Journalist and contributor Chandrima Pal’s At Home in Mumbai is a collection of essays on edifices of stardom, success, of dreams realized in every inch of space claimed by those who called this city their home”, and the stories of some of these people and their living spaces. In edited excerpts from her accounts of movie stars and their residences, she uncovers the significance of Kangana Ranaut’s real estate acquisitions.

When Kangana Ranaut hosted a birthday and house-warming party at her Khar residence, it was an important PR exercise for the actress who was on her second coming and a dream run. After a few dismal years marred by controversies and scandals and ill-conceived career choices, Ranaut was back in the reckoning with Queen and Tanu Weds Manu Returns, and was transformed from a Bollywood pariah to a formidable diva. It was important for the actor, who had started her career on the back of tabloid headlines – including an affair with the much-married and older Aditya Pancholi that ended with a midnight assault on the streets – to announce to the world that she had arrived.

This was not the first time that an actress was hosting a house-warming party to celebrate her success. But for Ranaut it was meant to send out several messages. That she was now a force to reckon with and not many people could afford to turn down her invite. And unlike some of her peers, who could not perhaps draw stars from different generations to their pads, she managed to get everyone from Amitabh Bachchan to Anurag Kashyap and Aamir Khan under the same roof.

Mandi to Mumbai

The house had its own story, of course. And the journey of the girl from Himachal Pradesh’s Mandi district to a penthouse that gets featured in the top interior magazine is a telling commentary on fragile star egos that are fed by the possession and display of real estate assets.

After arriving in Mumbai, Ranaut had reportedly stayed at an apartment in Versova. The squat, atypical suburban complex was called Berry Bunch and was teeming with film aspirants on every floor. This is where some of her neighbours remember her as the girl who was good friends with Aditya Pancholi, who would drop by every now and then. It was said that Pancholi was instrumental in Ranaut getting some of her early breaks. But while the machinations of Bollywood would always remain shrouded in convenient mystery, the world woke up to Ranaut being assaulted by Pancholi on the road not very far from where she lived.

With her career on the ascent, and a bruising relationship behind her, Ranaut left Versova and her ‘struggler’ tag and into a modest apartment in Santa Cruz that she shared with her parents and her sister Rangoli. With more recognition and awards coming her way, Ranaut set out to look for a bigger, more upmarket pad for herself.

Ranaut located a property in Khar that was far beyond her reach. According to reports, Sanjay Dutt’s wife Manyata, who was close to Ranaut at this time, helped her negotiate a good deal and Ranaut finally owned a piece of property she was proud of. The interiors of this four-BHK apartment with a terrace was done by Richa Bahl, who has several other celebrity clients, and was the wife of Vikas Bahl, the man who directed Queen, the film that truly turned Ranaut’s fortunes and won her a second national award.

It was at the house-warming of this apartment that Ranaut brought the industry’s brightest and biggest to her door. It was not as if they were her closest friends. From the looks of it, it was a tactical strike on her part. A show of strength that the invitees could not turn down.

Putting down roots

A year later, the actress, still on a high despite another round of controversies, bought a house in her hometown. The house, when built, rose in stark contrast to the humble tenements that surround it and is perhaps a reminder of the actor’s past. Made with red bricks, traditional pahari woodwork and designed with both Himachali and global elements, it was also meant to make her parents, who initially did not approve of her decision to come to Mumbai, feel comfortable.

The Khar house, meanwhile, got yet another extravagant makeover, after the actress emerged from a fresh round of controversies over a spat with some of Bollywood’s most influential film-makers and star kids. It was also timed with one of her worst performing films, Rangoon, that she toplined.

As fresh images of the Khar apartment – this time made to look like a chic European cafe with all the touches one would expect in an interior magazine – began doing the rounds, there were also reports that the actress had gifted herself a three-storey bungalow to start her career as a film-maker.

The timing of these reports, the circulation of the carefully styled and edited interior shots of the ‘queen’s home’ are all an expression of the star’s constant tussle with her inner demons. Her transformation from a curly-haired, awkward youngster with no clue about how to use make-up or dress stylishly to one of the most influential style icons for young women says a lot about how she has turned her weakness into a calling card. It is the same with her real estate – the acquisition and display of which is tied to her sense of identity.

With Ranaut, there is also the constant of alienation. She has very few friends in the industry, while her knack for rabble-rousing is the stuff of legend. Outspoken, and sometimes incredibly so, Ranaut has realized that the only way the film industry, known for being patriarchal, sexist and feudal, will give her the acknowledgement she craves for is by creating her own kingdom and anointing herself its undisputed queen.

Buying a property close to some of the biggest and oldest film families in the city is a hugely political statement. And she topped it by buying herself an office space right next to it.

Senior journalist Shubha Shetty, who had been to both her home and office, says the properties bear Kangana’s unique signature. ‘Everything makes a statement. She takes pride in doing up her home. And this time, it is also her way of telling her critics that she is here, and is anything but invisible.’

A house bigger than the star

Ranaut’s story is a fascinating one with subtexts about the insider and outsider debate, about the premium that outsiders attach to announce their arrival in the city and leave their marks on it. It is warfare, scripted in brick, mortar, glass and plenty of starry ego.

According to Shetty, this is also typical of the Bollywood heroine – this obsession with finding and making a home that becomes entwined with her identity. And in most cases, the home is bigger than the star, both literally and figuratively. She speaks of Urmila Matondkar’s lavish home that would have needed significant resources to maintain, especially when she was completely out of work. The younger women have turned out to be smarter investors and the likes of Parineeti Chopra, Anushka Sharma, or even Deepika Padukone have made news when they acquired their own properties, refurbished them, or moved into a new one. Even a Mumbai girl, industry kid Alia Bhatt, decided to move out of her parent’s home into her own apartment to announce her ‘arrival’.

Excerpted with permission from At Home in Mumbai, Chandrima Pal, HarperCollins India.