Hindi Film 101: Class and Film and a Little Bit Kangana

I am going to do my best to attempt a starting point of class and film in India. Not caste, I’m not even touching caste, just class. And a little bit Kangana too, but again just an attempt at a start with her.

Usual Disclaimer: I have no special knowledge, I am just doing my best to try to translate the untranslatable details of culture into English.

Kangana Ranaut is 32 years old. Her first film role was in Gangster, when she was 17. She worked steadily since then in roles small and large. Her first FilmFare Award was for Gangster. Her first National Award was for Fashion, 4 years later, she also won a FilmFare for that. In total she has won 3 National Awards and 4 FilmFare Awards. Since her first movie 15 years ago, she has made 32 films. 30 of them were in Hindi, 1 in Tamil and 1 in Telugu. By the basic metrics of awards and roles, she has had a good career and has power in the industry. And yet, somehow, she doesn’t feel like she fits in, she has publicly expressed a sensation of being excluded.

Kangana was born in Himachal Pradesh, a primarily rural state with some famous resort areas, in a small rural town. Kangana grew up on the family estate in the family mansion. Her great-grandfather was an MLA, and her grandfather was a member of the IAS. MLA is an elected position with a certain amount of power and prestige. IAS is a career long bureacratic position with less prestige and power, but still a lot, more than any bureacratic position in America would have. To put this in American terms, think Congressman and State Senator or City Council Member.

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This is the house where she grew up

Kangana was sent to school at the DAV College in Chandigarh, miles and miles from home, as a teenager. The instruction in these schools is in English and they have a high record in the general tests, it is a good start for an impressive career. Kangana failed out of the school. Instead, she decided she wanted to be an actress. Her parents paid for her to go to Delhi at 16, supported her financially and paid for her acting classes. She also modeled occasionally during this time. She decided she wanted to go to Bombay and try to be a film actress. Her father disapproved of this decision, and so she decided to stop taking money from him. She lived in Bombay on her own earnings as a model, before getting her first role in Gangster.

Let’s pause here and look at what we can learn from the basic known facts. Kangana has sold herself as a poor girl without the privileges of the film stars. Her family background is far more privileged than anyone in the film industry, with a very few exceptions. Saif Ali Khan, of course, on both sides of his family, the intellectual landed Tagores and the royal Pataudi family. Perhaps the Kapoors have a similar landed estate background, but they lost everything in Partition. Otherwise, the film industry is made up of the children of struggling merchants, small farmers, anyone who might have come to the city in desperation. Farming in India is not necessarily an easy task, the fact that Kangana’s family has managed to survive and thrive on their ancestral land indicates a certain amount of wealth and power. As does the politically connected background.

Class follows you in some ways where ever you go. But class is hard to predict. Part of it is knowing the “right” way to be and the “right” things to say. And part of it is the confidence you carry with you, the surety that you are in the right and everyone else is in the wrong. The people of the Hindi film industry, within the film industry, know exactly how to be and what to say and what to do. They know the kind of jokes you can and cannot make, the clothes you should and should not wear, and they can tell instantly if you aren’t “right” like they are. But the thing is, being “right” in the film industry doesn’t necessarily give you any power or confidence anywhere else.

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Kangana and her family

Pretend that films don’t exist. In that case, Saif Ali Khan with his royal/political background is the top of the social scale of India. Below him would be the Bachchans, with their intellectual world on both sides of the family and their political connections. And then Kangana and the Kapoors and a few others, not royal and not intellectual, but landed families who were the top in their area. And below that is the great seething mass of struggling regular folks. Dilip Kumar, his family had fruit orchards, but they weren’t the top family in their area. Shahrukh, his family was friendly with folks in politics in Delhi, but not part of the top layer of society like the Bachchans were. Salman’s family, they were former mercenaries who settled in north India just a few generations back. The Bhatts, they were Gujurati merchants buying and selling whatever they could. In this world, Saif would meet Kangana’s family at larger events where they bowed and scraped before him. And Kangana’s family would meet Dilip’s and Shahrukh’s and Akshay’s and all the others, as their employees or tenants or salespeople, the ones who came to the steps of their mansion.

There’s also the question of real power. Kangana’s great-grandfather being an MLA, and her grandfather being in the IAS, that gives them a level of real power in the world that in some ways is greater than what a movie star would enjoy. An MLA or an IAS officer could call up the police and get their child released from jail, can blackmail a powerful businessman into supporting them, can get a bank loan. A movie star can’t necessarily do any of those things. And if you are willing to bend the rules a bit, you can make a lot more money a lot more quickly working for the government than you can working in film.

