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Kangana Ranaut on her directorial debut Manikarnika

I think my turning director is definitely going to burn a few people: Kangana

Priyanka Roy Published 23.12.18, 12:59 PM
Kangana Ranaut in a scene from Manikarnika

Kangana Ranaut in a scene from Manikarnika A still from the trailer

Over the last couple of years, Kangana Ranaut has become a one-woman force in Bollywood— she’s shouldered films on her own, won many awards, walked the talk and called out the film industry’s double standards, nepotism to gender bias.

Now, Kangana becomes one of the first among her contemporaries to turn director, stepping in to helm her magnum opus Manikarnika when its original director Radha Krishna Jagarlamudi, better known as Krish, walked out midway. Kangana, who plays Manikarnika aka Rani Lakshimibai in the January 25 biggie, has earned praise for the trailer that was launched at IMAX Wadala in Mumbai last week, with t2 in the house.


After the launch, we sat down with Kangana at the Sofitel hotel to talk about the film, why directing is her first love and how she’s giving her peers sleepless nights.

A biopic can be made in many ways and Rani Lakshmibai is a shero we all have grown up reading about. How did you approach making this film?

We were very sure that it had to be a film that the masses can enjoy, a film that children can watch. Her morals and her values are so high that we could have easily made a Gandhi-like biopic. I am not talking in terms of philosophy… they were poles apart (smiles), but I am saying so from the point of view of the international audience… perhaps making it in English, you know. But we felt that it had to resonate with the masses.

It’s an action film, but the story is the hero, and that’s how it should be. Our writers are some of the leading names in the field. As a director, I spent a lot of time with them. Aath-aath nau-nau ghante hum sirf debate karte thhe about various dialogues and plot points. We had to be very careful about taking cinematic liberties and I was lucky that I had Prasoon Joshi, who is the chief of the censor board, in my team and he would tell us what exactly we could show and what we would have to leave out.

When you make a biopic on a living person, you buy the rights from him and you make the film on the basis of what he tells you… woh kuch bhi kahaani banaa ke aapko keh sakta hai (laughs)… only that person and his family will possibly object if they feel you have presented something wrongly. But when you pick a story like that of Rani Lakshmibai which is in the public domain, toh 130 billion people have a right over the story and they have a right to object to any part of it. We had to operate within those limitations and yet make the film a cinematic experience.

So I made it a point to discuss with our writers at every point. Matching the dates of our two writers (K.V. Vijayendra Prasad and Prasoon Joshi) was in itself quite a task (laughs). Locking the script was very tough. Honestly, I feel shooting a film as an actor is the easiest part of the process. Shooting is only tough when you are doing action. The difficult part is to decide what to shoot. We’ve had four historians on board who’ve gone through each and every aspect of the script. This subject is jinxed. A lot of people have tried to bring Rani Lakshmibai alive on screen, but it didn’t happen.

I think the warrior training was the most gruelling for me. The sword fights were tough. I could always ride a horse, but this kind of riding — that kind of galloping — is very different. I hadn’t ever done a period film before. I had played a queen (in the 2014 film Queen, that won Kangana a National Award) but not a queen in the literal sense (smiles).

What was your perception of her before this film and how has it changed now?

I obviously was aware of the heroism aspect and I wanted to show that on screen. But when I went into her story, I feel the side of her that people often fail to see is that of her as a mother and a wife. Motherhood was her unfulfilled desire throughout her life. She always longed for it and never got it. That bit really touched me.

Why have you named the film Manikarnika and not ‘Rani Lakshmibai’?

The most important thing while presenting a character in a film is tracing its arc. We all know Rani Lakshmibai’s story, but what’s interesting to know is how she became Rani Lakshmibai. If someone makes a biopic on me tomorrow, people know me as Kangana, but I think they would want to know ki ek aam ladki Kangana Ranaut bani kaise. It was important for us to show Manikarnika’s rise to becoming Rani Lakshmibai.

What was your reaction when you realised that you had to step in midway as director?

When Prasoon Sir and the writers suggested I direct after Krish left the project, my first request was actually to give me another director who I could work with. This was a very gruelling film and I found it very tough to wear those heavy costumes, do action sequences and keep running behind and in front of the monitor all the time. They actually got two-three names for me to decide on, but somehow the task was so big that nobody would stay. Honestly, they were taken only for the physical work — the recces, the meetings and all of that — because I thought I would do the mental work as director. But two people ran away! (Laughs) The writers would keep sending me material and I had no choice but to get into directing the film fully. But honestly, I am not an ‘epic’ director kind of a person. I am not saying I didn’t enjoy it, and I feel I have done a decent job of it (smiles).

But I want to make films on subjects that I feel are essential and need to be spoken about. There are a few subjects that I am itching to talk about and when I am done with them, I will probably attempt something epic like Manikarnika again.

What was it like directing a cast that comprises many veterans?

I got a phenomenal team of actors and they are all so experienced, I didn’t have anything to tell them. Even Jisshu (Sengupta, who plays Manikarnika’s husband Gangadhar Rao) for that matter is so good, what does one tell him? I never took more than one or two takes for a scene and that surprised people on set.

