Swara Bhaskar interview: ‘Industry kids have been nicer to me than some snobbish outsiders’

Chandrima Pal

Swara Bhaskar is known for being feisty and frank on and off the screen. The 28-year-old actress plays a small-town singer who takes on a lecherous politician in Avinash Das’s March 24 release Anaarkali of Aarah. Bhaskar has stacked up good notices since the independent film The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project in 2010, and she has steadily moved to the centre stage after playing supporting roles in Tanu Weds Manu (2011) and its sequel (2015), Raanjhanaa (2013) and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015).

In Nil Battey Sannata (2016), Bhaskar charmed critics as a maid who goes back to school to encourage her indolent daughter. Will Anaarkali of Aarah finally seal her credentials as a female lead? In an interview with Scroll.in, the actress speaks about how Bollywood has explored sexuality and offers her take on cliques and camps.

‘Nil Battey Sannata’ was supposed to have been your breakout film. Now, ‘Anaarkali of Aarah’ is being touted as the gamechanger.
Yes, I know. I must have been launched 300 times already. I guess the perception is because every time I have done a film, I have taken audiences by surprise.

Purely in terms of the spirit in which my films have been delivered, Nil Battey Sannata was indeed my breakout film. It was a role that not a lot of my contemporaries would necessarily put their names and faces to. There is a real problem of being typecast in this industry. It is a totally legitimate concern, and now that it turned out well for me, everyone is saying wow!

I would say this breakout business is a good business. It keeps me relevant. Being touted as a young and new actor who is relevant and not boring or predictable is a compliment.

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‘Anaarkali of Aarah’ is about a woman who takes ownership of her body and sexuality. What is your interpretation of the character?
Anaarkali’s sexuality, which is an important part of her life, has been presented in a way Bollywood may not have seen before. So far, you have only had the angelic, cloaked sexuality of a woman and the binary opposition of a more sexually visible character, who is called a vamp. Anaarkali is a woman who uses lyrics with double entendre and performs for all-male audiences. She speaks about sex and desire in open ways.

Every time our cinema has spoken about sexual violence, assault, gender and sexual conflict, it has either used the trope of a prostitute with a golden heart or normal “working girls just like us.” Anaarkali is someone who says, I am character-less, I am loose. Now what? Let’s start the conversation here. I think it is truly brave and important.

The only other Hindi film that was in a similar space was The Dirty Picture. But it was a biopic and was a different kind of exploration of sexuality. It did not get into the contentious space of sexual transgression and eve teasing because she “asked for it”.

To make a film about a protagonist who is unapologetic about her sexuality acceptable to audiences, you would have to compromise somewhere, right?
I don’t think we have really compromised. We have kept it real, original. There are certain limitations in the context of the story, and that decided what agency the character could have. Anaarkali remains unapologetic, stubborn and not very clever, perhaps dumb. Perhaps it would have been smarter to compromise and hunker down, but she does not do that. She is almost self-destructive.

Anyone who challenges the status quo would be, I guess. I don’t see her as someone forced to compromise. If you see her introductory scenes leaked online, which are not in the film, you will see Pankaj Tripathi groping her breast, and it has been shot as is. Her reaction is interesting.

Several films deal female sexuality, but it seems that the Indian censor board is not comfortable with the idea – look at what happened to ‘Lipstick Under My Burkha’.
It is absolutely shameful that the film was refused certification by the censor board. The decision should be challenged in court. It is reflective of the sad and sick mindset of people who are in positions of power. They should relook at this entire, unfortunate debate.

The censor board cannot cut out scenes. There is so much randomness around all this. A film with massive amount of snogging gets a U/A certificate. Parched, with its abusive dialogue, is unscathed with an A certificate. Why has Anaarkali been asked to make cuts?

You have been very busy with film promotions and red carpet appearances for the movie.
For a freelancer who knows what it means to not being busy, to go through this hectic schedule, where I do not have a moment to myself, is good.

What do you mean by freelancer?
Well, we all work on a project basis. In some sense, even the biggest of stars are employed contractually. As a freelancer, you have no steady income and live a life of uncertainty. That is the price you pay for the freedom to figure out your schedule and your choices. There is a kind of insecurity about the income.

On good days, I call myself a freelancer. On others, I call myself as a “dehare mazdoor”, desperate to find a day’s work.

Your parents are naval officer C Uday Bhaskar and film scholar Ira Bhaskar. How did your upbringing shape your career choices?
My formative years as a child in an upper middle class family in Delhi – which was just middle class before the Fifth Pay Commission – was about going for classical music and dance classes, prepping for a GRE and a PhD and later theatre with NK Sharma. But I always had Chitrahaar dreams, and that brought me here.

My experience with progressive thought, culture and art and their role in social transformation has always influenced my choices. My background in literature and sociology shows in the way I prepare for my roles. In one of my earlier films, there was a line that said, “Bangladeshi aur kuttey kahin par bhi ghus jaate hain.” It was meant to be realistic, and no one objected to it. But I refused to say it because it was outright offensive.

What is your stand on the recent debate around nepotism? You are not an industry insider, but your friends are influential figures. Karan Johar released your film’s poster, and Sonam Kapoor is a good friend.
Yes, some of my friends could not be more starry.

Nepotism may not be the right the word to describe the system. Bollywood is feudal, it works on dynasties and relationships, and it has always been like that. It is not your IAS and CAT, where everyone sits for a common entrance test. No workplace works like that, unless you are in the press, academia or bureaucracy.

Don’t you think our society has historically favoured the privileged castes and classes? They have always had an advantage over the backward classes and they continue to. The backward classes suffer all their lives because of where they come from, and then we have issues with reservation.

Bollywood, on the other hand, has been a lot more open to merit and competition. It seems to me that some of the biggest stars are not from the industry – Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Vidya Balan. Kangana Ranaut is not from the industry and she is doing well, isn’t she?

Yes, industry kids do get a lead, but Bollywood is now more open to talent than before which is why you have Irrfan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Richa Chadha, Rajkummar Rao, and even me. I think the industry kids have been far nicer to me than some of the snobbish outsiders.