But of course we live in a world where films exist, and where a very particular class structure of the Bombay world exists. In this new world, class markers coming from fluency in English and in the general global world. Knowing the right clothes to wear, knowing the right things to say and when, and so on. It’s not limited just to film, it’s the whole urban elite of India who have these particular barriers to entry unless you can pass them. Until recently, Hindi film was not part of the urban elite world, it was part of the urban scrounging world, actresses seen as little better than prostitutes. It’s only since liberalization and the rise of the multiplex and the diaspora audience that somehow the film industry has changed classes, as an entire community. The lower level workers are increasingly disappearing, being replaced by “professionals” with degrees and certificates in things like costume design and lighting and so on. And at the upper level, as the money flowed in, so had more upper class workers, the types who went to college overseas and returned with beliefs and behaviors out of synch with the rest of India. A generation ago people like Anushka Sharma or Ranveer Singh might have been settled in a career as doctors, or lawyers, or set up with a small business. Now, respectable children of army officers or wealthy businessmen are set off into film.

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Ajay Devgan is second generation film and grew up so poor his family couldn’t afford to fix his teeth. Parineeti is a newcomer and went to college in London.

How do you jump into this new class? Or make sure your children can find their place in it? For a lot of the film folk, it came naturally, it was just a matter of the rest of the world catching up to how they already lived. Film people, even during the closed off pre-liberalization era of India, were looking outward. Bootleg copes of foreign films, imitating foreign fashions and foreign songs, it has always been part of Hindi film. Filmmakers might have a harder time faking the old landed family or royal family version of class, but just pretending to be part of the global elite, they’ve been doing that forever. Alia Bhatt dresses the same way her sister Pooja did in the 90s, but what was fun and funky and a little bit scandalous on Pooja, is now high class and proper on Alia.

If you have the money, you can also always buy class, move with the times. Instead of sending your daughter to a proper privately run all female college, along with singing lessons and handmade modest traditional clothes, you now send your daughter overseas for school and make sure she has proper real international brand clothing. The content has changed, but you are still just paying people to make your children fit however they need to fit now. The rich folks of India are now trying to fit with the world of film, and they have found a way to pay their way in through foreign degrees and going to the right parties and connecting with the right directors, and taking those jobs away from the struggling illiterate masses who used to fill the industry. Because now a film job is the “right” kind of job to have. Maybe not as an actress, but assistant director or art director or costume design, that is all a very appropriate thing to put on your resume before you marry well, or move into working for your father’s company.

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Niharika Khan, one of the top costume designers today. Educated with a PR degree from America. Very unlike the old-fashioned “dressmen” who used to come up from the Bombay streets and always knew the cheapest source for fabric and the fastest one hour tailor. Not to say she isn’t great at her job, but just 20 years ago an American educated woman would never have considered working in costumes for Hindi film.

Let’s go back to Kangana. She was sent to a school as a teenager that puts a high focus on English language skills. She was also sent to school in a large city, not kept at home in her small town. She went from there to Delhi, an even larger city, and took acting lessons, paid for by her family. And then finally Bombay. She grew up in a small town, yes. But her family gave her the kind of opportunities that allow someone from her background to have a chance of succeeding in this new world. Fluency in English, confidence in an urban setting, these are the tools that are needed now in order to maintain the same class level to which she was born.

And let’s look at the timeline. Kangana goes to boarding school for high school, fails, goes to Delhi for acting training with the financial support of her family, quits that and breaks it off with her family, moves to Bombay, gets her first big break acting job in Gangster. And according to what we know, the basic dates, all of this happened within one year. Kangana sells a storyline of her family throwing her out in shame and having to survive on her own. But that doesn’t quite hold up. If her family supported her financially in Delhi after she left school, and if she got her first job at 17, then that means at the most we are talking about a few months between her family cutting off support and her getting her first role. This is not a poor village girl fighting the world for survival, this is a well-off young woman from a well-off family trying to find herself.

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Kangana as a teenager in Gangster.

But it’s hard to see that, because there are so many other elements that go into making up class. Kangana is from a village, maybe if she had succeeded in high school and stayed in the city, maybe if she had spent a few more years focusing on mimicing the behavior of the urban women around her, she could have arrived in Bombay with her class symbols made invisible. Or if she had remained in her village, she could have maintained a superior attitude, looking down on the film folk who have no old names and no old lands and no old political power. But instead there is a clash of class, Kangana is both looking down and looked down upon simultaneously.

Image result for ileana d'cruz
Illeana D’Cruz grew up poor, the daughter of a hotel worker and a dock worker, who ran away from their villages after having a cross-religious love marriage. And I honestly did not know that until I started researching this post. She put in the time to learn English, to learn the proper way to dress, to learn all the tools you need to seamlessly fit within the new Indian urban elite. It is possible to do it, to invisibly jump classes within a few years. Especially in the film industry.

