Kangana condundrum: Controversy Queen must Stop using Nationalism as her Crutch

Exchange 4 Media reports that Brand Kangana is still going strong despite the ban on her by Mumbai journalists. She is busy promoting her forthcoming film, Judgementall Hai Kya, giving interviews, and more interviews, gleefully cocking a snook at almost everyone—co-stars, colleagues, Karan Johar, Hrithik Roshan (yet, again) and, of course, journalists. Rangoli Chandel, her manager and sister, was right: Kangana se apology toh nahin milegi (expect no apology from Kangana).

Ranaut seems to be winning the contest that began with her spat with the journalist, Justin Rao of PTI, in Mumbai earlier this month. But Rao is not the loser here, nor the Mumbai media; it is the very idea of democracy. And that is why it must be everyone’s bother.

But first, a quick recap: Earlier this month, at the release of a film song (yes, that’s a serious event), Ranaut launched an unprovoked verbal attack on Rao. Then, instead of apologising as was demanded of her, she went on to deliver a fusillade of expletives on journalists in a video for her fans (or was it the nation?) whom she addressed as “doston” (friends, in Hindi). “Please ban me,” she said, playing her one-upmanship game. She also slapped a legal notice on the guild of entertainment journalists who have come together to ban her—Mumbai Press Club and Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists have supported the ban in a rare show of media solidarity.

Notwithstanding the ban by the Mumbai media, she continues to get ample media space—there are journalists outside Mumbai too and they are under no contract to respect the ban order. As a star on tour to promote her film, she is dutifully using the platforms provided by media and PR events to spew venom on anyone she doesn’t like; and she pretty much seems to have problems with everyone around her, especially the critical media.

But this is hardly surprising. While there is little to admire in her conduct, it cannot be denied that every bit of it is in keeping with the zeitgeist of the nation.

Farmers’ distress, demonetisation disaster, extraordinarily high unemployment—did any of these come in the way of re-electing the government of the day? Has mob-lynching in the name of religion really caused the stocks of any political party to fall? No, on the contrary, as the nation is in the throes of rising majoritarianism, these incidents have only served to strengthen the ‘image’ of the Party. It is not in spite, but because, of the pictures of bloodied torsos, trembling hands and pleading eyes that the brand image of the Party as a protector of majority interests thrives.

Ranaut’s story is no different. Her controversies don’t harm, they only strengthen her brand. Having once branded herself as the torchbearer of feminism in Bollywood, Ranaut is now on an overdrive to position herself as a patriot ready to pounce on anything remotely “anti-national”. And her idea of patriotism and anti-national activities is in keeping with the political atmosphere prevailing in the country.

Method in madness

It is not clear what level of planning went in to create this controversy, but going by the look of it, it surely seems well-scripted. I was first alerted to the Ranaut story by a Facebook post (yes, it was by one of those countless acquaintances from school whose extreme right-wing views make you wonder if you went to the same alma mater). Somewhere there was a comment in Hindi, “naam sunke hi anti-national lagta hai (the very name sounds anti-national).” The dig was on Rao for his Christian-sounding first name.

Ranaut chose her victim well. She has someone with a non-Hindu-sounding first name in the middle of the “anti-national” media vs Hindu nation debate. After lashing out at Rao for writing against her patriotic film and accusing him of having “gandi soch” (dirty mind), Ranaut has gone on and on, calling him and his supporters anti-national and traitors. And, voila! Ranaut has the entire right-wing eco system—most importantly, the multitude of trolls on social media which dominates social media—to defend her against the “anti-national” liberal media. She is the new right-wing hero, beyond criticism or reproach.

In fact, Ranaut has over the years very cleverly built an image for herself as the highest-paid star-actor who rose from a humble background and gets “victimised” for taking on the elite Bollywood biggies, and now the anti-nationals, all because she loves the country (“Is it my mistake that I made patriotic film, Manikarnika?” she asks Rao). Anyone critical of her is the Karan Johar-loving, nepotistic, elitist unable to digest a commoner’s stardom and anyone slamming her patriotic film is a traitor to the nation. No, the resemblance to a certain chaiwallah in designer suits is not purely coincidental.

It is now fairly clear that her whipping up controversies is part of the promotional campaigns aimed at getting more media space ahead of film releases. The Queen heroine, rather gleefully, told Sushant Mehta of India Today TV that the excitement her controversies generate break the monotony of people’s lives. “Look at the brighter side,” she told him. Without her, she said, there would only be “sad and bad days where nothing happens.”

It is perfectly fine for Ranaut to keep courting and stoking controversies. Eventually, everyone will see through her and it can be expected that her words will stop mattering. But this time she is using nationalism as a crutch. Besides, Ranaut’s bad-mouthing of Rao, and following it up with impolite tirades against the liberal media, was not a simple attack on one journalist, or media; it was on the very idea of democracy; of the right to differ and to ask questions.

“The attack on journalists who dare hold independent opinions as ‘anti-national’ and ‘traitors’ to the nation is not only dangerous but of a piece with an increasingly authoritarian narrative that is unfortunately endemic in all sections of society today,” the Brihanmumbai Union of Journalists said in a statement. “This trend, which is inherently intimidatory and seeks to warn dissenters to toe the line or else…, must be stiffly combated by all those committed to democratic values.”

The very-talented actor and feminist-icon must find innovative ways to promote her film (even if she is an ardent right-winger) and stop using nationalism as a crutch. To those who feel Ranaut must be supported because men actors have also misbehaved with journalists and gotten away with it, feminism is not a race to the bottom. All feminists do not have to end up as Madhu Kishwars.

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