She still prefers arthouse films where she gets the ‘chance to live the entire life of that character’, but this month, we SAW Swara Bhasker in a major mainstream venture, Veere Di Wedding, starRING alongside the likes of Sonam Kapoor and Kareena Kapoor khan. The outspoken actress talks to MW about her unconventional career choices and passionate activism on social media.
Swara Bhasker is more petite than I thought. Maybe her personality adds a few inches. When she walks in for our cover shoot, she is boisterously honest. “You will have to use a lot of Photoshop to remove all this fat. Airbrush everything!” she tells Aneev Rao, our lensman. Rao grumbles; Photoshop is not his thing. Bhasker laughs full-throatedly and walks into hair and make-up.
It’s refreshing to see a celebrity embrace their imperfections. While her movie choices have created an image that is “serious”, “intense” and “indie”, her social media profiles have supported this. She was first noticed in movies like Tanu Weds Manu and Raanjhanaa, before hitting the big league on the indie film circuit last year, with two brilliant performances as the lead in Nil Battey Sannata and Anarkali of Aarah, winning critical acclaim and popular praise. This month’s sequin-fest, Veere Di Wedding, will be her first truly big commercial outing.
Black and white sequinned dress by Malini Ramani
Earrings and rings by Misho Designs
Bhasker, of course, has an equally famous parallel life as a Twitter activist on social issues and liberal causes. The 30-year old daughter of defence expert C Uday Bhasker and JNU professor Ira Bhasker is herself a product of JNU, with a Masters degree in sociology. With a Twitter profile that reads: ‘Armchair activist, Twitter Warrior, Troll destroyer, Right-wing baiter, liberal hysteric’ she is unapologetic about the strong positions that she takes on various issues, for which she is mercilessly trolled and frequently threatened. Unlike many of her other colleagues in the film fraternity, she has refused to back down or keep quiet.
Despite having spent nearly a decade in the Hindi film industry, it is obvious from our photoshoot that she is still not very comfortable posing for choreographed shoots. She comes into her own once asked to let her hair down. The heels come off, and I see Bhasker smile like a million flashbulbs for the first time. Her sense of humour is scathing. She makes fun of her “piercing look” — the one every photographer and film critic has raved about and defined her by.
White ruffled top by Adarsh Gill
Zircon ring by Mika Jewels
She teases us sarcastically about cliché suggestions for poses. “What is this submissive pose?” she asks, when I show her something I have in mind. She mimics stereotypical magazine poses, fake laughing, often exasperated about what a certain shot even means. “Why are we even doing this?!” she often asks — and then changes her pose, giving the camera something gorgeous to feed on. Bhasker isn’t difficult — she just isn’t stupid. We plan to meet the next day for a chat, and she tells me not to show up on time. “I am not punctual and stuff. Be late.” I tell her I am never late. She makes a face at me and walks away.
When I arrive (she’s getting ready for a string of interviews, to promote Veere Di Wedding), a tad early, she’s already there, in the middle of a whirlpool of blow-dryers and rouge brushes. I ask her how she is. “You guys have ruined my life. You want something to drink?” Bhasker talks a lot — openly and no-holds barred. We begin chatting instantly — about the shoot, politics, the film industry. I tell her to stop, because I haven’t switched my recorder on yet. She laughs, grabs my phone and repeats pull quotes I’ve missed.
“Hi Arnesh,” she says into my phone’s speaker. “So, the three things that you missed were that I am politically depressed and so are you, that I’m a tech-jaahil, and you just taught me that I can trim videos on Instagram, and that my New Year’s resolution this year was that I am going to be a memsahib.
Did you enjoy the cover shoot?
Of course, who doesn’t like looking good, right? Who doesn’t like it when other people do it for you? But I do think that I have improved a lot over the last four years. I used to be less cooperative earlier, scared of make up.
