Swara Bhasker on Veere Di Wedding and the eternal quest to fit in while speaking out

Anna MM Vetticad

June 08, 2018 16:12:37 IST

“Essentially my character is that of a, you know jo sadak pe karte tthe na shows, ki oye oye oye natak dekho, bandar ka naach dekho’ (remember those street performers who would call out ‘come come come, watch the show, come watch the monkey dance’)?” Swara Bhasker’s eyes twinkled as she uttered the words, seated at a restaurant in one of Delhi’s more low-key five-star hotels. “I need to constantly be performing, shooting, have an audience. I am my most stable, happy, sorted and satisfied when I’m shooting. That is the part of the industry that I know, I get, I like. I am completely at home with that part of my work.”

It was the summer of 2016, and we were chatting in the afterglow of Nil Battey Sannata in which this quintessential well-off city girl had pulled off the role of a housemaid from Agra, earning critical applause and notching up the first solo heroine hit of her brief career. Fast forward to the summer of 2018, in the week that Veere Di Wedding has been accorded an unprecedented reception – Bhasker is still unfettered on screen, still learning to negotiate the parts of her work she is not completely at home with.

A still from Veere Di Wedding. Image from Twitter/@taranadarsh

A still from Veere Di Wedding. Image from Twitter/@taranadarsh

She is wilting when we speak, just days after Veere’s release. As the reality of its success sinks in, the usual gusto in her voice has been replaced by fatigue at the end of a packed and emotionally draining five-month stretch during which she concluded the shoot for Veere in Mumbai, wrote a column lambasting director Sanjay Leela Bhansali for the misogyny of Padmaavat, battled abuse and behind-the-scenes storms after that write-up and again after a placard campaign on the social media for the child who was gangraped and murdered in Kathua, organised a family wedding, attended a rally here, spoke at a seminar there, and finally, immersed herself in unrelenting promotions until the 1 June release of Veere Di Wedding in which she is the joint lead with Kareena Kapoor Khan, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja and Shikha Talsania.

Her exhaustion is evident at the start of this interview, which takes place while she gets her makeup done for a shoot for the video-on-demand platform Voot’s web series It’s Not That Simple Season 2. The verve builds up with each answer though, as Bhasker gradually loses herself in a characteristically animated analysis of Veere.

Pleased though she is by the largely favourable reviews, “the biggest thing is the box-office opening,” she says, her excitement travelling down the telephone line to my home in Delhi. “What is really significant is that a film headlined by four women actors, all 30 or 30-plus, one a mother, one married, one considered to be an activist kind of person, the other who doesn’t occupy the typical body type of a heroine and is relatively new, and produced by two women among others, but largely by two women producers, this female-led film with no major male star has entered the double digit crore figure on its first day, and that is not a small achievement.”

Industry reports say Veere netted Rs 10.7 crore on Day 1 in India, making it 2018’s third highest initial day earner within the country among Hindi films. Bhasker continues with discernible pride: “There has been a belief within the trade that female-led films will open small and sloooowly grow with word of mouth, which was the earlier trend. Veere has crashed that glass ceiling.”

Veere Di Wedding is about four friends who gather in Delhi to celebrate the wedding of one. Each is grappling with personal problems at the time, though Bhasker’s Sakshi is arguably the most troubled of the lot, mooching off her crorepati parents and moping around their luxurious home in the city, all the while not revealing why she has split up with the husband she married in a hurry and by choice. One of the talking points about the film since its release has been a scene in which Sakshi masturbates.

Swara Bhasker. Image courtesy: Apeksha & Vaishnav, The House Of Pixels

A Hindi film acknowledging that women pleasure themselves has sent conservatives into a tizzy. That Veere actually shows a woman in the act is more than they can take. Those few seconds in a 125 minutes long film have driven right-wing Hindu trolls to paroxysms of anxiety over the perceived threat to Indian civilisation. Their particular anger towards Bhasker has been tempered this week by confused support as the actor was attacked by trolls across the border because she called Pakistan a “failing state” when asked in an interview about the ban on Veere in that country.

