Box-office dynamo, darling of critics, meritocracy advocate, whistleblower, feminist, patriot – and troll. Most movie stars have trouble maintaining a single public image. That clearly isn’t the case with Kangana Ranaut, whose capacity for self-invention is threatening to outstrip Madonna’s experiments with adopting and shedding personas.

Last week, Ranaut revealed her latest claws-out avatar at an event to launch a song from her upcoming film, Judgementall Hai Kya, when she accused Press Trust of India reporter Justin Rao of running a smear campaign against her.

Ranaut’s unprovoked attack sucked away the attention from the other talent associated with the movie, including Rajkummar Rao, writer Kanika Dhillon, and director Prakash Kovelamudi. The July 26 release will now be indelibly associated with Ranaut’s decision to chomp off the hand that has fed her these past few years.

Judgementall Hai Kya (2019).

Ranaut’s self-described image is that of the wallflower who went on to become the life of the party. The headline-friendly narrative of the outsider who became a fearlessly outspoken insider resonated in an industry packed with the progeny of famous surnames. Ranaut isn’t the first or last no-name actor to scale heights in the Hindi film industry. But in her telling, her ascent since Tanu Weds Manu in 2011 was the only one that mattered since she was the sole entrant brave enough to speak truth to power.

Any criticism of Ranaut – her performances, the commercial fate of her films, her statements – is treated like a missile attack on her person. Critics who dare to express dislike for her films are savaged on Twitter by her manager and sister, Rangoli Chandel. Like the political trolls who swarm around any viewpoint that differs from their own, the Ranaut/Chandel team has turned Twitter into a battleground and the culture of analytical thinking into a conspiracy against the actor.

This time, it’s personal

Ranaut’s first act of defiance won her praise at the time. In 2016, stung by a perceived barb aimed at her by Hrithik Roshan, Ranaut outed herself as the married movie star’s alleged lover, and gave a series of interviews that purported to expose his perfidious ways. Ranaut earned respect for refusing to conform to the Other Woman stereotype.

In 2017, Ranaut proved herself to be a muckraker on the inside when she described the powerful producer Karan Johar as the “flagbearer of nepotism” on his Koffee with Karan show. Ranaut was both articulating a poorly kept secret as well as telling her fan base and journalists that unlike her peers, she was not going to play it safe.

In their interviews, movie stars have mastered the art of saying nothing while pretending to say something. Ranaut promised real copy, rather than packaged pablum – and she delivered.

Kangana Ranaut in Queen (2013), the movie that sealed her stardom. Courtesy Viacom18 Motion Pictures.

Through interviews and a fusillade of tweets that would put Donald Trump to shame, Ranaut and Chandel have kept the heat on her real and imagined adversaries, including Roshan. The siblings even inserted themselves into Hrithik’s sister Sunaina’s recent public meltdown. When Sunaina claimed on television last month that her father, noted filmmaker Rakesh Roshan, was subjecting her to emotional cruelty over an alleged relationship, Ranaut and Chandel suggested that they were sisters in suffering. Ranaut has also been repeatedly running down her peers, such as Alia Bhatt and Taapsee Pannu, over perceived slights.

Ranaut’s sense of victimhood escalated as she attempted to assert authorship over her films. She was accused of meddling with Simran in 2017 and Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi this year. In both cases, Ranaut claimed that she stepped in to salvage the films from sure ruin. In an industry in which male stars have been known to shadow-direct their productions and arm-twist filmmakers into reorienting movie plots to suit their egos, Ranaut’s actions were spun as further proof of her honesty and bravery.

Ranaut has also lectured other film personalities on the true nature of patriotism. It’s a short leap from the nationalistic tweet to describing journalists as “termites” – a manoeuvre popular with Indian politicians who play on the basest of emotions to rubbish their rivals. However, with nearly every Hindi movie star now waving the flag on and beyond the screen, the patriotic bandwagon had become somewhat crowded.