When I came to Mumbai, I was fresh out of JNU, I was like 22, I had just finished my Masters and was full of idealism — that there can be social change, and I had these progressive ideas and I think, because of that, I was intellectually arrogant and judgmental, and I kind of looked down upon this industry. I looked down on glamour, on looking good. And part of it is the kind of parenting I’ve had — my parents are academics. My dad was in the Navy, my mother’s a professor, my father also writes, he’s a defense analyst now. So it was a very middle-class post-colonial India, where your parents were the first generation to be educated in these kinds of colleges. And education was paramount. It was all about being a good citizen — you learned it was not important to look good, it was important to be good, to be kind, to be helpful.
So, when I came to Mumbai, I was equipped with all the wrong values, because this is so much an industry about showmanship, about first impressions, about selling yourself, pitching yourself. It took me a couple of years to be able to accept that. And funnily, at one point, I remember my mom saying to me, “Swara, if you want to be in commercial Bollywood, you need to stop bitching about it all the time. You have to accept the rules for what they are, and play by those rules, and yet make a niche for yourself.” And I think that made a significant impact on me. If people are going to judge me for how I look, let me just make sure I look presentable when I have to, and if the red carpet is a place where there is a certain way of doing it, then sure, what’s the big deal? Is this really the battle that I want to fight, that I am going to go to the red carpet without blow-drying my hair? Does it really matter? I am just like, there are bigger battles right now in our world than should I or should I not wear heels.
At times, don’t you want to pull an Alicia Keys and go no-make up?
But I am always no-make up anyway. Have you ever seen my airport looks? I’m always caught going into the airport in my pyjamas and…
But that’s also part of the “look”.
No, no. I have to show you one, it’s hilarious. The way I’ve been snapped at the airport is a joke. Honestly I think it is too early into me accepting this whole thing for me to go no-makeup; maybe I will; I don’t know.
The way American audiences look at Hollywood and the way Indian audiences look at Bollywood is very different, because Indian audiences want escapism in their film. But, the point is, why feed into it?
For me, it’s the opposite. For me, the rebellion is to be doing this. Look at my body of work — I’m already coming from a space of the Nil Batteys and the Anarkalis and the Raanjhanaas, which is as real as real gets. If you look at my social media page, like Twitter, it’s a no-make up social media existence. There’s no concealing, there’s no beautifying of my views. And even my body of work, I already see it as an assortment of broken rules. If you’re a heroine aspirant, everyone will say that don’t do best friend roles, because then you get typecast — my first film was Tanu Weds Manu. Then it was don’t be the jilted lover, because then you’ll get typecast — Raanjhanaa was my other big hit. Then everyone was like don’t be the sister of a superstar – I was Salman Khan’s sister in Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, which is a role that Sooraj Barjatya sir told me he couldn’t find an actress to do. Everyone says don’t be a mother, I was not just any mother, I was the mother of a 15-year-old in Nil Battey Sannata. Everyone would be like, an indie, small film with a foul-mouthed, beedi smoking, promiscuous, woman with a loose character? — you know that is Anarkali of Aarah.
For me, that had become my comfort zone, which is why Veere was important, because now I’m at that place where the stuff that lies outside the norm is my comfort zone. Can I now do the norm? So, the make up, the hair, the styling, going to the gym and losing weight, was more like, alright, you’ve done that, you’ve proven that you can act; can you now be glamorous if the role requires it?
Silver sequinned dress by Rohit Gandhi+Rahul Khanna
Black bodysuit: stylist’s own
Layered necklaces by Mika Jewels
Shoes by Christian Louboutin
Do you find show business to be narcissistic?
