Kangana Ranaut: Manikarnika came to me like a tsunami
The actor stars and debuts as a director in this week's release, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi
Many a project has looked to adapt the valorous story of Jhansi Rani on screen, but somehow, has failed to take off. It has even come to be thought of as a story that’s jinxed. Kangana Ranaut herself has had a rough ride trying to bring this story to theatres. She injured herself, the director left half-way, replacement directors who were to assist her quit… And after all the struggle, the film’s finally ready for release this week, and a relieved Kangana eager to chat about the film and what she went through to bring it to life.
What made you take up Manikarnika, despite all the previous setbacks for its adaptations?
At this point in my career, I believed I could pull it off. When I heard that this would be made with the biggest budget in Bollywood for a film with a female protagonist, I got more interested. Scripts based on women have historically not been given big budgets. The huge success of Tanu Weds Manu 2 gave me the confidence that I could indeed afford to try something epic. But yes, once I started work on Manikarnika, I was in for a shock as all kinds of obstacles came our way, and the entire journey turned into a struggle. I think a grand film of this stature is destined to go through such hurdles.
When you got offered the titular role of the Rani of Jhansi, were you apprehensive about not being able to do justice to this larger-than-life role?
No, not initially, anyway. When I heard the narration, I was quite excited. I did my homework and was looking forward to the shoot. At that time, as I didn't know that I would have to direct the film, I didn't feel the jitters. I was just thinking from the perspective of an actor and was preparing myself for that physically and mentally. But during this pre-production phase, some of my films didn't do as well as expected, and consequently, funding became a problem and the project got stalled. Even then, I was confident that it would happen somehow and continued with my preparations. Luckily, Zee Studios and Kamal Jain (the producer) came onboard, and the journey began again.
You took over direction after Krish walked out. How was your experience as a debutant director?
To be frank, I wasn't really sure if I could handle it. When Krish opted to leave, Prasoon Joshi sir - who was in charge of the Hindi dialogues for the film - suggested that it would be better if I, after the homework I’d done for the project, took over the reins. At this point, Vijayendra Prasad sir, who wrote the project, also expressed confidence in my abilities as a filmmaker. For an epic historical of this magnitude, I was well-prepared to do the mental work as a director, but wasn't sure if I could afford to do the physical work, because of the need to concentrate on my acting on the sets.
So, the team decided to give me two young, moderately experienced directors to collaborate with, so they could do the running around for me. Unfortunately, both ran away within a couple of days. Those who came to replace them also disappeared without a trace, when they understood that they had to film about 70 percent of the film in 40 days. So, I was left alone, and had no other choice than making myself ready for the job. So, that's that. Looking back, I feel I have done quite a good job, while also making sure that the expectations from the film in terms of grandeur, authenticity of the war scenes, patriotism, and woman empowerment are met. I also feel I have been particularly instrumental in making sure that Vijendra Prasad sir's vision is preserved in the journey.
Since you mentioned Vijendra Prasad, are you aware of the comparisons with Baahubali, which he wrote earlier?
Vijendra Prasad is such a great force in the industry. He has always been an inspiration. To be frank, I have learned quite a handful of screenwriting tips from him. He has a simple secret to a successful film. "Nine clap moments before the interval. A powerful goosebumps interval block, and nine clap moments after the interval. That's where the magic is," he says. After months of discussion with him, being an aspiring writer myself, I could see why he is being celebrated this much.
With respect to Manikarnika, he kept saying that the story belongs to every Indian out there, and hence, our film shouldn't be something that is seen and appreciated only in festivals. So, I went about directing the film with the clarity that its primary audiences are the masses and the children.
About comparisons with Baahubali, yes, I feel thrilled that my film gets compared to something so epic and innovative. But the thing is, you have the liberty to go all crazy with your imagination in a fantasy like Baahubali, but in a biopic, you are bound by facts and history. The emphasis becomes more on getting the characterisation right than bowling the audience over with visual splendour. As the story of Jhansi ki Rani is very popular, the audiences are bound to feel cheated, if the titular character or her dramatic conflicts are not presented convincingly. Even with action, we have made sure that the set-pieces are authentic to the era and the war-culture at that point of time. I had a competent action director from Hollywood, Nick Powell, who considerably reduced my burden in making the war sequences fiery, and at the same time, realistic.
As an actor, you have had misunderstandings with your directors in the past. Are there concerns over your alleged interference in scripts?
It's not that every film stimulates you at a primal level, or excites you as a filmmaker. I am shooting for Ashwini Iyer Tiwari's Panga right now. If you ask me about Panga, I am quite clueless about being a married woman, having children, and dealing with issues about marital life on a day-to-day basis. As an actor, it excites me, but as a director, I have no contributions. That's exactly the case with my other film, Mental Hai Kya, co-starring Rajkummar Rao. I have had a wonderful time working in these two. In the past also, I have had few individuals, whom I did not get along with, on the sets. But I think that's part of life. That's okay. Out of a hundred people, if I had problems with say two people on the sets, in my twelve-year-long career, there could be a chance that that person could be the reason for the trouble. I think that the benefit of the doubt has to be given to me. Otherwise, why would I be such a busy artiste?
If Krish hadn't quit Manikarnika, when would you have debuted as a director?
Right after Queen and my screenwriting course in the US, I felt I was ready to explore my creative side. I then put together a bound script and was trying to pitch it to producers. I tried my best, but it didn’t work out, probably because I don’t come from a film background or a wealthy family that can back my film. After struggling with that script for a couple of years, just when I thought that I should focus more on my acting career and postpone my direction dreams for a few more years, Manikarnika happened. It came to me like a tsunami, when I was least prepared for it.
You are coming back to the South with the dubbed versions of Manikarnika, after quite some time.
For the past few years, I have actually been camping in the South more than in Mumbai, to the extent that you can call me a South Indian (laughs). My discussion sessions with Vijendra sir, Manikarnika's cinematographer Gnana Shekar VS and Ashwini Iyer Tiwari mostly happen in the South. I also visit Sadhguru’s ashram regularly. All this makes me feel closer with the people in the South and I wish to do more projects for them in the future.