Swara Bhaskar is a part of a burgeoning breed of extraordinarily talented actors in Bollywood hellbent on changing the rules of stardom. She is sassy and spontaneous, and not afraid to address issues on female sexuality that Hindi film heroines generally brush under the (red) carpet. Her performance in the just-released Anaarkali Of Aarah is being hailed as a breakthrough projection of a woman’s right to decide when to say yes or no.Swaraspeaks to Subhash K Jha
Your performance in Anaarkali Of Aaarah is spectacular. Would you say it is the most well-received performance of your career so far?
Yes I think so, and I must confess that I’m quite overwhelmed. Happily overwhelmed but still overwhelmed. I had a lot of faith in the story, in Anarkali’s journey and in the intention and spirit with which we made the film and I was hopeful that audiences will connect with the tale but I didn’t expect this level of praise and such accolades. I feel both vindicated and blessed.
How difficult was it for you to play a woman who is so unapologetic about her sexuality and so unabashed in her contempt for the lustful male gaze?
Honestly, the unapologetic nature of Anaarkali was not that difficult, because that’s how I feel as a woman about my own body. Being unapologetic about my body, my sexuality, my life’s decisions is a political belief that as a feminist I strongly espouse. What was difficult for me and my real challenge was to preserve and express the fact that however feisty Anaarkalimay seem, she is still vulnerable. Because ultimately she is a woman, and a woman considered not worthy of societal respect in an obviously male-centric patriarchal world. So keeping that vulnerability of Anaarkali alive was my real challenge.
Was it difficult for you to perform the raunchy dances and lip sync the double-meaning lyrics? How have you managed to make the performance so freed of inhibition and vulgarity?
The difficult part was not so much the raunchiness of the steps as just the live dancing. I’ve never done a proper Bollywood dance number.And even though I’ve trained inBharatanatyam , Bollywood dancing as a form is totally different. My respect for the dancers we see so often in item numbers and do not remember to appreciate doubled and trebled after doing the songs in this film. I think credit should actually go to Shabina Khan (earlier work includes PremRatan Dhan Paayo) for being able to keep the choreography rustic and sensual and yet not vulgar. I think credit also goes to my dance guru Padmashri Leela Samsonji, whose rigorous training perhaps enabled me to perform raunchy, bawdy and fairly overtly sensual choreography without it being cringe-worthy.
I believe the dances were shot in front of actual live audiences?
Yes,while shooting sometimes the challenge became the all male crowd, local to Amroha (where we shot),who I think began to enjoy shoot as if it were a real show and passed those kinds of comments (smiles) some of those comments were pretty vulgar and offensive but I reacted like Anaarkaliwould.
Give me an example?
In the scene in Dunaliya mein jung when the police constable keeps a lathi on my waist as part of choreography a man in crowd: Haiiiiiii!!!! Chakkoo laga doon????
I replied : Zip lagaa ley apena moonh par!
(laughs) Yes, so I guess this kind of thing helped me get more into Anarkali’s character. Also I believe shedding inhibitions is step 01 for any character to get into any character, so that I guess I did as part of my great faith in this script and this part.
This is an important film, perhaps extending further the idea that a woman saying no must be respected even if she is part of an inherently disreputable profession.As a vocal supporter of gender equality and an opponent of patriarchal perversity, where do you place your character in this film?
Absolutely. This was one of my non-negotiable requests to my director Avinash Dasji when he was writing. We were certain that there will be no doubt about our intention and message in this film, that it doesn’t matter what the woman does, what her character is , loose or slutty or whatever,hell, she may be a prostitute, but even then consent is paramount. And so that last line “Aur baaki randi ho, randi seythoda kam ho yaa biwi ho, aaindaa marzi poch kar haathlagaaiyega” became the spirit of the film.And I think our bravest move was to make Anaarkali actually characterless or loose from the point of view of a middle class morality. We offer no explanation, apology or justification for the fact that she may have casual sex- but on her own terms. That makes the whole question of consent totally non-negotiable. I think that is our greatest victory in this film.