That Bhasker would be targeted by domestic bigots is unsurprising. Even less surprising is her decision to diss their opportunism when they backed her for slamming what they consider a common enemy. These are people and bots who have been gunning for her for at least five years now, shaken as they are by her no-holds-barred socio-political statements through occasional writings, frequent public pronouncements and hyper-active social media accounts where she has done what few artistes in her play-it-safe industry have done before: spoken up against India’s present ruling party, its leaders and acolytes.

Bhasker was offered Shikha Talsania’s role in Veere, but was not interested because it required her to play a mother to an infant and to gain weight. She had just done Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015) in which she “spent three months lugging a baby around on a set” – yawn! She also knew from the experience with Nil Battey Sannata that adding and losing kilos are gruelling processes. When she read the script, however, she was immediately attracted to Sakshi and asked if she could play that part.

So to answer the question on many minds, no, she did not need convincing to do the masturbation scene. Coyness and diplomacy are clearly not qualities Bhasker aspires to, and it is this that sets her apart from her colleagues. In a career spanning nine years, she has received remarkable critical acclaim for her films, TV and online work, and garnered awards, all the while taking public stands on various prickly political issues, in the bargain rubbishing the prescribed template for Hindi film stars, particularly women.

Much of her apparent fearlessness is a factor of her background.

Swara Bhasker was born in Delhi on April 9, 1988. Her mother is the respected academic, Ira Bhaskar, now a professor of cinema studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Her father, C. Uday Bhaskar, is a retired Naval officer and now a sought-after defence analyst. She studied at the city’s Sardar Patel Vidyalaya and graduated in English (Honours) from Delhi University’s Miranda House College before acquiring an MA in Sociology from JNU. Her educational qualifications are unusual in a Bollywood in which Vidya Balan’s MA and John Abraham’s MBA make them rarities.

Her tryst with the performing arts began early. She trained in Bharat Natyam under the renowned dancer Leela Samson from the age of 7 to 21. She was also part of the JNU chapter of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), the Leftist drama troupe that legends like Balraj Sahni, Ritwik Ghatak and Utpal Dutt once worked with.

Bhasker recalls that in her liberal home environment, her parents “always encouraged me to have my own views”. Her education in the politically conscious, “critical-minded culture” of Miranda and JNU then was an extension of family.

Manish Shrivastava, her director and mentor at IPTA (JNU) sees in her screen avatars the college girl who worked with him in two plays. “The good thing about her is that there are a lot of inquiries beyond what is required in most actress’ preparations for a role,” says Shrivastava. “It’s not just an inquiry into the characterisation or the past. She has an eye on what the story and character represent in the prevailing social circumstances. Her approach was never, ‘Okay, this is my role’, it was always more, ‘What is the play’s larger message? How is it to be perceived in totality?’ The involvement in the overall process was useful. It shows now too in her films.”

Swara Bhasker in Nil Battey Sannata. Image from Youtube.

Though Bhasker was “never short of work” once she shifted to Mumbai in 2009, it has not been an easy road. The first film she shot – Pravesh Bhardwaj’s Niyati – remains unreleased. Her charisma was unmistakable in her first film to come to theatres, 2010’s Madholal Keep Walking, but the shabbily produced venture disappeared without a whimper. Then in 2011 came Aanand L. Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu (TWM) that turned Kangna Ranaut into a box-office sensation, and made Bhasker a recognisable face.

She was universally lauded by critics for her turn as the heroine’s best friend Payal in TWM. “I have been a space cadet,” she told me in 2016. “I didn’t understand how this game is played. I didn’t realise that once you get noticed in a film like Tanu Weds Manu, enough for people to name a chapter after you (we both laugh), you should move smartly, move fast, hire a PR agency, a manager or an agency who could pitch you for work.” (She is alluding here to my 2012 book The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic, which featured a chapter about newcomers in Bollywood titled “Who’s That Girl Who’s Not On Your Poster?” in reference to the then unknown Bhasker who greatly impressed me and my colleagues in Tanu Weds Manu, but who, oddly enough, was missing from the group photo of the cast on the standee outside the preview hall.)

