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Bollywood & Sons, you think you can bully Kangana Ranaut out of the film industry?

Quartz india
Quartz india

My name is Vinta Nanda and I have been around in the Indian entertainment industry since the mid-1980s. I started off as an assistant director under my idol Nadira Babbar in her theatre productions and in Titliyan, a series she made for Doordarshan in 1984.

After several TV shows, including the wildly popular Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, I established my own production company, Tracinema. It set off in 1992 with Tara, a runaway hit that broke every viewership record for five years. I finally quit the production business in 2006 after Star Plus abruptly pulled off my serial Miilee—a fate similar to that of my other successful shows.

Here is why introducing myself at the start of this piece is important: I see myself in young Kangana Ranaut, the outspoken Bollywood actress who was recently trashed by top director Karan Johar.

“I’m done with Kangana playing the woman and victim card…You cannot be this victim every time and have a sad story to tell about how you’ve been terrorised by the bad world of the industry…leave it (the industry),” Johar said.

This was reportedly in response to Ranaut’s statement, made on Johar’s own television show Koffee With Karan: “In my biopic, if it’s ever made, you’ll be the stereotypical Bollywood biggie who is snooty and completely intolerant to outsiders. Flag-bearer of nepotism, the movie mafia.” She spoke from her heart, revealing the hypocrisies embedded in the industry.  In Ranaut, I see my own life in reflection. 

Johar today seems to have the courage to say what he did because Ranaut’s latest film Rangoon has failed. One disaster empowered him enough to defame her. But things were different on the show, aired on Feb. 19, during which she held up the mirror to him. He didn’t dare edit out acerbic portions of the interview, possibly because, at that time, Ranaut had three huge hits and three national awards under her belt.

That says something about showbiz.

The men and women of showbiz

It is unfortunate that I am writing this on the eve of the International Women’s Day. And it is cataclysmic that it comes barely two days after I praised Johar on Facebook for having had the courage to become a single parent through surrogacy.

But what is to be said, is to be said.

For I survived many such people in the very industry that Johar has now asked Ranaut to quit. In her, I see my own life in reflection.

All those channels that I worked for, hired me to write because my work got them the ratings. My protagonists—be it rural, low-, middle-, or upper-class—were always brave, strong, and powerful during adversity.

However, once the channels’ objective—ratings, of course—was met, they would want me go down the beaten path and weaken the women characters I created, to make them more acceptable to Indian audiences.

It became a pattern: I would be hired to write, made to promote what I wrote, and celebrated as a writer. Then one day I would be asked to make my women less bold. If I opposed, I was shown data to prove me wrong. Many years later, they themselves declared that data as deeply flawed. With me not budging, I would be asked to leave or the serial pulled off air hastily. For instance, Tara, the story of four strong women, was binned without notice in 1997, five years into its successful run.

The CEO of one channel asked me to leave the country; apparently there was no place for me or my powerful woman characters in India. “Keep your ideas and shameful thoughts to yourself,” were his menacing words to me.

They called me frustrated and prone to playing victim. Some of them even ganged up to insult and humiliate me.

Close friends who suggested my name to channels were mostly told that I was a troublemaker and a woman with “loose morals,” and therefore avoidable. One male executive offered a gratuitous suggestion to my friend, that I at least dress like a woman for him to even consider me (I mostly wear jeans and t-shirts).

These men were simply not accustomed to assertive women, particularly those who were not brought up to believe that their intelligence and knowledge were meant only to add value to the performances of their male counterparts—husbands, boyfriends, colleagues.

And that is why I support Ranaut. I will stand up for every single girl like her who is before the camera or behind it and has the courage to speak her mind. However uncomfortable that may make the men, whom I expected to change at least in Johar’s generation.

Ranaut has nothing but her talent, courage, and confidence to defend herself with. There are others who would want to be in her position and would do anything to destroy her. They will endorse Johar’s narrative that aims to prove that his denigration of Ranaut is not about gender.

Meanwhile, this entire fracas may well turn out to be an orchestrated public relations stunt. Tomorrow Johar might even cast Ranaut as the lead in his next venture. But the discourse he has scripted here is set to harm millions of women in the country who don’t have access to platforms that he so casually treats as his—arrogantly asking his critics to vacate.

I’m referring to the millions of women who go through the trauma inflicted by men who idolise Johar and, therefore, would consider his behavior appropriate.

The coterie

Before signing off, I must say emphatically that Johar and his group of friends don’t own this industry.

There is a whole wide world of the entertainment business in India that is much bigger than Bollywood, with thousands of passionate artistes. It is these artistes who keep the churn on, which in turn keeps this juggernaut rolling. I thrived. So will Ranaut. 

Like me, who was cast out of a movie project because a prominent writer-director pleaded with the producer to hire his daughter instead, there are thousands backing Ranaut. They will stand by her against all the many bigoted and frightened, but powerful, people who let her down every day.

They know how the closely-guarded corporation called #BollywoodAndSons, led by Johar and his ilk, tries to manage the media and the industry’s narrative.

#BollywoodAndSons, you did what you could. But here I am, still writing and making films.

I thrived. So will Ranaut.

We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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