Swara, your career has so far demonstrated an assertive will to choose the unconventional.Would it be correct to say the unconventional is the conventional for you?
Perhaps! (smiles) See as an actor, and moreover an outsider with no Godfather within the industry.I don’t have a whole lot of control on what kind of roles are offered to me. But I can control what I choose. And I like to choose tough roles that I haven’t done before and roles that make me grow as an actor by challenging me. And therefore a Chandaa in Nil battery Sannata and an Anaarkali in Anaarkali of Aarah.
As an outsider in Bollywood what has your journey so far been like? Have you encountered prejudice, bias, cynicism and how have you tackled them?
It’s been a pretty wholesome journey. Tough and disappointing in parts but also very fulfilling in parts,so a pretty complete experience of Navarasa in that sense. (laughs).
Of course I’ve encountered bias, cynicism and outright offensive remarks when I was rejected. I remember when a director –struggling himself– rejected me for the female lead part saying,“You look too intelligent to be the heroine!” … I smiled and said – “I can try and look dumb! See.” And I widened my eyes and fluttered my eyelashes. When another director–also struggling , I may add– rejected me for yet another female protagonist’s role saying I don’t look like lead material I smiled and made a mental note to wear heels ! But ultimately I ignored all that. I believe what you cannot control, don’t waste time thinking about it. I just kept working and doing the meaty and worthy parts I got. Now I’ve reached a place where I get messages where new directors say they are writing roles for me. I feel blessed and sometimes a little smug. (laughs) That’s a confession!
For some time after you made your entry into Indian cinema you were offered the role of friends to actresses with not even an iota of your talent. Did that hurt?
Hahahahaha! Sure it did. But I learnt to ignore my ego very early into my career. There say na… Majboori ka naamMahatma Gandhi.When you have no choice, you learn to swallow your pride and concentrate on work. Life is unfair and that’s true for actors and for everyone in the world I guess. My capacity for forbearance has hugely increased I think, thanks to my experience as an outsider trying to make it as a “heroine”.
Being a part of an academic family how valid do you think is the debate on the freedom of expression for the student/youth and its curb by the current government?
I think Freedom of expression, the right to debate and the right to dissent are critical for not just the youth and students but also for a democracy and a democratic society. I think the attitude of the government to these issues is both worrying and frankly quite dangerous. As artists we in Bollywood are particularly vulnerable as the CBFC in all its wisdom has consistently displayed with some very shameful decisions.
Do you feel the Hindi movie industry is driven by nepotism?
I don’t think Nepotism is the right word. Yes, the industry is feudal in its built and structure, its dynastic and relationship driven. Much like Indian politics in that sense (smiles).But I think the best thing about our industry today,about this Bollywood of 2017 is that good work is just not ignored. And I think Nawaz, Irrfan sir, me, Rajkumar Rao, Radhika Apte, Richa Chadhha and Kangana herself are examples of that.Being a star child may get you a great launch, maybe even a bunch of chances thereafter,but after that you will need some talent!
Tell me about your forthcoming films?
I have just completed an urban comedy titled Aapkey KamreyMein Koi Rehta Hai. directed by debutant Gauav S Sinha where I will be seen in an interesting never-seen-before avatar.And I start shooting soon for Shashank Ghosh’s Veerey Di Wedding produced by Rhea Kapoor, starring Kareena Kapoor, SonamKapoor, Shikha Talsania and me.
Where do you see you career going now?
Upwards (laughs).Lots more Anarkalis and Nil Batteys for me I hope.
Do we see you turn director soon?
No. But I have written a script and am writing one more that I hope to attach a director and producer to soon. I want to act in them.
How committed are you to your relationship with writer Himanshu Sharma. Do we see the two of you getting married soon?
We are both quite seriously committed…I hope! (laughs) However we don’t have any marriage plans at least for the next two years. Himanshu is very caught up with his upcoming shoot with SRK sir directed by Aanand Rai sir. I barely see him these days. And I have a lot of shooting commitments too this year.So as a couple we are blissfully together but directionless for now.Who know about the future?