She hired a PR agency only after the success of Raanjhanaa (2013).

This was the start of her search for the key to fitting in even while standing out, to arriving at where she chooses to conform and where not. Pankaj Tripathi, her award-winning co-star in Chillar Party (2011, in which she had a tiny cameo), Nil Battey Sannata and Anaarkali of Aarah (2017), recalls with a grin being told by Bhasker about the casting director who asked her why she was wearing a bedsheet when she turned up at an audition in a handloom kurta. “She has evolved tremendously. Earlier she looked more like an activist than an actress,” he says. “Fab India se designer India tak ki journey hai unki (Hers has been a journey from Fab India to designer India).”

These are accouterments to stardom that few female artistes escape. Bhasker’s preferred focus area though is her craft. Tripathi has observed her having extensive conversations with her directors and describes her scripts as being filled with colourful slips bearing detailed notes from the first to last page. Resources and time are limited for a newcomer in small-budget films, but for Nil Battey Sannata, she spent a week with a group of household help in Agra, walking with them to work, hanging around while they were at it, walking back with them, visiting their houses to interview them, bargaining with vendors while shopping for a wardrobe within her character Chanda’s assumed budget. At director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s urging, she interviewed her own mother, to understand motherhood for the role, and meditated to get into the mould of a character who was sedate in comparison with those she had previously played.

A still from Anarkali of Aarah. Image from Twitter.

For her equally highly praised performance as a raunchy rural nautch girl in Avinash Das’ Anaarkali of Aarah, she spent two weeks in Bihar with women like her character Anaarkali. She also attended shows in a village near Meerut, dragging her Dad along for her security since they happen late at night.

With Veere Di Wedding, Bhasker crosses another milestone in her career, reminding audiences that she is as capable of being a glamorous Sakshi as a Chanda or Anaarkali.

That said, her own unequivocally articulated feminist values have made her choices the subject of greater scrutiny than most of her female colleagues. An attendee at a public event demanded to know how a feminist could work with an alleged girlfriend beater like Salman Khan (she played the superstar’s sister in Sooraj Barjatya’s 2015 film Prem Ratan Dhan Payo). She also came under fire for starring in Rai’s rabidly anti-women Raanjhanaa, which, among other things, romanticised stalking, stereotyped women and normalised the hero’s physical violence towards his friend Bindiya played by Bhasker.

Raanjhanaa may have been a beginner’s compulsion – Rai, after all, gave her her big break with Tanu Weds Manu, and as she tells it, he called in a favour because the actor who was to play Bindiya dropped out due to date problems with just a week to go for the shoot. However, her defence of the film reflects the internal conflicts resulting from the Mars-vs-Venus contrast between her upbringing and a regressive Bollywood that functions in a universe far removed from her stated principles.

In a column in The Hindu published that year she wrote: “All the articulate criticism about the glorification of stalking in Raanjhanaa has led me to some serious introspection and self-doubt. Have I become so corrupted by Bollywood that I’m unable to recognize problematic gender stereotyping and latent misogyny of the films I’m a part of?” Despite that ruminative introduction, she proceeded to back the film in the write-up. Three years later, during our interview in 2016, she was less vehement, accepting that being a part of the film had perhaps affected her objectivity and pointing out that she had warned Rai and writer Himanshu Sharma (who, incidentally, she is now dating) “that they would get accusations of stalking”. As for herself, Bhasker is still “a little undecided about Raanjhanaa”.

Progressiveness is always a work in progress, more so when you encounter narrow mindsets every step of your way. She is perhaps the last person you would expect to bow to superstitious mumbo-jumbo, yet, following in the footsteps of several colleagues in the past two decades, in 2017, “Bhaskar” became “Bhasker”. As her makeup artiste continues to work on her face, she explains almost sheepishly what happened there: the producer of Anaarkali of Aarah changed the spelling of her name in the credits for numerological reasons, and this was one battle she decided not to fight.

