Imagine hailing from what Indians fondly call a ‘service family’ and trying to ‘break in’ to Bollywood, an industry with a history of nepotism. Even after a moderately successful break, imagine balancing between content-heavy roles and masala entertainment (a necessary side to successful debuts, apparently).
And add an ironic sense of humour and a never-ending battle with right-wing trolls on Twitter. That is a lot.
However, this is everyday life for Swara Bhaskar, an actor with untapped potential and also an unfiltered mouth.
It was in 2014 when Swara, daughter of retired naval commodore Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar and professor of cinema studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University Ira Bhaskar, gained overnight prominence on social media. The reason? Not a blockbuster movie but a candid tweet, featuring a photograph of a victim from the infamous Gujarat riots.
Her timing couldn’t have been worse. Especially, with the General Elections and the subsequent landslide victory of the ruling party. Swara’s tweet, a marked deviance from the general mood of the country, unsurprisingly brought her the ire of the ‘IT cell crowd’ – as she calls them – and permanently sealed her name among the deviants or as the trolls like to call, the “anti-nationals” (a dangerous coinage casually thrown around in present-day India).
But here’s the thing. The 31-year-old-actor, who has to her credit an interesting mix of commercial and critical hits, is not really looking for approval. Even more so if the validators are keyboard warriors, hiding in their homes behind their screens, cloaked in anonymity as trolls generally are.
Traversing a career in Bollywood
Delhi-born Swara forayed into the entertainment industry almost ten years ago. A graduate in English Literature from the Miranda House, with a master’s in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, she made her debut in the 2009 drama Madholal Keep Walking.
It was a supporting role – and although the actress has developed quite a flair with supporting parts – the film failed to propel her career into the spotlight. Neither did her next film, Srinivas Sunderrajan's black and white thriller The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project, work. Despite being the first Indian film – made on a shoestring budget – to be screened at the Transilvania International Film Festival, it didn’t do much commercially.
In fact, it wasn’t until 2011, when Swara starred alongside Kangana Ranaut, R. Madhavan, and Jimmy Sheirgill in Aanand L. Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu, that she tasted mainstream popularity. The film, which was a commercial success and found a place in the good books of the critics, made a splash at the box-office with people suddenly taking notice of the vivacious yet grounded character of Payal (the best friend of the lead), played by Swara.
This was the beginning of her mainstream career. After Tanu Weds Manu, the actress dutifully delivered a bunch of other commercial hits – Raanjhanaa (2013), Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015), Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015), and most recently, Veere Di Wedding (2018) – turning heads with her raw, unfiltered performances.
Redefining sexual acceptance on screen
While all her roles have been stirring and impactful in one way or the other, it was her part in the ensemble film Veere Di Wedding with Kareena Kapoor Khan, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, and Shikha Talsania, that has sparked maximum dialogue.
To be precise, her portrayal of the rich, entitled, and outspoken Sakshi Soni and the infamous vibrator scene, which sparked social media furore, drawing unsolicited advice from the moral police.
The truth is the audience in India is still not habituated and open to seeing female characters with agency on screen, or for that matter, characters with a willingness to explore tabooed topics like sexuality, divorce etc. And the reason behind this could very well be attributed to the lack of exposure in terms of content.
Challenging the norms
Swara, however, prides herself in taking the unconventional route, picking up roles that demand a certain fearlessness and resilience. She has been working her way into the hearts of the audience with these very artsy yet sellable roles.
When most actresses of her times would squirm at the thought of playing a character like Chanda Sahay (in 2016’s Nil Battey Sannata), Swara jumps at it. And in doing so, she not only delivers a masterful performance but also shows why she – an outsider to the Bollywood fraternity – rightfully belongs in the industry.
If Nil Battey Sannata – that follows the struggles of a working-class single mother in providing education to her daughter – propelled the actress into critics’ favour, Swara’s outing as a small-town erotic dancer in 2017’s Anaarkali of Aarah fighting for justice after being harassed by a local politician solidified her position among the revered artists of our times.
She is, in fact, one of the few mainstream actors to have forayed outside of the contours of the silver screen and found success even in the arena of web entertainment, with her Voot drama, It’s Not That Simple.
Never one to shy away from speaking her mind, Swara indeed is a force to reckon with – whether it is with her many Twitter banters or with the open letter to Sanjay Leela Bhansali, voicing her thoughts on the portrayal of women in his magnum opus Padmavat (2018).
And we can only hope that she soon puts these thoughts into action as she forays into yet another uncharted space – production – with her banner Kahaaniwaaley.
As they say, hate the game and not the player. If the social media drama surrounding her ticks you off, remember it’s only because Swara Bhaskar speaks her mind and others can’t deal with it. Unapologetic and unfiltered, she is, after all, a breath of fresh air in Bollywood.
(Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta)