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Cover Story
December 18, 2017

Swara Bhaskar: Doing It Her Way

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographed by Tarun Vishwa. Styling by Divyak D’souza. Assisted by Zenia Daruvala and Keyuri Sangoi. Make-Up by Sara Capela; Hair by Anchal Morwani

Swara Bhaskar stepped into the world of movies as a rank outsider and had to beat several odds to find her niche. Unabashed and confident, she now effortlessly straddles the domains of commercial and indie cinema

The inner spaces of a bungalow in a quiet corner of Byculla are abuzz with unusual activity on a Sunday morning. And dot at the appointed hour Swara Bhaskar walks in, clad in a pair of distressed jeans and a simple top, her recently-cut short hair gently brushing her shoulders.

I look at her with curiosity while the introductions take place — and my mind, of its own volition, rewinds to two of her latest reel avatars that have left a strong imprint on my mind. Just a few days earlier, I had watched Chanda Sahay — the feisty mother in Nil Battey Sannata — who thinks completely out-of-the-box to inspire her daughter to dream, even though this means that she, herself a bai, has to go back to school and learn her lessons — and that too in her child’s class. And, in the second stellar act that lives on in my memory, the actor slips sensuously into the skin of Anaarkali (in Anaarkali of Aarah) — a professional dancing girl who raises a battle cry and seeks first justice and then vengeance when her modesty is violated. In the process, she underlines the importance of respecting a woman’s consent in a given situation — whether she is a prostitute, a dancer or a wife. Swara, as I recall, breathes fire and intensity in both the renditions. And the passion and determination that have fuelled the Delhi-born girl when she bravely ventured into new territory are amply evident on screen.

Swara is soon comfortably ensconced on a chair in front of the bulb-lined mirror. She talks laughingly about the ministrations of her team to beautify her, and confesses that she scarcely peeps into a mirror to see how she looks (even though by her own admission she was vain as a child) — a very un-actor like quality.

As our conversation meanders on, I learn how her initial days in Tinseltown were hard — as she auditioned many times for many parts, and came away disappointed on several occasions. But the feisty daughter of Ira (a professor of cinema studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi) and Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, naval commodore (now retired), did not give up despite the disappointments.

Strong. Articulate. Unafraid. These words play through my thoughts as I continue to chat with her — perhaps because I have grown to associate the 29-year-old actor with a distinctive strength of character. For Swara is vocal about things that she believes in — be they political matters, social ills or issues pertaining to the world of films that she has made her own.

I tell Swara that I have spoken to her Veere Di Wedding director, Shashanka Ghosh, narrating what he said about the actor: “Swara Bhaskar is a ‘heartland India girl’. Her next-door quality, warmth and affection come through. We were looking for someone who was going to play a rich bitch, someone who becomes a normal girl only when she is with her friends. Swara nailed it completely. I don’t think I had to do much in terms of contributing to the character. She understands screenplays and roles, and that is a mighty help to people like me. In Veere Di Wedding you’ll see an avatar of Swara that you haven’t seen so far. I began to call her MKM — Method Ki Maa. She very subtly gets into character just before the shot, and channels that character well.”

Taking a cue from my reel and real impressions, I take her back to Chanda’s belief — that a life without dreams has no meaning. And urge Swara to rewind to her standout movies, goals, the muses who spurred her on and the support system that keeps her going….

Excerpts from the interaction with the actor….

“I thought I was getting the 15-year-old daughter’s role!”
When the director of Nil Battey Sannata approached me, I assumed that Ashwiny (Iyer Tiwari) had thought of me for the young girl, Apeksha. I was thrilled that I could pass off as a teenager. When she told me that I had to play the mother, I wondered whether I looked like an aunty! I was instinctively going to turn it down, but because Ashwiny seemed like a sweet person, I wanted to give her the due respect of reading the script, and it blew my mind. I was very apprehensive about playing the mother of a teenager — it was not as if I was playing a mother to a newborn or a two-year-old. Many people told me I was taking a risk. But, it is always more challenging to play someone older than you — because you have not had those experiences in your life. I have always believed that if something scares you, you must do it. The only way to overcome fear is to face it.

“I dreamt of fame and glory.”
I was a vain little brat. I dreamt of being very famous even though I didn’t always consciously want to become an actor. It was only when I was studying for my masters in college that the filmi passion happened. This may sound ridiculous, but I want to be so well-known that my posters will someday be on the rear of autorickshaws. I have always seen popular film stars’ pictures pasted there.