The same is true for Indian culture in general and how it handles the Hindi film industry. I say “Hindi” not “Indian” here because the Hindi industry is a little bit different from the other industries. It’s based in Bombay, a city with no heritage and none of that older “class” element. And it is made up of Hindi speakers within a Marathi speaking region, all of them also outsiders and removed from their entrenched areas of power. But at the same time, these are the people with the most fame in the biggest city in the country. There is a jealousy of the stars, with their glamorous lives and expensive parties and fame and so on. And they have the real power of popularity and fame, the ability to start a fire with just one quote or comment in an interview. But at the same time, they aren’t part of the quite right community. The entrenched powers who transitioned from local landlords under the royal era, to the trusted local confidants in the colonial era, to the political powers now, they are far closer to Kangana than they are to these upstart film folks.

I’m not trying to give a simple answer here, to say that one side or the other has more or less power There’s no simple answer of insider-outsider here, just as there isn’t in any society, class is a layered construct that constantly shifts based on a variety of elements. The outsiders can become the insiders and vice versa, at any moment. This is just my attempt to start a conversation, to set up some kind of framework for understanding that society and class and power cannot be simplified to sound bites.

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17 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Class and Film and a Little Bit Kangana

  1. While we are talking about Kangana, let’s talk about her relationship with Aditya Pancholi. You wrote that she lived in Mumbai, thanks to her work as a model. But at that time, I think she was dating Aditya, who once said they lived together and even the phone she was using was his. So that’s another thing that doesn’t fit in Kangana’s “I was poor and made it all by myself”.
    I don’t read gossip and stuff but even I knew they were together. I always found it strange how she is so against nepotism, but at the same time she was with a guy from the industry, and who knows if he didn’t help her with her career. Or maybe because she had to be with him, she is jealous of woman like Alia or Sonam didn’t have to do this.

    I knew about relationship, but not about what happened later. Now I’m reading about Kangana’s interviews about how she was abused and treated bad by Aditya and his wife. And it’s ridiculous. She said, he beat her when she was 17, and so she went to his wife and asked for help. Like who asks his lover wife for help? It doesn’t have sense.
    After Kangana’s interview Aditya said something that fits well in your post:
    “She is a mad girl, what to do, did you see the interview? Didn’t you feel like some mad person was talking? Who talks like that? We have been in the industry for so long, nobody has ever spoken anything so evil about anyone. What should I say, she’s a mad girl. If you throw stones in mud, it will only spoil your clothes”

    It’s crazy how K. has one controversy after another every year, but nobody seems to remember that and people believe her every time. even if the thigs she says are unconsistent and repetitive.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I debated about including Aditya! And finally decided it was too hard to figure out the truth there. Kangana isn’t reliable, but neither is Aditya, so who knows? If they did have an affair, I absolutely believe he abused her and was generally horrible (those accusations against him are too consistent, from his wife as well). But because it is Kangana, and she is so very special, there is still the possibility that she imagined the whole thing.

      On Thu, Apr 4, 2019 at 3:10 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Yes, I forgot to say that all this Pancholi family stinks and I personally think they are not good people, but in Kangana’s case I believe they are telling the truth. Aditya and K. were together, and nobody denied it: Kangana said it’s true, the wife also, and Aditya too (and even Rangoli, because as always she was writing rubbish on her social media). Aditya treated K. bad – very very likely. But if so, why she was with him? She could leave him. They were together 3 or 4 years!

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        • It’s all very strange. From what I can piece together, it wasn’t even like he helped her with her career. The Bhatt’s don’t cast like that, and it was Gangster that gave her her big break. And she stayed with him after that, while working steadily and able to support herself.

          On Thu, Apr 4, 2019 at 9:57 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • Wow. Is it just me or is that the plot of Fashion? Didn’t realize she had modeled before reading your post, and now with this addition…

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          • Yes! I mean, I don’t know, I haven’t watched Fashion, but YES to the way Kangana’s stories tend to feel like movies sometimes? Whatever is wrong with her, it seems like it makes her see the world in black and white ways that are influenced by films. Manikarnika turned her into a devoted spiritual warrior woman who needs no man, and so on and so forth. I mean, it’s not just Kangana, the media and the public wants to force these real life stories into simple familiar film patterns, and celebrities tend to indulge them (Shahrukh’s perfect love story with Gauri, Salman’s happy happy combined family, and so on), but with Kangana it goes a little farther than that.

            On Thu, Apr 4, 2019 at 9:20 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Ummm….Ajay Devgan was the first person in Bollywood to own a private jet. He was also never exactly a superstar, so that alone doesn’t explain the jet. So while he might not be rolling around in generational wealth, he didn’t exactly grow up poor. A stunt choreographer dad and a movie producer mom don’t exactly translate into a “so poor” lifestyle. He also went to a private school in Juhu.