Why oh why did she submit to his whims in such a personal matter? There is a tinge of bemused sadness in her voice as she says, “I have to pick my battles. I want to be able to freely say what I want to say, hold on to my politics and yet continue to act in films.”

Well, “a” to “e” is perhaps a forgivable compromise by a young woman who has startled fellow artistes in her reticent industry with her running socio-political commentary on every available platform in the past five years. The outspokenness has come at a price that has gone well beyond vile words and threats on the social media. In 2016, she was reportedly dropped from consideration for a National Award for Nil Battey Sannata because she had written in support of then JNU Students’ Union President Kanhaiya Kumar and fellow student Umar Khaled. Sources also confirm that when the producers wanted to screen Nil Battey Sannata for the Union HRD Minister as part of their marketing efforts (since it is a pro-education film), the Ministry declined the invitation on learning that Bhasker was part of the project.

Since she called out Bhansali for promoting a dangerous mindset in Padmaavat, Deepika Padukone snubbed her in an interview, Arjun Rampal reportedly publicly humiliated her, and her PR agency, which also represents Bhansali, dropped her, albeit briefly (they are now back together). Not long after the social media campaign for the Kathua victim, Amazon India removed her from a Twitter promotion, responding to flack from right-wing trolls. The same forces called on “self-respecting Hindus” to boycott films starring Bhasker, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Sonam Kapoor Ahuja and all others who participated in the Kathua campaign.

As strong as the condemnation that has come her way, has been admiration from the liberal public and press. Bhasker’s well-wishers worry about her though. Iyer Tiwari is concerned that she allows world events to bother her to the extent that they hamper her ability to function. In an interview in 2017, the director told me of an incident during the shooting of Nil Battey Sannata when she found Bhasker crying in her van over news of the conflict in Syria. “It had affected her so much that it started reflecting on that evening, the scene we had to do, and she just couldn’t get over it,” she said.

She admitted too to asking Bhasker to reduce her Twitter comments right before their film’s release, to avoid “taking away too much attention”. The actor complied because she is not unaware of these practicalities. After social media trolls called for a boycott of Nil Battey Sannata, she told me: “I need to play this smartly. I’m not saying I’ll shut up, but I need to time my outbursts better, not let them collide with my films.”

Swara Bhasker. Image from Twitter/@TBReporter

Swara Bhasker. Image from Twitter/@TBReporter

It would be a pity, of course, if professional, financial or personal pressures silence a film artiste whose refreshing candour brings to mind a young Shabana Azmi back in the 1980s ascending the stage at the International Film Festival of India in Delhi, and delivering a searing speech about the killing of Communist theatre activist Safdar Hashmi while a Union Minister looked on. Azmi’s courage rocked an industry that tended to be politically careful. In present-day pusillanimous Bollywood, in which most stars are silent or bow and scrape before the establishment, Bhasker has set herself a tough path.

The mute button, she seems to think for now, would suffocate her. “I mean yaar, what is the point, yeh ghut ghut ke jeene waala case? I can’t do that. It’s like if you love someone you might as well go tell them. Same thing. I can’t keep it inside me.” Today though, she can set her mind at rest. The industry that might have swatted her away as a troublemaker if Veere Di Wedding had bombed or fared moderately, is viewing her with indulgence now that “self-respecting Hindus” have rejected fundamentalists by watching it in droves.

Veere’s total domestic net collections reportedly reached Rs 56.96 crore on Day 7. That figure is bound to rise considering the positive reviews, audience feedback and the fact that there is no big competing release for another week. If there is a language Bollywood understands as well as patriarchy and self-preservation, it is the language of success. With Veere Di Wedding’s box-office numbers smashing records and gendered straitjackets, Bhasker has, at least for the moment, found her safety net.

Updated Date: Jun 18, 2018 11:52 AM