We know that you’ve always had filmmaking ambitions. You even did a course in screenplay writing from New York Film Academy four years ago…

I always wanted to direct films. These days, you generally hear of directors wanting to be actors, and not the other way around (laughs). Even those actors who direct don’t really do it full-time. They feel that they have got a certain amount of acclaim and popularity as actors, so why should they give that up and only direct films. It may sound strange, but I have never really identified with being an actress. It’s not my calling, direction is.

It’s actually surprising even to me how comfortable I feel being a director on set, even when I am sweating buckets and am surrounded by 500 people and everyone’s screaming at the same time! (Laughs) There’s something about directing a film that’s so gratifying, even though it’s a worker’s life.

An actor is just one part of the whole orchestra of filmmaking and it kind of makes me feel inadequate, that I am not doing enough as a creative person. See, it’s not that I don’t want to act in films with other directors — I am doing Ashwiny’s (Iyer Tiwari) Panga and Prakash’s film (Kovelamudi, called Mental Hai Kya) right now. I like acting, but I always felt a part of me was dying somewhere because I wasn’t being utilised totally. I felt like a part of me was rotting away because I wasn’t being able to express myself as a director.

When I was just an actor on this film, I didn’t know what was happening with the rest of the film and it was frustrating. A lot of mishaps happened on set… I injured myself several times, I broke my forehead and I was worried about how I would take this forward as an actor. But when I got down to directing, there was no pressure… there were only goals. For me, the director is the hero of a film and directing is my first love.

When you are just an actor on another set, does the director in you strain to come out?

Honestly, it’s actually a relief to just be an actor… to be a small part of a huge canvas. Acting, for me, is actually like a holiday (laughs). I can sit prettily in my van and go out only when I am called for my shot, I don’t have to bother about anything else. When I was shooting Panga, I was so busy with the VFX of Manikarnika that I was constantly Facetiming with my team. Imagine how overrated actors are! I could actually do a full-fledged role as an actor and I had so much time that I did the entire VFX work of an epic film alongside! (Laughs)

And yet, actors behave like they are carrying the burden of the world on their shoulders… so, so overrated. Acting involves doing absolutely nothing and that kind of superficial involvement always hurt me. I don’t come from a film family and I don’t have a platform set out for me where I can stand and make tall announcements like, ‘I want to be a director’. It’s happened organically. I still ask Prasoon Sir that what made him think I could direct when even I didn’t know I could do it.

Being an actor doesn’t interfere with what I want to do as a director and vice-versa. As an actor, I am happy to be a part of someone else’s vision. If you ask me whether the films I am doing as an actor stimulate me as a director, then the answer would be, ‘Not at all’. What Ashwiny is doing with Panga is a reflection of who she is as a mother and a wife. I don’t know that world because I am not married and I don’t have children-related issues (smiles). Mental Hai Kya is a thriller, it’s a mad ride and as a director, thriller as a genre doesn’t excite me. But to be part of it as an actor is so gratifying.

As an actor and in the way you constantly walk the talk, you’ve broken the glass ceiling. Has turning director been a conscious choice to take that forward?

It’s totally been a conscious step. It always bothers me that why is a woman’s role on a film set so limited? When I was younger and would naively ask something about the technicalities of filmmaking, I saw that men found that ‘cute’. If I asked about frames and lenses, they would be condescending and treat it like a cute question asked by a kid. I was like a little puppy to them; it was so humiliating for me to face that. I would see them rolling their eyes when I tried to be part of a serious conversation on films and filmmaking and I kept telling myself, ‘This is so scary!’ I haven’t turned director with a purpose, but I will be very happy if this becomes a benchmark for other women.

Do you plan to study filmmaking or do you think your life experiences will contribute to the director in you?

I know many directors here who still go for workshops. (Filmmaker) Mira Nair does workshops and directors from here go for that. I think one needs to keep abreast of new developments in filmmaking and you can’t always bank on life experiences to help you. I think it has to be a combination of both. But above all, your perspective of life is very important as a filmmaker. Only if you are a good human being can you be a good director.

Twelve years in films later, do you still feel like an outsider or do you enjoy being the outsider?

I love my craft and my job and as a person, I don’t like to be in a herd. I have some friends who I absolutely value and my family is very close to me, but I am not into meeting 10 people every day and seeking out gossip. If sticking to a group of people is the definition of an ‘insider’ then I am not; but as far as being a significant industry person who has done some significant work, I am pretty much a part of the industry.

Over the last few years, you’ve become a tour de force, even though you’ve shied away from doing films with the superstars and rejected big banners. Do you think your growing power and position intimidates your industry peers?

I think my turning director is definitely going to burn a few people! (Laughs out loud) Some of my friends have been teasing me that some people are going to have sleepless nights (smiles).

Do you enjoy that?

No, no! (Laughs) Honestly, people who have slogged their way up the ladder don’t enjoy such things; it’s only those who have the privilege and the time to do so enjoy it. Isn’t it? (Winks and smiles)

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