Yes, of course. But I feel — and I’m saying this from a place of understanding, and being part of it and having imbibed some of that narcissism — I think that is the structure of show business. Because you’re so much in front of the camera, there is so much self-consciousness, which will come into you because you are being watched all the time. I mean, look at us. Even yesterday’s photoshoot. You are all the time in a place where you are in front of the camera, and there are eight people watching you. The bigger the star, the more that happens. Even when you are going into the airport, there are people trailing you, everywhere you go there are people taking pictures. So I think that narcissism and that self absorption is coming out of a constantly exposed state. I think that we’re all messed up in our heads because of it. It is so important to be aware of that for yourself, as an individual, and to guard against it, because I find that the more successful I’ve become, I’m also more liable to be an asshole –— to be more entitled, to be less caring about the people who are working for me. It’s hectic, you’re busy every day, you don’t have any time to yourself. You’re working, stretching your own limits of endurance all the time.
And yet you have all these people around you, everyone is saying yes yes yes, you don’t hear a no. I haven’t heard a bad, honest critique since… ever, actually. And I’m like, that can so easily make you think that you are really the best, but that’s not true, nobody is ever the best all the time. Everyone is flawed. But I have to be aware — am I being too narcissistic, am I becoming too much of an asshole, am I being too unpleasant? It’s like, you don’t have a boy holding a chhatha behind you because you are special; you have a boy holding a chhatha behind you because at that point you are the actor on set and your skin shouldn’t be in the sun. I think that the concept of celebrity is so flawed. What are we saying — that there are human beings who are more special than others because they are rich and they are in front of the cameras? Are you shitting me? Actors do the least amount of work on a film set. And we get the most footage, the most coverage. So on one level, it’s so unfair, right?
Black and white dress by La Perla
Pink sequinned trousers (worn as bolero) by Namrata Joshipura
I haven’t ever seen you have fun on Instagram. You’re always wearing the same kind of clothes, looking the same way. Yesterday, I realised that it’s the first time I’ve ever seen you smile outside a film. And even if I see you smile in a film, it’s a weighted one, it’s got a lot of reason behind it.
I’ve actually never thought about this. I think what my team felt is that the roles that I was getting, the image that I was putting out there, was too desi, too garib. So, that’s why the choice of wardrobe has been like this. I just think that I also don’t want to be typecast into the indie space, because people don’t have the imagination. This is a shallow, perception-based industry. I don’t have the time to actively change it, change how people think. And it’s not just me, bro. Look at the questions that are asked of everyone. Look at the kind of chutiya questions that are asked of Vidya Balan.
Let’s talk about Veere Di Wedding. Was it easy for you to do a film like this one?
No, it was a pain in my ass. It has been the hardest thing I have done in terms of prep. When Rhea Kapoor, [producer] gave the role to me, she told me that I had to get ripped. And I am this lazy girl who’s never seen the gym. So, I asked myself the same question — I shouldn’t excuse my laziness by saying that I’m an “actor”. So, I was like, I’ll just suck it up and play the character who is ripped. It is character prep, get in that gym, get on that diet, do whatever shit you have to do, do those skin treatments, whatever.
Printed dress by Zara
What are your aspirations for your career?
I want more of the Nil Battey and Anarkali kind of films, where I am headlining the project, not just for vanity and the poster, but I am getting the chance to live the entire life of that character.
I want to be able to have that experience as an actor, as a performer. Because I have more visibility and credibility now, I want to use it to move into more public life, to move into more public engagement in terms of whether I do more cultural activism… I have to think about that. But I don’t see myself being in this industry forever, no.
Do you see the industry accepting you?
I really do, honestly. Which is really funny, because I am so much of an outsider, and I am also so much of a person who has broken rules not only in terms of the films I’ve done and the roles I’ve done, but also in terms of like that writing that open letter [to Sanjay Leela Bhansali], which can be interpreted by someone within the industry as backstabbing. But I don’t think people in the industry judged me for that, which is nice. I really feel that I am an outsider more than anyone else is in this industry, because I am really that dark horse in a flock of white. It’s that my values don’t match the values of this world.
