INTERVIEW

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

Nepotism versus feudalism, endless breakouts, and surviving Bollywood: meet the lead actress of ‘Anaarkali of Aarah’.

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.

‘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?

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Nil Battey Sannata (2016).

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.

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Swara Bhaskar in the short film The Right Note (2016).
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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

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What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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10. Rome

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.