Reviewing Kangana Ranaut: Can You Love the Art, Not the Artist?
Can film critics objectively review films featuring Kangana Ranaut?
- How does a film critic bring oneself to critique or review a film that features in its lead an actor who indulges in unapologetic communal bigotry?
- Can one objectively watch and judge an artist and their work, when you know that the person has in a thinly veiled tweet called for genocide on social media?
These are questions that many film critics would have probably found themselves facing if Kangana Ranaut’s Thalaivi had released as per schedule. I asked a few prominent critics if they had any answers, and here’s what I found.
But before we come to that, here’s the set up:
Kangana Ranaut is easily the most polarising popular movie star the Indian film industry has seen till date. While being lauded for her versatility and talent as an actor, she’s been equally denounced for her communal rants, and for playing an active role in spreading malevolent fake news.
She is perhaps the only actor who, while still being counted among commercially viable lead actors in the trade, has also chosen to take a political and ideological side that completely insults and negates inclusivity, empathy and reason.
The multiple National Award winning actor has been time and again called out for her Islamophobic, venomous hate-mongering on social media. Kangana over the years has trivialised mental health, denigrated women (the actor suggested that senior advocate Indira Jaising be kept in jail with the convicted rapists of Nirbhaya, for appealing against their death penalty) and spread hatred against Muslims and independent media (in April 2020, her sister Rangoli Chandel tweeted “Make these mullas + secular media stand in a line and shoot them dead”).
More recently, Twitter suspended Kangana’s account after she tweeted requesting Prime Minister Narendra Modi to show his “viraat roop from early 2000’s”. The tweet, many concluded, was asking for organised state-sponsored violence against Muslims in West Bengal, similar to what many political opponents allege transpired in Gujarat in 2002 when Modi was the Chief Minister of the state. The tweet was considered offensive and serious enough for Twitter to ban her permanently.
In these circumstances, can one be clinical enough to hate the artist but love the art? Would it be fair to boycott the artist along with her art, especially when the work is a film that’s the result of teamwork (unlike say Hannah Gadsby’s takedown of Picasso)?
“For me critiquing is a very personal and political act. Cinema is, and yet it is not about arts and aesthetics alone. It's not merely about the colour palette, the sound design, the acting or shot-taking but how these elements are coming together to say something and what is it that the filmmaker is trying to say through them. So my approach is to try and engage with the film as a political text--and that's not politics in the absolute sense of the term,” says senior film journalist and critic Namrata Joshi,
“My problem is NOT that my opposing politics to that of Kangana Ranaut’s will in any way colour my opinion of her work. What will determine my opinion is the politics of that work. My integrity in critiquing--as per the principles I have stood by--has stayed and will stay. The ball is in her and her filmmakers’ court as to what politics they play out on screen”.Namrata Joshi, Film Journalist and Critic
Joshi adds that while she enjoyed Ranaut’s Panga, she could not stand the actor’s Manikarnika. She found the period film's agenda and Ranaut’s work dangerous, with contemporary jingoism, communalism and revivalism embedded in the film while harking back to the past.
Sucharita Tyagi, who fronts the popular Not a Movie Review video segment online doesn’t have an immediate clear cut answer, “I wish I had a concrete answer to give. It’s a conundrum, on one hand I recognise the team effort, but also I don’t want to embolden her. I do believe I will watch movies she’s featured in, how I feel after watching, remains to be seen,” she says.
“With Ranaut or Salman Khan there usually is talk about how can one objectively view their performances,” says film critic and radio jockey Stutee Ghosh. “But, I have always felt that my job as a critic is to be objective about my work. That is what separates us from the other casual film watchers . I will talk about the film and the politics of the film. We might praise or criticise Kangana for her views and actions otherwise, but as a work of art the film must be reviewed , critiqued and viewed as such,” Ghosh concludes.
On the other hand, Raja Sen believes that it will be hard to treat Ranaut in a review like just another actor. “As critics writing about culture, we are often compelled to separate art from artist, and we reckon with these individuals on a case-by-case basis. These are not one-size-fits-all decisions but instead highly personal boundaries to draw, and no acknowledgement of Ranaut’s considerable talent as a performer should be held as an endorsement of her problematic politics. Yet, I believe it would be foolish now, given her repeated and proudly bigoted calls for violence, to treat her in a review like just another actress,” opines the critic.
Joshi is also clear that things aren’t the same after Ranaut’s last tweet that got the actor kicked out of the social media platform, “In the wake of her hateful and toxic "Modi show your virat roop" tweet I am absolutely in no mood to see her films at the moment. I don't know if I will see them in the future and write about them or not. It's the last thing on my mind, given that there is so much else to worry about right now.” She also feels that any discussion around the Manikarnika actor will give her unnecessary importance. “By engaging with this question, I think we are giving her needless attention and keeping her in the news. Exactly what she wants. We should ideally be quietly reporting her social media accounts for the problematic content than speculate on whether we will see her films or not. We will cross that bridge when it comes,” Joshi says.
However, Sen has a solution when it comes to reviewing Ranaut’s films. “What I intend to do is use a constant, descriptive term to contextualise the person while discussing her work. For instance: “The film itself doesn’t impress, but hatemonger Kangana Ranaut delivers a rousing performance.” I think that will do for now. It allows a critic to discuss a performer while not letting the person escape their actions. I would even suggest political commentators start using similar terms,” offers Sen.
As a parting shot Joshi leaves me with more questions than answers. “Why should the onus of calling out Kangana Ranaut for her politics fall on us critics alone? It's the industry that should be taking a stand against her too. Why is the industry making films with her in the first place? Why are people being stakeholders in her films? I know some of the younger lot of professionals who are opting to NOT work in her films. That is where the change is happening. In talking to critics you are holding the wrong end of the stick. I think Bollywood has to also be accountable for the mess it regularly gets into,” she states. That’s definitely more food for thought.
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