Bollywood controversy

Kangana Ranaut versus Karan Johar: A different freedom of speech debate unfolds in Bollywood

The Hindi film industry hunkers down for a potentially bruising internal war.

Poor Bollywood. How many more explosions can it handle? In recent months, the Hindi film industry has had to frequently hunker into battle formation to protect itself against sustained attacks on its freedom of expression. But now, something far bigger is plaguing India’s largest-earning, most influential cinema: actress Kangana Ranaut’s verbal salvos.

Ranaut’s most recent volley against director-producer Karan Johar’s carefully constructed image started as a superb and ratings-friendly moment on his television chat show, Koffee with Karan a few weeks ago. It has since expanded into a debate about free speech, bullying, and power structures in the Hindi film industry. On Thursday, Ranaut owned the day, with a well-timed candid interview to the widely consumed Mumbai Mirror tabloid that attacks Johar and the culture of entitlement and favouritism that she claims he embodies. Johar, a second-generation filmmaker who works with star sons and daughters as well as fresh talent, will respond, as he is wont to, but in doing so, he will confirm the allegations that started the debate in the first place.

Ranaut appeared on Koffee with Karan on February 19 – her second since the series went on air on Star World in 2004 – on the eve of the release of her movie Rangoon. Johar frequently invites the leads of upcoming movies to plug their wares. He also uses Koffee With Karan to promote his own productions. His protege Alia Bhatt has appeared twice in the fifth season, which concludes on March 12, for his co-productions Dear Zindagi and Badrinath Ki Dulhania.

The show’s unique selling point is Johar’s access to and comfort with movie stars (hardly surprising, given his professional position). Its limited mandate is to elicit a few mostly tame laughs and gossipy giggles. When Ranaut brought out the n-word – nepotism – she enlivened the episode and perhaps, the entire season.

When Johar asked Ranaut about who had given her the “most attitude”, she turned the tables on him. “In my biopic, if it’s ever made, you’ll be the stereotypical Bollywood biggie who is snooty and completely intolerant to outsiders; the flag-bearer of nepotism; the movie mafia,” she coolly said, echoing the unarticulated thoughts of several industry professionals and observers.

When Johar asked her, “Would you rather find true love and be poor or be rich and single,” Ranaut replied, “Your idea of poverty is very different from my idea of poverty.” (Any other television channel would have gleefully put the clips on YouTube for all to see, but Star World has refrained from doing so.)

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Kangana Ranaut on ‘Koffee with Karan’.

Johar responded a few days later to Ranaut in London, where he was attending the LSE India Forum 2017, hosted by the Students Union of the London School of Economics. “She deserves all the National Awards but I am done with Kangana playing the woman and victim card,” Johar said. “You cannot be this victim at every given point of time, always telling the sad story of how you were terrorised by the industry. If it’s so bad, leave it.”

Ranaut clearly stole Johar’s thunder on his show – which does not seem to have gone down well with a filmmaker with a proven track record of managing the media moment. “Everyone lauded her for coming on to my show and [how she] ‘gave it off to Karan’,” Johar peevishly said in London.

“What is this about the ‘woman card’ and the ‘victim card’?” Ranaut responded in her Mumbai Mirror interview. “This kind of talk is demeaning to all women, particularly the vulnerable because they are the ones who really need to use them. The ‘woman card’ might not help you become a Wimbledon champ, or win you Olympic medals, or bag National awards. It might not even land you a job, but it can get a pregnant woman who feels her water is about to break a ‘ladies’ seat on a crowded bus. It can be used as a cry for help when you sense a threat. The same goes for the ‘victim card’, which women like my sister, Rangoli, who is a victim of an acid attack, can use while fighting for justice in court.”

The eternal outsider

The repartee not only makes great copy, but also deflects from the massive box office failure of Rangoon and keeps the spotlight on the Koffee with Karan season finale on March 12. The interview burnishes Ranaut’s reputation as one of the few movie celebrities with the courage to speak her mind. In 2016, Ranaut attacked Hrithik Roshan for denying his alleged relationship with her, and whatever the merits of her arguments, she exposed the selective kiss-but-don’t-tell culture that governs Bollywood.

The Mumbai Mirror interview boosts Ranaut’s image as the eternal outsider who has made it in a close-knit industry on her terms. Of course, Ranaut is no struggler. She has appeared in well-regarded films, including Gangster, Tanu Weds Manu and its sequel and Queen. But her screen persona, supported by her off-screen statements, rests on her self-image as the rebel who rattles the cage with her honesty, ambition and commitment to her craft.

At times, Ranaut resembles Eliza Doolittle halfway through her lessons in manners in Pygmalion. Politeness, political correctness and pablum are cherished in the movie business. By insistently shooting off her mouth, Ranaut has occupied the only available slot in the upper levels – the dissident who tells it like it is.

Unfortunately for Ranaut, the Hindi film industry survives not on risk but on predictable outcomes. A-listers are valued for their ability to dominate the headlines by saying nothing of consequence. Hollywood stars have been crowding the American media with their criticism of President Donald Trump and his policies, but burnt by backlashes and boycotts, the Bollywood elite usually stays away from anything resembling controversy.

The Kangana-Karan kerfuffle is hardly on par with the Right-wing attacks on Aamir Khan and Sanjay Leela Bhansali and the censorship of films. Its price will likely be borne by Ranaut. Her recklessness, which echoes Rekha during her heyday, could backfire badly if stars and filmmakers associated with Johar decide to steer clear of her. Ranaut’s personal digs at Johar’s father, the producer Yash Johar, and at Karan Johar’s daughter (who was recently delivered along with his son through a surrogate) are not likely to go down well with the touchy filmmaker.

In his 2016 memoir An Unsuitable Boy, Johar devoted many passages to his fallout with the actress Kajol, declaring, “It’s over” and “…she can never come back to my life”.

Johar is similarly done with Ranaut. Will the rest of the movie industry follow? Johar’s influence extends beyond his circle – his proteges, including Alia Bhatt, Sidharth Malhotra and Varun Dhawan, work across the industry. His friends include influential filmmaker Aditya Chopra, at whom Ranaut took a dig on Koffee With Karan. Claiming that Chopra had dismissed her talent a decade ago, Ranaut crowed, “Today I am so glad to tell you that I was so wrong. You have made it and you have made it on your own. I am very happy about it.”

Bollywood observers will cheer the brashness, strugglers will paste posters of Ranaut on their walls, and detractors of Big Bollywood will be relieved that somebody is igniting a debate on how unequal the seemingly equal-opportunity industry actually is. But the inner circle is unlikely to take these digs sportingly as the pronouncements of a movie star who wants to be seen as a maverick.

Nepotism works loosely in the Hindi film business. There is, of course, room for all manner of talent to flourish, but often on the terms decided by the power elite. Godfathers and godmothers abound, blessing or thwarting the efforts of talented individuals. Ranaut has had her pick of mentors. But by claiming all credit for herself, she has broken the golden rule of patronage; never bite the hand that feeds. Ranaut has chomped loud and hard with relish. Just desserts inevitably follow a feast.

Johar, with his incredible astuteness of the inner workings of celebrity, has surely understood where Ranaut is coming from. Will he also decide where she will go next?

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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.