    What you’re missing is that getting braces is not the teenage rite of passage in India like it is in the US. Look at Maushmi Chatterjee’s teeth – someone like her wouldn’t even get an audition in the US, let alone lead roles and a good career.

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    • Also the “mansions” that IAS officers live in aren’t theirs to own. Their families don’t continue living in them once they retire or die. And the ones who live in mansions are posted in remote areas where land is cheap. The ones who’re posted in cities live in something resembling apartment complexes.

      The thing with prestigious govt jobs in India is….the govt takes care of a lot of expenses (like housing) but doesn’t pay you much. So you don’t inherit wealth from your grandfather or great-grandfather being in the IAS. And you don’t necessarily have an easier time getting into those professions because of your family, since everyone has to sit through an exam to then quality for multiple rounds of interviews and so on. Same as getting into an IIT or IIM or any of the top educational institutions in India. The president’s son or daughter would also have to compete with the millions taking these exams for a thousand or so seats. Sure, they’d have access to more expensive tutors, but that’s where their advantage ends. (In summary: it’s not America.)

      Liked by 2 people

      • That’s not the IAS house, that’s the ancestral home in their ancestral village. As I understand it, IAS and MLA would be an indication of class, not wealth. Her family’s ability to own and maintain a large house in their ancestral village would be a sign of wealth, and also a little bit of power.

        On Thu, Apr 4, 2019 at 8:50 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Teeth are such an interesting thing, varying place by place. But in this case, I am pointing to them as something you would immediately notice, but they aren’t the reason I think he was raised poor. He was raised poor because he was, it’s just a fact. Any place that talks about his childhood (and there aren’t many places) acknowledges that. By the time he was in college, his father was working steadily and they were solidly middle-class. But his early childhood was difficult.

      I am so glad you are commenting again, by the way!

      On Thu, Apr 4, 2019 at 8:38 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. Sorry, I didn’t get to this comment earlier. Kangana fascinates me the same way people stare at car crashes or murder scenes. The back story of her life and the ones she tells have no relationship to one another. She recently let out another anti-Alia diatribe OUT OF THE BLUE. This is the legal definition of an ad hominum attack. What irks me (and yes, you are going to hear this from me over and over is how otherwise intelligent women (Sucharita, Anupama) call her a feminist and a role model. She is no feminist and for sure she is no role model. Why do people continue to be fooled or pretend to be?

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    • It makes me think about the trap Hrithik was stuck in, he was being stalked but could not legally accuse her of stalking because in India “stalking” is only something a man can do to a woman, not the other way around. Everything is structured to protect women from attacks by men, but not by attacks from other women. Or put it another way, when a woman goes on the attack it is always seen as “strong” because everyone assume she is fighting against the patriarchy.

      On Fri, Apr 5, 2019 at 3:06 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • My private theory about Hrithik and Suzanne is a) as you said, there was one bad non-negotiable problem but otherwise respect b) the problem was an affair (with Kangana or someone else, who knows) but Kanagana was so outrageous, Suzanne had to defend him and that may have brought them back to being closer….HA take that crazy Kangana!!
        One thing Carol and I discuss all the time is how glad this whole Hrithik thing blossomed BEFORE Shah Rukh had a chance to be cast with her. He is too smart to EVER let that happen now.

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        • I’ll flip it around and say “Kangana was so outrageous it made Hrithik question his life and discover how much he needed Suzanne and be willing to compromise too”. Along with Suzanne forgiving him. Really, it all happened for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

          I wonder if Shahrukh would have been cast with her. I mean, this is why stars take casting power as an important perk, they don’t want to risk running into CRAZY. Shahrukh’s been pretty careful with his co-stars. And remember, Karan smelled the crazy way early, told Adi not to cast her in a YRF film. Which Kangana spun as him trying to keep her out of the industry for petty reasons, but it kind of sounds like just practical useful hiring advice.

          On Fri, Apr 5, 2019 at 3:20 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I’m not sure I knew that about Karan saying not to use her. It makes the fact that she hates him and his protege’s so much make more sense. The only people who don’t seem to know she’s crazy are Anupma and Sucharita of Film Companion.

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          • She brought it up in her Koffee appearance and Karan said yeah, he did that. He was talking with Aditya about something, maybe Sultan, her name came up and Karan advised not to use her. Kangana used that as a sign of how he was out to get her or something, but Adi ended up going with a similarly unconnected actress who isn’t a particular Karan protegee (although he did use her in ADHM). So to me it read like two old friends hashing things out informally and Karan saying “she’s not right for the part” and Adi trusting his opinion.

            On Mon, Apr 8, 2019 at 12:46 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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