But I think that people have been very friendly, very nice. I always remember with a lot of affection and gratitude that in just one conversation, Karan Johar agreed to release Anarkali’s poster. And I have seen that nice side of industry insiders as well. I really give a lot of credit to Sonam [Kapoor] for that. I think that my friendship with Sonam really introduced me to the inner circle of Bollywood A-listers, and that coincided with the release of Nil Battey. And I think that Nil Battey was the film that everyone took notice of. So, I don’t feel that much in the margins of the industry anymore, and I think a lot of the credit for that goes to Sonam. She has a really warm personality, and she really assuages my defensiveness about that world. And I think it is really funny. I had never been to a Bollywood Diwali party. For my first Diwali party in Sonam’s house, I asked Sonam if there was going to be press, and she said, “No baby, just my friends.”
But fucking Sonam’s friends are the who’s who of Bollywood. I, on the other hand, wore my saree and kaanch ke chudiya and I was like, oh, Indian, it’s Diwali, festive vibes. And I landed up there, and it’s teeming with press. I’ve gone inside and I am blinded by diamonds. And I was like, oh shit, this was supposed to be an “event”. I was chatting with Milind Deora, and halfway through the conversation, he was like, so which newspaper do you work for? And I was like, I am not a journalist! Because we were discussing the Congress’s future and all that. And he was like, you look like a journalist. Salman Khan was standing next to me, and he said, “See, this is what I keep telling you.” When we did Prem Ratan Dhan Payo together, he had asked, “So what do you want to do?” And I was like, what do you mean? I want to be a bloody heroine. You think I want to spend my entire life being a sister to superstars? And he started laughing and he said, “Are you serious about that?”, and I said yeah. After that, he started telling me, you want to be a heroine, you do this. He was giving me all that typical mainstream advice. And then, he happily was standing there and telling me, if you dress like this, this is what happens.
White ruffled top by Adarsh Gill
Black leggings by Zara
You are aggressively active on social media, on politics and social issues. Why do you think the big guns of Bollywood do not speak up as much as they should ?
Babe! Why should Bollywood speak up is my question to you. Look at what happened to Aamir Khan with that Snapdeal thing, look what happened to Shah Rukh when he made a very innocuous comment, a very factual comment, about the rise of intolerance in this country. His car was torn up during a shoot. What if he had been in that car? Look at the fact that Karan Johar had to apologize for casting a Pakistani actor. Look at what happened to Padmaavat, the fact that the government did not do anything. This is an industry that pays the highest tax, we pay 60 per cent entertainment tax in some states — don’t we deserve some protection?
I mean, forget respecting our opinions — Deepika was threatened with being beheaded in a television studio, which is a crime as per IPC. This is a country that cannot respect people having opinions, and this is not just in Bollywood. Remember that actor who played Katappa in Baahubali? He had to apologise for his opinions on the Cauvery waters issue, which was a statement from ten years ago. So, when you create a society that is so intolerant of people’s opinions, why should we stand up? And actors are vulnerable — everyone knows our faces, our addresses, where we go. Why would an actor make themselves vulnerable to this kind of hate, harm, abuse, slander, potential for harm or physical violence? If people are doing it, they are idiots. I’m an idiot for saying things. We say “Oh, why isn’t there a Meryl Streep in India?” Well, hell, is the Indian public, society, the same as the US? Meryl Streep could stand in an award function and challenge the president of the US in a scathing critique of his electoral campaign — can any of us think of doing that?. Bollywood has no protection. They are people whose money is on the line. If you make people vulnerable, if you encourage a society where silence is safe, then people are going to be silenced, it’s as simple as that. I have no complaints with actors who choose to be safe and silent, I really do not. Even when I messaged some actors and I was like, you know, can you tweet this placard, and some of them were like “No, I’m sorry,” I was completely chill.
This was after Kathua?
Yes. And some of them apologised to me in person, and I was like, are you kidding me, I was just taking a chance because I’m shameless. I don’t judge anyone for being safe. Just look at what is going on in our country.
