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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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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