Indian Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut has lost her feminist reputation after a series of incidents. Photo: STR / AFP

Indian actress Kangana Ranaut’s latest film Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, which is slated to release this Friday, is the latest to face objections from fringe caste organization the Rajput Karni Sena. The group’s vehement protest against the film originally titled “Padmavati” made headlines in 2017 and eventually led to changes in the movie and its name.

Now the Karni Sena has raised objections to a supposed portrayal of the queen of Jhansi in a bad light. Queen Laxmibai ruled the princely state of Jhansi in North India in the 19th century. She was one of the leading figures of the 1857 Indian rebellion against British rule. The warrior queen was later venerated by 20th-century nationalists as a symbol of resistance against British colonization.

The Karni Sena said if the “image of Rani Laxmibai is maligned in the film or if she is shown to be the lover of some Britisher, then the makers will face consequences.” The group, belonging to the Rajput community known as the descendants of ruling Hindu warrior classes of North India, have even threatened Ranaut, saying they will not let her walk free.

But Kangana Ranaut is not one to cower to such threats with the fierce image of a woman she has assumed, on and off screen. Since she entered Bollywood, she has hardly had a moment when she hasn’t had the spotlight on her.

At the beginning of her career, she was repeatedly shamed for her English accent, poor grammar, even her voice. Hailing from a small town in Himachal Pradesh, she was a soft target, especially since she had no connections to the film industry, unlike many others. People also found it easy to single out a woman to criticize.

Ranaut worked hard on her accent and grammar and basically shut everyone up.

Indian Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut at the music launch of the upcoming Hindi film Manikarnika (The Queen of Jhansi) based on the life of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi in Mumbai on January 9, 2019. Photo: STR / AFP

While the actress has had several hits, some of her movies have tanked at the box office, garnering her ridicule. But Ranaut has always been grateful for the experiences and has said she doesn’t regret doing any films. In an interview in 2016, she said, “It is not that I regret doing any film. We are independent women who run their own houses and it is not necessary that you can always get the kind of work you want to do.”

She has singlehandedly taken on Bollywood biggies like Karan Johar by calling him out on launching the children of Bollywood directors and actors in his movies, labeling him a “flag-bearer of nepotism.”

She has fought against the gender pay gap in Bollywood and has spoken openly about how male actors get paid three times what she does.

Ranaut has categorically declined offers for endorsements of skin-whitening creams, saying that her sister Rangoli was not of fair complexion and endorsing such creams would mean saying one kind of skin color is more desirable than another.

The actress’ performance stunned her audiences right from the start when she won a Filmfare award for Best Female Debut for her role in Gangster in 2006. She then won a National Award for Best Actress for her role as Rani in the 2014 movie Queen and received critical acclaim for her roles in the movies Tanu Weds Manu (2011) and Tanu Weds Manu: Returns (2015).

During her messy breakup with actor Hrithik Roshan, when Ranaut was called names and publicly maligned, she held her grace and honestly answered questions about her affair on the show Aap Ki Adalat hosted by Rajat Sharma.

But Ranaut has also had her fair share of criticism, particularly for her “hypocrisy” on feminism. Last year, actor Jim Sarbh cracked a rape joke at the Cannes International Film Festival – “I’d rather be raped by 12 prostitutes than touch alcohol and the Punjabi says ‘Me too, I didn’t know that was an option.’” The joke had Ranaut in stitches, for which she was widely criticized.

Sarbh’s “joke” was not only disgusting because there is absolutely nothing funny about “rape jokes,” but he also basically compared prostitutes to rapists. And Ranaut clapped her hands and burst out laughing! This one incident singlehandedly brought down her image of a feminist.

Unfortunately, no one heard an apology from her, which basically made her an enabler who doesn’t take a crime like rape seriously. It trivialized the issue that is staring India in the face and in essence contributed to rape culture.

She even went on say that Indian women should know how to drape a sari. “It’s a racket out there with people who only want to shame others in the name of propagating their culture and identity,” she said, causing a debate on why an Indian woman should be expected to know how to wear a sari. Her statement disappointed and angered women across the country, questioning her image as the role model she had emerged as.

Earlier, she had called feminism the “medicine” for a sick society. “We live in a sick society, and feminism is its medicine,” she was quoted as saying in an interview.

Ranaut’s 13-year-long career has been a struggle in a Bollywood, which is dominated by the big boys’ club, largely full of star kids, in order to achieve the level of success she has. Recently, she even lamented that she got no praise or support from peers such as Alia Bhatt and Deepika Padukone though, she said, she never hesitates to praise them.

Now with the comments against Manikarnika and the threat to her safety, she is back in the public eye. This time, staying true to her original image, Ranaut retaliated against the Karni Sena saying, “If they don’t stop, then they should know I am also a Rajput and I will destroy each one of them,” claiming back the popular labels of “bold,” “firebrand,” “strong” and “badass” that she has collected over the years.

But it isn’t clear if her resistance to the Karni Sena will be enough to redeem her of her comments, amounting to cultural reinforcement, on how Indian women should know how to drape a sari. Will this help gloss over her incredulous laughter on Sarbh’s rape joke? It remains to be seen if the Manikarnika issue will become the medicine for her tarnished feminist image.

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