Kangana Ranuat in Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi
Lines from TS Eliot’s Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock played in my ears as I entered the set of Manikarnika in ND Studios. “Do I dare disturb the universe…?” It might as well be the motto of Kangana Ranaut’s career — the actor is hell-bent on turning every rule in the book upside down. While the industry debate whether she is a wild girl on the loose or a masterclass in the making; I decided to catch up with Ranaut as she donned the director’s chair for Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, finding herself in the eye of another storm.
The original director Krish aka Radha Krishna Jagarlamud took off to shoot an NTR biopic in Hyderabad, while Ranaut decided to take the onus of completing the project. Incredibly calm, dressed in blue linen kurta-pyjama, sans any makeup, she sat in front of the monitor, observed every move of the actors like a hawk. “I am sleep deprived,” she said and explained her schedule. “I was at Film City last night to check how far the action scenes have advanced. I got back at 2am and have been on set since 7am. But then, this is a biopic of Rani Lakshmibai. It won’t be worth it, without blood, sweat, tears and toil…”
Kangana Ranaut with Nick Powell
Sweat glistened over the gash mark on her forehead from an injury she incurred during a sword fight sequence last year. Prod her about eyebrows being raised over her decision to direct the rest of the film and she said, “I am a mischief maker. We hatched this ploy to keep Nick Powell [action director] here. He was to go to Bulgaria and was willing to commit dates to us only after six months. We have taken away his passport,” she said with a devilish laugh.
The actor was whisked away by Kiran Deohans, the cinematographer, who took over the schedule after she came on board. Deohans, who is known for his work in Jodhaa Akbar (2008), seems to have cracked her wavelength. Together, they discussed the shot, the camera movements, the lighting before they got rolling again. “She doesn’t function like a first timer. She knows exactly what she wants and it has been a smooth ride,” said Deohans.
The actor with Mishti
Before I could catch hold of Ranaut again, she was visited by Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, the director of her next, Panga. Given the reports about the discord between them, one expected to see some awkwardness. But they were giggling like schoolgirls. As Kangana called for a special adrak chai for Tiwari (a set regular), she remarked, “Aaj lag rahi hai ye director — sleep deprived, no make-up, uncombed hair and with stress on the face. Iska matlab hai kaam acha jaa raha hai.”
Ranaut thoughtfully added, “To be an actor is a privileged job. It’s about blowing kisses to the crowd, sitting pretty and never getting into the grime. Most artistes are in the industry for the wrong reasons, the fame and money. I want to believe I am here for the love of the craft. So, no matter how exhausting this is, I am enjoying every bit of it.” When I broached the topic of taking credit, she dismissed it saying, “When male actors take the onus of their films, do they demand credit? Then why is it made to look like I am hijacking a project? I am doing what is in the best interest of a film that rides on me. It will be a landmark moment in Hindi cinema when this film does well. Producers will invest big bucks in movies headlined by women. This isn’t about seeing my name as a director.”
Ask her if the idea of direction scared her initially and she said, “The idea of putting out a film that doesn’t live up to its name scared me more. The reworking was crucial. After the studio saw the film, there was a good chance Manikarnika wouldn’t have seen the light of day. There were glaring discrepancies in the plot line. Directing this film isn’t difficult. Vijayendra Sir [KV Vijayendra Prasad, the writer] has written an impactful script; Kiran sir has set the shot beautifully, I am just going by the written word.”
An hour post lunch, the act resumed in another corner of the set with a palki scene that featured Mishti Chakraborty — Subhash Ghai’s find from his forgettable film, Kaanchi (2014). Ranaut guided her and in two takes, she was done. I asked Ranaut about her process —does she usually tell her actors what expressions to give? “Every actor should be able to bring their own to the table. To tell them how to do their job is insulting them. The director has to just ensure everything he/she is filming must be in sync with the larger picture; anything beyond is overstepping.”
How do you direct yourself? “Oh, that’s tough because of the nature of this film. Running to the monitor after every scene in heavy clothes is exhausting.” Chakraborty reappeared with a phone and handed it to Ranaut. She slipped into the part of a parent-figure, requesting the teacher to grant her kid two days’ leave. “It’s the director of Mishti’s South film. We are shooting a song in 10 days and it was clashing with that film. So I had to put in a request for her.”
As the setting sun peeked from the hills nearby, Ranaut marched towards a horse-riding scene. Kulbhushan Kharbanda, suffering from a severe back pain, climbed on a wooden horse as she read the dialogues for him. “Good scene Kul Sir,” she said on the mic before figuring the arrangements for Kiran sir’s farewell later in the evening. Miles to go before you sleep, I asked her and she quipped, “But I have promises to keep,” completing the Robert Frost poem for me.