“My parents made the mistake of being very liberal.”
I think that they are till date ‘paying’ for giving me that freedom. I kind of conned them into agreeing to let me come to Mumbai and also funding me for the first couple of years. They were very supportive. The main roadblock was my own personality and background. The values that Ishaan — my brother — and I grew up with are not the ones that drive this industry. In fact, since I was vain as a child, I would often preen in front of the mirror. If my mother caught me doing that, she would chide me for being obsessed with my face. So I did not grow up thinking that looking good or being well-groomed is a virtue. I learnt that it is nice to be kind, polite and helpful. Sometimes, I really feel I have the wrong personality for this industry. But my mother taught me that I cannot want to be here and fight the rules of the game. If I want to win, I have to play by the rules. I’m okay to do that but fundamentally my core values have not changed. If my game face is not on, I am just what I’ve always been — a jhalli!

“I am not scared to look ugly.”
My personality and way of thinking help me cut out the frills around me. My job as an actor is not to look good but to understand the character and play it to the best of my capacity and with the utmost truth. I am not someone who runs to a monitor after a shot is done, unless I need to learn something about the direction of the shot or the lighting. This attitude helps me as an actor, but not as a celebrity. At airports, I may be travelling in my pyjamas because it is an early morning flight — and people spot me. But, it is all fun and I am enjoying it.

“Breaking in was a very slow process.”
I was an outsider, I was not even a model — modelling is a route taken by many girls to debut in films. And yet, I’m sitting here, having this conversation with you, after having spent eight years in the industry, so I must have done something right! My first film released seven years ago — so it has taken time and a lot of effort. Perhaps if my dad could have picked up the phone and called a big producer, it wouldn’t have taken me so long. I’ve had to work my way up — from smaller, bit roles and supporting roles, to headlining films.

“Nepotism exists everywhere in this country.”
I don’t want to be judged for being an outsider and star children should not be judged for where they are born. A lawyer’s son will find it much easier to become a lawyer; a doctor’s son will find it much easier to become a doctor. It’s what cultural and social capital is! The film industry is a private industry. People stake their own money and sometimes even their homes on films. In that case who are you going to cast? People you know! Nobody sets up a dukaan (shop) and then gives it to his padosi’s (neighbour’s) son to run. He will pass it on to his own kid, right? But things are slowly changing and you can see it, in me, in an Irrfan, in Richa Chadha or Nawazuddin Siddiqui.

“I often ask myself what I am doing here.”
I question my role — because I have interests outside Bollywood, like politics and social issues. And here I am, only involved in self-absorbed projects. It is all about me, myself and becoming a bigger celebrity and star. This is in direct conflict with the fact that I want to make a greater contribution to society. The one thing I can do is pick films like Nil Battey Sannata and Anaarkali of Aarah and tell stories that will compel the audience to think. It does not matter if the movies are commercial potboilers or indie films. If offered both, I will pick the ones with the harder role — the ones that need me to do a greater amount of preparation, the ones that will tire me out as an actor.

“My scripts are filled with notes and sticky notes.”
I’d love to think that I’m a director’s actor. I believe very fundamentally that film-making is really the director’s — and not the actor’s — medium. An actor’s medium is the stage. If I disagree with my directors, I’ll argue a little, but ultimately I will go with their vision. That said, I have my own prep for each character. I read the script and find the world where the character belongs, even if it means hanging out with bais and living their life for a few days. For Anaarkali, I built a vocabulary after extensively observing prostitutes. For Veere Di Wedding it was a completely different type of character. I had to understand the psyche and milieu of an uber-rich girl, who is radically different from my upper-middle-class upbringing. It is a process I try to finish before I get to the set. Once on set, I can then go with what the director wants to explore more spontaneously, and flow with the energies the other actors bring.

“It is difficult to leave a character.”
Once you have made the character a part of yourself, then everything — intensity, joy, grief — come easily. What becomes difficult is letting go once the job is done. It took me a year to get Anaarkali’s anger out of my system. I understand now why people say Heath Ledger went into such a dark place after playing the Joker in The Dark Knight (2008), that it might have killed him. I’m not saying that I’ve ever done something so extreme and intense, nor am I saying that I have the same level of talent as him. But, I now understand why it happens, for I have to constantly be aware that there’s me and then there’s my role.

“I’m terrified as an actor.”
I may seem like a very spontaneous performer but I am a stressed-out actor. I have a lot of nervous energy. Before every film, I go through the terror that I have forgotten how to act. And once it is over, I come out racked with doubts about the performance. I think if the fear of failure hadn’t been there, I wouldn’t have been driven to try to do better! I am always wondering what I am going to do next for it is a very uncertain industry to be in. I have now calmed down — but earlier I would get panic-stricken if I had no work for over a month.

“I am a bit of a goof.”
There is a lighter side to me that encompasses everything about me, except when I am talking politics. I’m always getting into trouble. I’m always bringing a new crisis home. My parents are quite fearful that I might go to jail one day. My father has set a Google Alert on me, so that he knows what I’m doing — even the things that I have not told him about. But at the end of the day, I would say that I, Swara Bhaskar, am a good kid. I have my heart in the right place. So, I think you should forgive me for all the trouble that I may have unconsciously or consciously caused.

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