They are small-towners gone big; outsiders who busted the elite, family-members-only worlds of Mumbai cinema and Delhi politics.
Kangana Ranaut, from Mandi district in Himachal Pradesh, conquered the incestuous, insiders club that is Hindi cinema and became one of Bollywood’s three highest paid actresses. Narendra Modi, from Vadnagar, Gujarat, paced himself for 13 years as that state’s chief minister before he got an opportunity to redraw the fault lines of Indian politics.
Both emphasize their regional identities and speak in their home-town accents. Both have struggled with English. Ranaut has often said that the film industry made fun of her for not being able to speak the language when she first came to Mumbai. West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee observed just earlier this year that Modi can’t speak a line of it properly. “He looks at the screen, reads what he has to say in English and then speaks as if he’s fluent in the language."
Both of them couldn’t care less about these attempts to shame them.
Both stood out, one for her corkscrew curls and lack of speech filters in a world of blow-dried political correctness; the other for his couldn’t-care-less attitude about the age-old rules of running the world’s largest democracy. Both were hailed for their ability to disrupt set-in-stone hierarchies.
Both got this country’s peak love and attention in 2014, several years after they made their debut in their respective fields.
Ranaut’s coming-of-age film Queen —released in that year—anointed her warrior status. Who said a simple Punjabi girl whose to-be husband skipped out on her couldn’t take on the patriarchy? She said she cried during the premiere of the film in Paris because, for the first time, she felt like a star. The film collected ₹ 120 crore at the box office.
Modi sold Indians a chimera of perfect progress and was rewarded with a landslide win of 282 Lok Sabha seats, a simple majority, in the 2014 general election; in a flash we erased his past as the chief minister whom the European Union boycotted for a decade after the 2002 Gujarat riots, citing his human rights record.
When the Congress party attempted to fact-check the claims Modi made about the Gujarat model—his supposedly successful economic blueprint focused on jobs and entrepreneurship—in advertisements with the tag line, “Can you trust him?", nobody was interested.
“Brothers, sisters, you have faith in me and I have faith in you.... This verdict says we have to make the dreams of 1.25 billion people come true. I must work hard," Modi said in his first victory speech.
Both have said several times these past five years that they are proud Hindus and, yes, both have a temple story. Modi’s is well known—it’s in his party’s election manifesto for 2014—let me not bore you by regurgitating how hardline parties that make up the Sangh Parivar have interpreted how and when the Ram temple in Ayodhya will be built. Ranaut actually built a temple in her hometown earlier this year. Then she posted a picture of herself praying there on her Instagram account.
Both are style divas with a proclivity for luxury brands. Both used fashion to update their provincial image. From the ivory Ralph and Russo ball gown she wore for the Paris premiere of Queen to the many looks she has worn straight off the Dior ramp and the Kanjeevaram sari gifted to her by actor Rekha, Ranaut can carry anything. She launched a fashion line with Vero Moda in 2015 and continues to be cited repeatedly for her airport looks.
Modi’s style is more controversial. From the ₹ 10 lakh blue pinstriped suit that had his name repeatedly monogrammed on it to the appropriation of the Nehru jacket (which peaked last October when South Korean President Moon Jae-in tweeted that he had been gifted some gorgeous “Modi vests"), the PM’s wardrobe choices have fashioned many controversies. On his 2015 trip to the US, he changed his outfits four times a day, newspapers reported. In 2016, his political rival, Arvind Kejriwal, said Modi’s clothes cost more than the Delhi government’s annual advertising budget. He said if you googled, you would not find images of the PM repeating his outfits.
Five years later, both Ranaut and Modi are never far from the headlines. They are firm fans of each other. Both are on the same side of the debate around Article 370, which gives autonomous status to Jammu and Kashmir. Modi is “the rightful leader of this democracy" and deserves to come back to power, Ranaut has said. Ranaut even had to deny news reports suggesting she may contest the election on a BJP ticket from her home state.
Even as filming has started on a biopic titled PM Narendra Modi , Ranaut has announced she’s going to direct her own biopic. Many awkward stories will be missing from both these biopics.
Ranaut now fashions herself as a “true patriot", the code word for Indian jingoism. She has said she believes liberals are fanatics and that they are b***ardizing national sentiment, that Pakistan should be destroyed, that if a certain religion worships cows, you can’t slaughter them. Earlier this year, she called actor Shabana Azmi anti-national for accepting an invite to a cultural event in Karachi. The feminism trophy we awarded her has lost its shine after she talked non-stop about a messy breakup for months, laughed at a rape joke, equated the idea of being a real Indian woman with the ability to wear a sari and declined to sign a petition that asked the PM to protect her colleague Deepika Padukone after she got death threats during the release of Padmaavat . But at least the critics still praise Ranaut’s acting.
The feedback on Modi’s professional record has been scathing. As India readies for another general election, the PM has no answers for rising unemployment, widespread rural distress, his role in a defence scandal and a country that is reeling from fake news, hate and divisiveness.
His campaign speeches no longer emphasize hope and development. Instead, he complains about how the opposition doesn’t want a strong India or a strong armed force and how it’s against Indian tradition to question the government about work not done.
Both Ranaut and Modi have disappointed their fans in 2019.
Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.
She tweets at@priyaramani