-made actress, 30, doesn’t care for propriety and is the first one to call out the rampant sexism and nepotism that seems to be plaguing Bollywood. She has spoken about the gender pay gap in her workplace and isn’t shy about acknowledging her failed relationships.
Just like Ranaut, her latest character won’t take things lying down.
“But Praful will not succumb to that fate [where] just because her marriage failed, she is a failure as an individual. She’s one of those who refuse to settle down and she loves breaking traditions. She became an amazing character to study. We had such fun with her.”
The teasers also reveal a protagonist who owns her eccentricities and shortcomings. According to Ranaut, Praful will appeal to all those women who refuse to be confined to traditions.
“We have this section of women who are fiercely independent. They are sexually active and will not confine themselves to the age-old rules of flirting that are just medieval. They want to subscribe to more contemporary ways of dating. There is a lot of prejudice against them, especially if she’s a divorcee,” says Ranaut.
This film could be that litmus test for the audiences to gauge their level of acceptance. Ranaut knows a thing or two about what it means to be universally accepted. In 2014, Ranaut’s popularity soared when the romantic comedy Queen released. The story of a young jilted bride who discovers herself when she travels solo on her honeymoon made her an instant superstar and the queen of peoples’ hearts.
“My character in Queen was someone who was extremely vulnerable and lovable. She got people’s love because she was endearing. But Praful is her own woman... Would our society — who accepted the virginal woman in Queen and became their object of affection — be ready to love Praful too?”
Ranaut has a point. The bigger question remains if Bollywood fans, who are accustomed to glossy musicals and never-been-kissed heroines, accept a thirty-something flawed heroine?
“I told Hansal sir not to erase the lines around my eyes and cover it with make-up. So the question is would you love a woman who has wrinkles, is sexually active and isn’t married? I want to know the answer to it, too.”
The film also touches upon the immigrant experiences of Indians in the United States. The idea for Simran was triggered when director Mehta and she watched a documentary on petty crimes and how it was carried out in the US by mostly Asians.
“Hansal sir has a knack of writing amazing immigrant stories. Look at films like City Of Lights, Aligarh... he has this passion for misfits. The Hindi cinema portrayal of the NRIs [non-resident Indians] makes you feel that they are always wearing high-end clothes, celebrating and dancing. It’s anything but that,” said Ranaut.
The actress, who took on director-producer Karan Johar on his chat show by branding him the flag-bearer of nepotism and favouritism, is from that school of filmmaking where Indians living abroad are posh and dripping with money.
But there’s very little sheen to Praful’s existence.
Praful belongs to the oft-derided Gujarati community in Hindi films. The stereotypical portrayal of Gujaratis include mocking their accent, their skewed pronunciation of English words and their tight-fistedness with money despite them being rich.
“So far the Hindi cinema portrayal of Gujaratis are corrupt. It is so coloured that it makes you feel that they are always ready to party. We want to show the portrait of Praful’s life. She is a Gujarati not to add that caricature value to cinema by mocking that community. Both Hansal and I don’t’ subscribe to it... We are very progressive and we want to take you away from the usual Bollywood tropes. Bollywood films often use the primitive language of cinema,” said Ranaut.
In preparation for the role, the actress reached the United States a few weeks earlier than the shoot date and spent some time in a typical Gujarati household to feel the pulse of their clan. The role also required her to learn housekeeping skills such as making beds in a hotel room.
“Growing up, we mountain people didn’t have many people in the US or relatives there, nor did we travel to other places while growing up. So I wasn’t familiar with that world. So, we did a lot of workshops and stayed in Georgia, practising housekeeping skills. Praful’s immediate circle was her friends — mostly Asians and Mexicans — at work. It’s another world.”
Ranaut grew up in Himachal Pradesh among working-class parents who didn’t approve of her career choice. Ranaut, who has been given credit as the additional dialogue writer of this film after much drama with the writer Apurva Asrani who didn’t approve of sharing the writing glory, claims that the tumultuous father-daughter relationship in this film is one of its highlights.
“Because I was writing, I added a lot of aspects of my personality into this character. The father-daughter relationship is real. The father is distant towards Praful and I get that. I never ever remember my father cuddling me. I never remember my father wiping my tears away if I am crying,” said Ranaut, who drew from her personal experience as a single woman in Mumbai. “It was extremely cathartic to play Praful on screen.”
Just like Ranuat’s personality, which makes traditionalists and conservative men uncomfortable, the movie is likely to nudge you to confront your own pettiness.
Ranaut has often been called a mercurial diva and a motor-mouth because of her feisty personality.
“Our society knows how to manoeuvre a male ego as it’s a centuries-old tradition and is often skilfully done. To come across a woman with an ego is such an alien concept that you only know how to demolish it but not operate around it... This film is a woman’s journey towards a free life.”