Bollywood Actress Kangana Ranaut On Feminism, Fairness Creams & Being A Badass!


We love seeing women in film raise their voices in the name of female empowerment, and challenge the existing norms that subtly seek to put them in a second class category to men. The landscape of women advocating change is vastly different in Hollywood, than it is in Bollywood.

The cultural differences between India and America are glaring, the gendered power struggle is firmly embedded in both industries.

At a launch event for her new book ‘This Unquiet Land’, Barkha Dutt interviewed various Indian personalities and celebrities who in their own spheres are challenging the status quo, or at the very least have some important perspectives to share on the social inequalities that plague much of India.

One of those celebrities was actress Kangana Ranaut (‘Tanu Weds Manu’ and ‘Queen’), who was invited to share how she views her role as a badass woman in the Indian film industry and how she wants to break free of stereotypical roles for women.

She starts by talking about growing up in a small town in Himachal Pradesh where she was seen as lesser value to her parents than her brother, and the expectations put upon her as a girl are typical of many Indian girls today.

“My parents…definitely didn’t think of me doing something other than getting married and taking care of my household,” she said.

It was this frustration that led her to run away from home and forge her own path, despite being a small town girl with a “funny accent” who had no money.


“I didn’t see myself as someone who was any less than my brother or anyone else, and that’s something that drives you to just find yourself and your worth. I didn’t have any clarity that I want to be an actress or I want to change the world or do this. But that frustration that I can’t be what they think I am, I can’t be such a useless person who is just good for nothing, who is just supposed to follow a script,  or sort of a stereotypical map where I do a post-graduation, then they will find a guy for me and then I will go about making babies. So I did have a lot of doubts about that system,” she said.

She struggled in a number of different ways to get where she is today, an in-demand, A-list actress who an command audiences and top billing in a major film production. She was physically abused, homeless, broke, and went through what many women in the entertainment industry suffer through who don’t have money and powerful connections to launch them into their ideal position.

Kangana says her experiences made her work that much harder and recognize just how deep the inequality is. It is one of the reasons she is an outspoken advocate for women playing more complex and diverse roles.

“If you have to become an actress, you have to become this type of actress, you have to fit into those roles and you have to be attractive in a certain way, you have to be able to do certain types of dances and expressions. I say there is a lot of talent but there is no appreciation, there’s very stereotypical actresses that Bollywood propagates. And if you are not that then becomes very hard for you to discover yourself where I feel there are as many people, as many stories, as many women and we need to encourage women, our women, for being who they are as opposed to trying to box them and fit them – this one is attractive, this one is intellectual and  this one is a baddie –  a badass who has boyfriends and wears clothes like this. So we need to stop boxing our women,” she said.

Like many women such as Jennifer Lawrence and Gillian Anderson who have been willing to risk the ire of the Hollywood studio machine by publicly declaring they have been paid less than their male co-stars, Kangana says it is happening in India too, which is unsurprising given the patriarchal dominance in many areas of society.

“When you contribute in so many ways other than just acting and your directors appreciate, why are they not ready to pay? And I realized that I did not get a lot of support from the industry and many women came up and they said because you don’t bring about enough audiences. I don’t agree with that. That’s not true,” she said, while also admitting she had been paid almost 3 times less than some of her male co-stars.

The issue of women breaking through the fear of talking about money and negotiating what they are worth without worrying whether they are coming off as a “brat”, like J-Law so eloquently put it in her essay, is clearly something that isn’t just happening in the US.

“This is the mentality in India we have that overtly ambitious woman is just looked down upon; they make you feel that way that if you are overly ambitious, no one is going to admire you and you are not a nice person.  But then in my experience, the more successful I get, I see a lot more proposals from men. Why is that then?” she asks.

Barkha moves on to the topic of the double standards between men and women in film in terms of age, and the unspoken “rule” that as a man gets older, his value increases and evolves, but for women it can often stagnate. Kangana says it is a manipulation by the film industry upon audiences to make them think that they don’t want to see older women on screen.

“They manipulate us to feel that way, to believe that way. But it’s not true. Our society loves raw character, we love raw women. We don’t love our mother because she is hot and sexy, we love our mother because she is our mother. We love our granny because she is our granny. We value her. They want us to be a certain way, they make us lose our identity. It’s a trap. It’s a trap. We need to be aware of this trap. They will make you lose your identity and then you will not like yourself and they will not like you either,” she said.

One issue that is particular to India is the epidemic of fairness or “skin whitening” creams. You could say it is a leftover from the colonial days when the British ruled India and determined value and class based on the lightness of skin color.

Skin fairness creams today are incredibly popular and portray themselves as a beacon of (false) hope to women who may have dark skin but are looking to score that big job or even get married. Yes, it’s shocking and horribly antiquated, but there are many celebrities being paid big bucks to promote these products. Despite being offered $30,000 to do the same, Kangana refused, but talks about how she same to the realization of how bad these creams were.

“I didn’t see anything wrong with fairness cream. When I was dating this white guy, he teased me and he said you guys are so funny, you openly sell fairness creams and it is not acceptable. And I was like why is that? He said because it is not acceptable that you are trying to tell your race that you shouldn’t be this way. And that’s the time I actually realized what we are doing, how we are sort of giving our generation complexes and not letting them be confident and not letting them find beauty in their own race. And this whole new world opened up to me and I am like – what are we doing as people; the whole world is laughing at us,” she said.


These days she has a more definitive perspective on the pervasive problem of fairness creams, which ties into the already-problematic issue of a woman’s worth coming from her appearance, into the way that issue alone can supposedly determine the course of her life.

“I definitely feel embarrassed. We don’t have to be fair. There are so many things we can work on but definitely not our complexion. We are perfect. Beauty is everywhere; we need to make our women confident. We need to let them find their confidence. When you show an advert where a brown person goes for an interview and gets humiliated and she goes back and puts on this thing and goes back being a little bit lighter and gets the job, what are you saying? Come on! This is so stupid,” she said. We couldn’t agree more.

They ended the interview with Barka asking Kangana the impact of going through her experiences. Her answer pretty much sums up the way we will now view her forever: “It made me a total badass.”

Kangana also shared some personal stories with Barkha, about her sister being the victim of an acid attack, being attacked by a male family friend who was never properly punished by the law, and how she dealt with body-shaming when she first entered the film industry. It’s an insightful exchange and we encourage you to watch the full interview below and get a glimpse into the generation of activist-minded, badass Bollywood women who are changing the status quo for their society:

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  1. Pingback: South Asian Women Create Social Media Campaign To Challenge Stigma Around Dark Skin - GirlTalkHQ

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