I see myself primarily as an actor, not an activist; balancing both is a challenge: Swara Bhasker
Swara Bhasker opens up on her upcoming show Flesh, on Eros Now, where she plays a no-nonsense, feisty cop, and balancing her political views with her artistic side.
The year 2020 may have been less productive for many but for Swara Bhasker, it is an exciting time as she continues to be noticed in impactful and diverse roles. After Sheer Qorma (on LGBTQ+ love), that released internationally in February, she was recently seen in Rasbhari on Amazon Prime Video India. And sometime later this year, Swara has a dramedy show Bhaag Beanie Bhaag on Netflix, in which she plays a stand-up comedian.
But as of now, the actress is thrilled playing a no-nonsense, feisty cop set to bust a human trafficking racket in the upcoming web show Flesh, on Eros Now. “I think I am the only actor who has three big releases during the lockdown. I am happy to see a full calendar for me,” says Swara.
While there are bound to be comparisons with Rani Mukerji-starrer Mardaani (sequel released in 2019) that dealt with the same issue, Swara said that the episodic format of the show gave them the opportunity to probe the heinous crime more deeply, making it look quite different from the film. “And if everybody thinks of Mardaani, it is a huge honour for me because I am a huge Rani Mukerji fan. But when you are making a two-hour film, you are a lot more focused on the main plot, whereas in a series, there are multiple plots, multiple tracks, and those multiple tracks are enabling you to actually look at many aspects of that world differently,” says the actress.
“Flesh is not just a story of a cop chasing or busting a trafficking racket but actually getting into how trafficking rackets operate. The show is not about me. It is not about Swara playing a cop, the show is the content, and the theme is the main protagonist of the show. We have a whole lot of talented cast. Akshay Oberoi is so magnetic. All the other actors, who have played a part in the trafficking ring, are tremendous, and it is all so disturbing. I like the in depth manner in which the show gets in there,” she adds.
Swara, whose notable works include Nil Battey Sannatta, Anaarkali of Arrah, and Raanjhanaa, plays a cop for the first time in her career in the web show directed by Danish Aslam. “I have never played a cop before, and for the first time, I have done action in a gritty subject. It was an exhausting show. It was gruelling both physically and mentally. I won’t lie; it was extremely challenging, and I struggled initially. I was exhausted at the end of day’s shoot ready to fall in the bed and pass out,” says Swara.
For her prep, the actress says she met with a lot of cops to try and understand "their world, their views, their feelings." "One of the things I felt most palpably was that there is a very potent sense of frustration that how easily they get manipulated by the criminals even as we have a well-intentioned system and legal provisions. Cops can spend a lot of effort, and risk their lives to bust a racket or crime but then somebody from the top calls them, there will be some pull, and so the whole work is left undone. I used this to become the emotional motivating factor for ACP Radha Nautiyal, the character that I play, and brought that feeling of impatience in my character."
“But what I found most difficult was handling guns, which was a disaster because I am so scared of guns and violence, and I didn’t enjoy all of that. Just not flinching when I was shooting was the biggest challenge, and that became a standing joke on set. The other thing was training for running because there are a lot of chase sequences. I was trained by an athlete and yoga instructor Abhishek Sharma, who trained me how to land on the floor. It was a very challenging show physically. The whole Kolkata schedule, I felt I was only running.”
There have been many instances in the past where the web shows have come under fire for using profanities or explicit sexual content. In fact, Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) chief Prasoon Joshi expressed his displeasure over certain sequences from Swara’s previous web show Rasbhari, that revolved around a boy who falls for his teacher (played by Swara) and teacher’s supposed ‘sex-obsessed’ alter-ego.
