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Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut Image Credit: ANI

Oscar Wilde famously said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Closer to our times, it was P.T. Barnum, politician, entrepreneur, impresario, and circus owner, who supposedly said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” Everyone in show business knows this only too well. And from a certain point of view, politics, especially in large democracies, is the greatest show on earth.

The latest victim of bad publicity, shaming and slander is none other than Bollywood film star and celebrity, Kangana Ranaut. She is the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) freshly minted member and now Lok Sabha candidate from Mandi, Himachal Pradesh. Several Congress and opposition handles on social media posted grossly vulgar and objectionable remarks, risqué double innuendos and low-level sexualised disparagement against her and her constituency.

The result? Much outrage in the media, with multiple leaders and public figures, especially women, springing to her defence. Plus a reprimand from India’s Election Commission to those issuing these loutish, uncouth, and insulting remarks. But that is only the immediate part of the repercussions. Now it seems almost certain that Ranaut is going to score a huge victory in what used to be a Congress bastion.

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A surefire winner

Why do I say this? Because the sitting Congress MP from Mandi, Mrs Pratibha Singh, has refused to contest against Ranaut, preferring to sit it out this time. What makes her withdrawal significant is that she is surviving spouse of the late “Raja Saheb” Virbhadra Singh, the six-time Chief Minister of Himachal Pradesh, from the royal Rajput family of the rulers of the small hill state, Bushahr.

The family is widely respected. Those who know Himachal Pradesh politics will aver that Mrs Singh was cut up because the party did not give her or her son their due in the 2022 state elections in which the Congress ousted the BJP to wrest back power in the Himalayan state. Surely, the Congress scored another self-goal by descending to their low-level smear campaign against Ranaut. Now, with the latter assured of a virtual walkover, the joke is on them.

But Ranaut is no stranger either to politics or controversy. She has navigated the shark-infested waters of Bollywood with aplomb, embracing difficult, even dangerous roles. In addition, she has often risked her career by being very vocal about her personal life. After openly coming out in support of the BJP, bulldozers were sent by the then-Maharashtra government to raze part of her home in Mumbai.

Now that very opposition alliance is in a disarray, two of its constituents, the Shiv Sena and the National Congress Party (NCP), splintered, with their better parts in cahoots with the BJP. Kangana has thus enjoyed sweet revenge even earlier against those who tried to crush or target her both in showbiz and in politics.

What is more, her political career was launched by her movies themselves. Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi, in which she played the lead role, was one of the highest grossers in 2019. It was an epic biopic on the famed Jhansi ki Rani who defied the might of the British Empire during the Great Revolt of 1857.

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Cards played well

From her earlier roles as siren and femme fatale, Ranaut was now cast in a new avatar, as the champion of Indian nationalism. The historic Rani of Jhansi fought bravely, ultimately giving up her life in trying to save her small state from being gobbled up by colonial British power.

Ranaut's even more nuanced and complex portrayal of J. Jayalalithaa, the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, was in the Tamil-Hindi Thalaivii (2021). In retrospect, its self-referentiality is uncanny. The film portrayed the rise of film star Jayalalithaa, whose political career, as that of her mentor M.G. Ramachandran (MGR), was launched and nourished by the hugely popular Tamil film industry.

But, in Ranaut playing Jayalalithaa, the film also presaged the former’s political career. All major political parties in India have film stars, sportspeople, businessmen, and other social icons among their candidates. Such a mix adds to the party’s glamour and appeal among the masses. The BJP has thus played its Kangana card really well.

The cinematic world often serves as a mirror to society, reflecting the complexities and nuances of human life and history. In Indian politics, several film stars have gone on to even greater heights as politicians, members of parliament and state assemblies, even becoming cabinet members, chief ministers, and founders of major political parties.

People’s representative

Reel life and real life are divided by a very thin line when it comes to Indian subcontinent. In Ranaut’s case, once again, the convergence of art and reality is likely to make her multifaceted personality shine in the imagination of the voting public.

When Ranaut, known for her bold and unconventional choices, undertook the formidable task of embodying Jayalalithaa, she may not have known how she herself would turn into politician herself, contesting in the national parliamentary elections.

In her own remarkable career, Jayalalithaa was both revered and reviled, adored and disgraced in equal measure. But she always fought back, rising from political wilderness to the Chief Ministership of Tamil Nadu and sliding down from there to jail on charges of corruption.

Ranaut’s controversial and colourful off-screen persona has often overshadowed her celluloid presence. Will her fiery, even reckless candour, once again, overtake her demure and responsible new role as people’s representative and public figure? What will happen to Ranaut remains to be seen.

But, for now, she has certainly won round one of what is sure to be a tumultuous journey.