One of the most interesting and versatile actors in Bollywood today, Swara Bhaskar started her career in the late 2000s, with lead roles in small, independent movies like Madholal Keep Walking and The Untitled Kartik Krishnan Project, and cameos in big, mainstream movies like Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Guzaarish. Her breakout role was in the superhit comedy Tanu Weds Manu (2011) and since then she has delivered a string of memorable performances in films like Raanjhanaa (2013), Nil Battey Sannata (2016), Anaarkali of Aarah (2017), Veere Di Wedding (2018) and in OTT shows like It’s Not That Simple (2016-18) and Bhaag Beanie Bhaag (2020).
Bhaskar is also known for being a prolific presence on Twitter. Among her Bollywood colleagues, she’s a rare vocal critic of the Narendra Modi government. Because of this, she has to deal with right-wing trolls and online abuse regularly. I caught up with the actor at her parents’ house in the JNU campus, where her mother is a professor of Film Studies.
I see books by Patrick White, Shrilal Shukla, C.M. Naim, Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the bookshelves. You studied literature and sociology before taking up acting. At the beginning of your acting career, how comfortable were you being nerdy in a space like Bollywood and has that changed over the years?
I was never uncomfortable with the person I was. I think that the biggest accusation that could be laid at my feet is that I’m too confident, too comfortable with the person I am. That said, I do feel that moving to Bollywood and becoming an actor made me a humbler person. I think I had a lot of intellectual arrogance, ideological arrogance.
“I still don’t fully understand the ‘Justice for SSR’ thing, to be honest. It became a cult or something very close to it.”
Intellectual arrogance: that is a common stereotype used to describe progressive people, is it not?
It’s not entirely inaccurate and I don’t even think it’s necessarily “wrong” in a black-and-white way. I now understand why it happens. I think when you believe in certain ideals, when you believe that you’re trying to make the world a better place, there is a certain amount of self-righteousness that creeps in and if you’re not careful it can become a sense of superiority. What I don’t like, however, is snobbery. I can’t bear to be around snobs.
You said recently that you understand why so many of your Bollywood colleagues are extra careful with media engagements these days, that you too fear “producers losing money” because of something you said. Do you find it easier to express yourself because you came to this industry as an outsider?
Well, I do think that if I had been an insider, I’d have a very different set of values. We are all products of where we are born, the contexts into which we’re born. I was born to parents who are academically oriented (my mom’s a professor and my dad, while being in the Navy, was always academically oriented). I grew up studying the liberal arts, I was trained by my degrees (in English and Sociology) in the business of critical thinking, the study of society and so on. When I was at college I was influenced by the progressive ideologies of our Constitution. All of this went into the making of who I am as a person and an actor. So, I don’t have any grudges or regrets. I do worry about my producers losing money because I am made to feel that way, but I am not the kind of person to spend too much time with regret.
It is interesting that you mention your academic training because during an earlier interview, you said that when you started acting, you would look at a film as a text (in the critical theory sense of the word). Over a decade later, you have now done indie projects, mainstream potboilers and everything in between. Has the way in which you view these “texts” changed?
When you’re looking at a film as a member of the audience, you’re looking at it as a very different kind of text, a different form of expression, compared to when you’re involved in the creative process yourself. Even when I had done only a handful of films I would see my directors watching their own works on the screen afterwards and wincing, “Oh, we could have done this differently” or “Why didn’t I think of that!” I completely understand this impulse now that I have been doing this for a number of years—obviously, my mother, the film scholar, or you, as a critic, would see narrative patterns in the text much more easily.
In a sense, being on this side (the creator’s side), demystifies the text. You or my mother might analyse a shot’s lighting in a particular way, but as an actor you will know the hours of planning and logistics and location issues that have gone into capturing that one moment where the amount of natural light is just right. When you’re entering this world of movies, you might be a scholar. But once you’re making movies of your own you’re also a small businessman. You start seeing this aspect as well: for me this was the biggest change.
A lot of your colleagues feel that the Boycott Bollywood calls are hurting their films, that the resultant loss in revenue is affecting everybody involved in the filmmaking process. What is your view on this?
I think the popular narrative around #BoycottBollywood is a bit skewed, a little exaggerated. It’s not capturing the whole picture. I agree with you that it’s a moment of disruption for the film industry, specifically theatre. But that disruption is happening in the modes of distribution, in the way the streaming experience and pandemic-induced closures have changed viewers’ preferences and priorities. Streaming is becoming the most dominant mode of distribution today and producers no longer earn all of their money from the box office. So I don’t see films bleeding just because of a boycott call, I see an industry adapting to new economic realities.
Also, in these last 10 months we’ve had five box office hits, which nobody seems to talk about: Sooryavanshi, Gangubai Kathiawadi, Jugjugg Jeeyo, Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 and Ek Villain Returns. All these films made all of their money back at the box office; why aren’t we talking about that? I feel that part of the “Boycott Bollywood” hysteria is driven by an electronic media (and social media) that’s always hungry for the next sensational headline.
Since you bring up social media, how do you view this Twitter phenomenon? It is tempting to see the current animus against Bollywood as part of the same process that drove the “Justice for SSR” campaign following Sushant Singh Rajput’s death.
It’s a very well-thought-out, organised campaign. And it is funded—they are themselves asking for money on Twitter.
It is purely agenda-driven and once you understand what that agenda is and who is funding it, you get the whole picture. And then it becomes hard to see it as an organic phenomenon ever again. I still don’t fully understand the “Justice for SSR” thing, to be honest. It became a cult or something very close to it. I saw educated people—IAS, IPS officers and so on—tweeting about conspiracy theories every day. This is what happens in the absence of a strong counter-narrative. I told my colleagues in the industry that they’re making a big mistake by staying silent. They should have countered the lies being told about them by the SSR handles. Their silence was read as confirmation of these wild allegations.
Tell me about your latest film, Jahaan Chaar Yaar—a buddy comedy that also seems to be a road trip movie. This is a genre that allows characters to be relatively “unfiltered”, is it not?
Absolutely. Jahaan Chaar Yaar spoke to me because I liked the idea of a road trip movie or a buddy comedy featuring four behenjis, people who are typically considered too uncool to be protagonists in a Bollywood film. This story flips the script and shows you how cool, badass and sassy behenjis can be. When we were growing up, we knew that words like ‘aunty’ are used in a slightly derogatory sense. So, it was interesting to play that character. My character is very meek: her pet line is “inse pooch lete hain” (let’s ask this person for help), which is completely unlike me. I enjoyed the challenge of convincing audiences that I can play this kind of person.
Aditya Mani Jha is a writer and journalist working on his first book of non-fiction.