And how does that make you feel?
I am politically depressed right now. But it’s fine; you have to fight for what you live for. I really believe in the value of protest in a very fundamental sense. Citizens have to become involved, aware, and keep making a noise. Because noise works. There was this whole phase when there were atrocities on Dalits, and there was so much protest, the Prime Minister was forced to make a statement, the government had to take a stand.
Similarly with the Kathua gang rape, the only reason those men were arrested, despite the fact that they were attending pro-rape rallies and shouting ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ — and it blows my mind that people can behave like this — and the Prime Minister was forced to make a statement and the government had to act on it, was because people made a noise. So citizens have to not be lazy. And I know that it is a pain, because who wants to take time from our work lives, and our meetings, and our lunches, it’s just tiring. Adult life is just so fucking tiring, right? But it’s the only way to keep power in check, because as you said, it’s not a party thing. Power corrupts.
But when you are talking about citizens, going by what is happening on the internet and social media, we are not among the best informed countries in the world. So then who do we fall back on?
I don’t go by the Internet, because it represents a very small part of India. It represents a largely English and Hindi speaking part of India that has access to the smartphone, which is still a very small part of the country. According to me, India’s strength lies in the fact that I don’t think Indians are hateful people. I think we are emotional people — that’s the problem. So if our emotions are swayed towards hate by someone, we go that way, because we are emotionally stupid; we’re not using our brain enough. And yet, I think that the power of love will always be greater than the power of hate. You just have to find someone who has the skill to convince people. Let us not forget, this is a country where we were able to get the British out in a non-violent way. I mean, look at the other colonized nations.
It’s just part of the trend that this country is on, to legitimise hatred.
So how do you deal with them?
It depends on my mood. Some days, I believe in the value of protest and fighting and saying no. I don’t think that it is about that troll. It is about all the people who are reading that tweet. So I think quote retweeting is a great thing, I always quote retweet and shame them or answer back and so on, which also, I think, is an important thing. Because you need to claim even that space back, right? But sometimes I don’t give a shit. Sometimes I am too busy.
But it’s started affecting you in very tangible ways, right? The Amazon situation, for example.
I don’t consider that as tangible only to myself. I think that is a tangible thing for our society. I feel like there is a collateral. When you decide to take up, an issue, not compromise on certain things, you have to pay a price for it. If our society is at that point where we’re going to make citizens pay a heavy price for believing in the values of the constitution, then I guess we have to pay that price. I mean, I don’t know, it’s just collateral.
Were you always this chill, or has it just set in?
No, I was upset, because for me it was not just that. My producers started getting rattled, and then boycott Amazon started, and the boycott Veere Di Wedding campaign… I don’t want my producers to lose money on my account. Somehow, there is something in my stars that every time there is a release, there is some national political crisis, and I’ll say something and I’ll get involved. So when Nil Battey happened, the JNU students got arrested, when Arnarkali came out it was the beef lynchings. So I don’t know, it’s just the stars.
Are there people in your life who tell you, for the sake of your career, to calm down?
Of course, everyone. Everyone except myself.
And do you promise never to listen to them?
Thanks, Arnesh. Can I get a 100 per cent written promise that I’ll get a job at MW when all the offers dry up?
Is there anything you hate about being famous?
No, I love it. I work hard for it and I am blessed to have it.
If you could be someone else for a day, who would it be?
I would be the Prime Minister and take a whole bunch of decisions that could not be changed, and people would have to live by those rules. I would scrap Section 377 and make it the right to marry whoever you want, no bar, and put it into our fundamental rights. I would make freedom of expression much stronger than it is right now. I would do a whole bunch of shit.
Photographer: Aneev Rao | Art Director: Amit Naik | Stylist: Nisha Jhangiani |
Junior Stylist: Neelangana Vasudeva | Hair: Anchal Morwani | Make up: Sara Capela