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October 13, 2018

Swara Bhaskar: “I Think What Happened To Tanushree Was Criminal”

As told to Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena

The fearless actor who brought the subject of female desire into mainstream theatres earlier this year with a glorious masturbation scene speaks out on Bollywood’s #MeToo movement and why everyone should be a feminist.

“I am an unapologetic feminist. I can’t imagine why anyone would feel the need to apologise for their belief in feminism. I feel like the term – which is commonly misunderstood – is a progressive ideology that strives for a better world for men and women. We must strive for equality, not just as a token through social conversation, but also in law, in rules, in institutional structures, in office situations, in social norms, and more. When people say that they are not feminists, I say, ‘Why? Why are you not? Do you not believe that men and women deserve to have equal opportunities?’”

“I never considered the act of speaking out on issues that concern me as something that is extraordinary or unusual. But it was only after I began to face flak for speaking out that I realised that, ‘Oh wow, now we’re living in a time where this is something special’.  Of course, I credit the fact that I speak up fearlessly to two things – the parenting I received, and the confidence my parents instilled in my brother (Ishaan) and me. As children, they encouraged us to think independently, to ask whatever questions we had and to think for ourselves.”

“In the Hindi film industry, actresses have traditionally not spoken about issues that bother them like the casting couch or pay disparity. That is now changing. You see the younger generation of actresses actually speaking out quite unabashedly about a number of issues – whether it’s income disparity or sexual harassment at the workplace. I think we are now at a time where some actresses earn more than their male counterparts in the same film. There are projects where actresses are the highest paid people. I know that because I have been part of some of these projects. 

“Tanushree’s (Dutta) case has really brought forth a whole deluge of stories and that’s great. Her account has really started Bollywood’s moment of coming to terms with their own dark skeletons in the closet. It’s really been India’s #MeToo moment where not just in Bollywood, but the media, comedy circles, advertising, the legal profession, the judiciary and more, women are sharing their experiences. We really need to strive towards a society where there is zero tolerance for sexual harassment in the workplace, by anyone. I think what happened to Tanushree was criminal. I think more than what her disagreement with Nana Patekar was, what is more shocking is the reaction of the producers after she refused to do that and walked off the set – which is when they reportedly called up goons from a political party, her car was broken and she was physically threatened and intimidated. That is criminal intimidation. There is a lot that we need to do in terms of asking ourselves how complicit we have been in this climate, and how everyone must do their bit to change that – to break the silence, support these women and ultimately create structures and procedures to ensure that something like this is never repeated.”

“Anaarkali of Aarah was genuinely a special film for me. I don’t think  I’ve ever done a film where I’ve felt so strongly about the story and the need for it to be told, where I’ve connected so closely with the character and really felt what her trajectory, story, contradictions and pain were. Anaarkali and I have a lot in common. She is a performer, and so am I. There is a certain common experience that female performers have to go through. There are certain assumptions that a male-dominated society will make about such women. And all of us have, especially as the #MeToo movement is showing, a story where a man in power has not respected the fact that you’re a performer or has tried to abuse his power or has felt entitled to violate your self-respect or your dignity. I think that we’re all part of a society that tried to violate the victim. I think Anaarkali of Aarah was actually a tale of consent and respect centring around the most unlikely of heroines in the Hindi film industry, who is a badmouth – and I’m saying this deliberately – a loose charactered singer of double meaning songs which have a lot of sexual innuendos. Anaarkali will remain one of the films I am most proud of.”

“Veere di Wedding was a fun film and it was special because it was perhaps the first time you saw a big-budget film with no male star.  It’s a film about the ability of women to bond and have friendships and conversations that do not involve other men. I definitely expected that the masturbation scene would be talked about – I didn’t expect that everyone would take their grandmothers to watch it… so that was funny. But I did think that the film – and that particular masturbation scene – would make a lot of people feel uncomfortable. But being uncomfortable is not always a bad thing, sometimes it is also a way to grow. If I was one of the vehicles which introduced unabashed unapologetic female desire onto the silver screen then I am honoured to have that notoriety.”

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