When asked about her views on censorship since Flesh delves deeper into the nitty-gritties of flesh trade, the actor responds, “I am not at all in support of censorship. I do feel strongly about the need to have freedom to tell stories that you want. You cannot tell certain important stories in an atmosphere where you are constantly being forced to toe somebody else’s line. Finally, who decides what is acceptable and what is not? The OTT space has been able to tell interesting stories because it is free of censorship. And if you are going to censor this content then we are actually falling into the same trap again. What is the point of this medium and this format? There are different ways of dealing with those issues. You have to have an open debate, better certification and regulation of the age group of who is watching what.”
Swara, who's often seen in strong, unconventional roles and films touching upon female sexuality, is not new to this debate. “It is a tussle. People are really uncomfortable with it. I am still getting trolled for Veere Di Wedding (referring to the masturbation scene) even as over two years have passed since its release. It is so stupid at one level. It says something about the people and how uncomfortable society is. Same thing happened with Rasbhari, a show that literally doesn’t have a single sex scene, and yet people were up in arms against it. Just an idea, a thought, a suggestion, a kind of an unabashed female sexuality was too much to digest. So there is something that is very deep-seated, very deep-rooted,” she says.
This brings us to the fact that Swara frequently gets involved in controversies over her anti-establishment views and receives backlash on social media time and again. In a recent development, it has been alleged that the actress claimed, “Courts are not sure if they believe in the Constitution” while addressing a gathering called ‘Artists Against Communalism’ during the peak of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests in Mumbai, in February 2020. Does all this cost her professionally?
“Yes, of course, there is no denying that, and I have to admit that I have lost a lot of work because of the positions I have taken. But it is fine. It is a collateral that I have come to accept. I don’t seek and I don’t say things from a position of an influence. I am not a paid influencer, I am not paid to say these things. I say these things because I genuinely believe in it. I am willing to bear that brunt. But for me, the bigger challenge now is, of course, that I have decided I must do something about it (laughs),” she says.
But we doubt so considering that the actress has often said she is uncomfortable with the fact that when you are a celebrity, you are afraid to take a stand because of the possible backlash. “Last year, I was quite active. I campaigned for six candidates in the Lok Sabha elections. The hit that my work took at the end of that experience was big. Then I was quite active in the CAA protest.
People at times forget that I have an active career, and I have to flourish as an actor as well,” she says.
She adds, “Actually, I am quite glad that these shows have come out because it is a good reminder to people that I am an actor first. I really do see myself primarily as an actor. I never saw myself as an activist. Balancing these two things is a challenge. People think I want to join politics, which is not true. Why can’t as a citizen I have an opinion? Just because I gave an opinion on something that would affect us all, like the CAA, why should it mean that I am joining politics and giving up my profession. Many think that there is some agenda. But why can’t it just be that I genuinely, ideologically have a certain belief. Why do we want to deny our artists the right to be engaged in the world around them?”
“It (social backlash) does bother me. I have had to learn to develop a thick skin for it, which is actually sad because it just shows that you have to desensitise yourself, which is not necessarily a nice thing. But I don't have a choice because you have to survive. But sometimes, I feel sad that people have forgotten that there is a real human being behind that Twitter or Instagram handle. It is almost like people feel that it is just a twitter persona but it is not that. It is a real person with real feelings. I have learnt to live with the hate and abuse but nobody should have to learn to live with abuse. I fight it and I refuse to be silenced by it. Ultimately, they are just looking for me or anybody who has an opinion to become silent, and trolls are basically that machinery to silence people,” she says.
However, Swara is happy about her film career so far, and does not feel that her creativity is being curbed. “Honestly, if you look at my career, I have had a big release every year except 2019. I spent the entire 2019 shooting three shows, and those are releasing in 2020. One is hungry for work. I want to do action again because I feel I want to better myself than what I have done in Flesh. Then I want to do a historical and a biopic that I haven’t done before. But I do have a pretty busy schedule. I am constantly doing stuff," she concludes.
Flesh, also starring Oberoi, Yudhishtir Urs, Vidya Malvade, and Mahima Makwana, is set to premiere on Eros Now on 21 August.
All images from Twitter.
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