Journalists, then, were the next logical target. The media, after all, is a low-hanging fruit waiting to be pulped by anybody who wants to have a go. While Ranaut’s rants against a group that has been championing her are baffling, her actions are consistent with the widespread disdain many now express for the media.

Although Rangoon (2017) was a commercial failure, Kangana Ranaut was praised for her performance.

Hate you like I love you

Among the movie stars who have had tense relationships with the media is Amitabh Bachchan, who was boycotted by publications in the mid-1970s over the belief that he was using his links with the Congress party to impose curbs on journalists. Bachchan retaliated by imposing his own boycott. A truce was eventually called in the early ’80s, and Bachchan is now one of the Bollywood media’s most respected personalities.

A boycott is usually short-lived because neither party can afford it. Bollywood spats and scuffles with reporters are often followed by a brief period of media outrage, only to be resolved with an apology from the star. The boycott of Ranaut called by the recently formed Entertainment Journalists Guild in response to her attack on Justin Rao at the Judgementall Hai Kya event is an audacious move, but one that cannot be enforced without the support of editors and publishers.

The boycott has revealed yet again the love-hate relationship between movie stars and the media. Access for journalists to the movie industry is governed by the perceived clout of the media companies for which they work. Since a film’s pre-release publicity is aimed at enhancing its commercial prospects, the line between interviews and publicity handouts can often be thin.

One reliable way of controlling mischievous or high-minded journalists is to limit their access. Acting on the advice of their handlers, celebrities give interviews only to publications and channels that will result in the maximum return on investment – extending Bollywood’s power structures beyond the studio lot and into the newsroom.

Often, serious-minded journalists have no alternative but to swallow their pride and ignore the insults. Salman Khan’s widely documented contempt for the media is balanced out by his enormous popularity with the fans. In other cases, pliant journalists who regard themselves as cheerleaders can be relied on to produce copy that could have originated on a publicist’s laptop.

Publicists are always on hand to ensure that interviews do not take the form of inquisitions. But they also limit these interactions from blossoming into conversations: “You will get 10 minutes,” is a reliable way to set limits on expectations. The case against unlimited access is understandable, given that the number of Bollywood journalists and critics has grown enormously in recent years. (At any given point, there are few hundred media people clamouring for attention.) It has also been weakened by the tabloid-inclined nature of entertainment journalism these days – the obsession with Taimur Ali Khan, the gossip over relationships, the schadenfreude over meltdowns.

There are, of course, some journalists who, on the strength of their reputation and experience, can circumvent the rules and get relevant newsbreaks and interviews. But by and large, the entertainment media is fed scraps. In the absence of anything more meaningful, they eat hungrily and freely.

Kangana Ranaut and R Madhavan in one of her biggest hits, Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015). Courtesy Colour Yellow Productions.

Of queens and commoners

If the idea behind the media decision to boycott Ranaut is to send a message to her and other truculent stars, it is a strong one. The journalists who bear the brunt of Bollywood’s whimsies are the ones who turn up week after week for trailer reveals and song launches that never begin on time and yield little that is newsworthy. This meat-and-potatoes serving of the Bollywood pie is what sells the most, but its delivery people often get shoddy treatment.

The average entertainment reporter on the Kangana Ranaut beat probably feels like the person who gets front-row seats to a stand-up comedy show, only to become the target of cruel attacks by the comedian on the stage. The journalists who trooped in for the Judgementall Hai Kya song launch expected the meat-and-potatoes serving with the added flavour that Ranaut usually provides. Instead, they were served a bitter reminder of the precarious relationship between stars and those who document them.

This time, it’s Ranaut who has come off worse for the wear. The commoner who anointed herself queen has turned on her courtiers, and her off-with-their-head pronouncements are diminishing her achievements. Ranaut’s self-made image was carefully honed through the media. It is ironic, but also fitting, that the stage for her latest transformation was a press event.