ACTOR & ACTIVIST
“A theatre, a literature, an artistic expression that does not speak of its own time has no relevance.”
Based on interview by Shikha Ghosh, President Planman Motion Pictures, for her latest book ‘Cracking the Glass Ceiling in High Heels’
As we find ourselves standing witness to the smoldering montage of Swara Bhasker’s contribution to ‘everything actually Indian’ in India through her spoken words, penned thoughts, deed of fearlessness and of course she, at her versatile best in front of the camera for the last 15 years almost, we find her an audacious misfit across boxes of all shapes and sizes / patterns and moulds. Swara Bhasker is one of those rare celebrities in the Hindi film industry, who has been able to make a place for themselves – not only because of their contribution to the silver screen but also for everything they do to contribute to every cause they passionately believe in. Her reel characters are exceedingly colorful and varied, however her real character complements the former to a great extent. With a strong voice and iron heart, often putting into risk everything that she has, Swara has always aspired to be a mainstream Bollywood actress who can rock the boat and break the rules at will!l
How it all began – As 90’s children, Bollywood was very much a part and parcel of their lives and thus grew the actor in her amidst all odds
Swara belongs to that generation when cable TV was just foraying into the Indian drawing rooms. Swara’s father initially resisted its entry into theirs but had to give in finally. Swara remembers when the cable TV first came to their house for two days only as her father just wanted to observe the influence it would have in her! And just as he expected, coincidentally Swara had a test right after that two days, which she failed mainly due to the distraction the Cable TV caused. This gave her father enough of strong reasons to oppose it being brought to their home. Sans the cable TV, the only source of entertainment and glimpse of Bollywood available to her was chitrahaar, that used to come on Wednesdays and Fridays and popular Baba Sehgal hosted musical countdown Superhit Muqabla on Sundays. And kid Swara was fascinated beyond all limits with two shows – her dreamy filmy world began and ended, dancing around the trees and running around in the rains!
Swara remembers how Akshay Kumar became her very first obsession and crush with his superhero antics of the khiladi franchisee and all the star-struck Swara wanted is to be next to him! As she looks in hindsight, she thinks it is indeed her damn good fortune that she is living her childhood fantasies now and been able to transform them into a super successful career! However, as with any outsider (as initially with her childhood heart throb Akshay Kumar also!) entering into the mainstream of the cinematic fraternity, Swara too had had her bit of struggle and faced all the roadblocks before overcoming them big and comprehensively.
Just to put things in real time perspective check, as she revisits those days, Swara recounts, almost millions walk into the aspiration-lit lanes and by lanes of Mumbai, in search of the roads to fame and glory, but just a one or two make it finally! “So the very numbers were totally against you, no matter how hard you give it a try!” Another very huge personal challenge for Swara that came in her way to find her place in Bollywood was to stay some 1500 km away from her family! That was a precarious juncture when she literally knew nothing to cook except 2-minute instant noodles and tea! And for the very first time in her life she was on an unknown new city all of her own!
Another important aspect of the struggle was financial too! And she had her parent’s everlasting support on her back. She considers herself very lucky in that sense! Swara quite candidly confesses she had to borrow a lot of money from her parents – an actor, who is a female; every audition happened to be an expensive affair! Through she was doing a part time job as a part time copy editor at The Economic & political Weekly (earning 30 paisa a word!) for the first few months when she shifted to Mumbai. She used to try her best to edit as many articles as she could in order to meet her basic expenses that time! But her parents kept on ensuring (for the initial first two years) that she never had to do something for money that she was not comfortable doing! So the usual desperations that a struggling actor goes through in terms of financial stability and certainty and which finally kills him or her and force them into horrible compromises never happened with Swara! And she had the rare liberty and privilege to say “No” as per her choices and likings.
When the Past influences the present and makes the Future all the more challenging
Being the daughter of an academician and a Naval officer, Defense analyst, Swara had a very upper middle class upbringing without any exposure or even idea of the glamour industry as such! She inhabited a world where looking good was not considered a virtue, neither any kind of values that taught her to care about how does she looks! Rather the other way around, paying too much of attention to how do one look was always seen critically as a manifestation of unwanted self-obsession and vanity!
Swara very well remembers during her early days, whenever she used to stand in front of the mirror, her mother would always discourage her and would always say that she should rather try to focus how to nurture the best of humane qualities to be appreciated by others rather wasting time appreciating herself in front of a mirror! And quite disastrously contrary to the motto of the showbiz, which she finally chose to enter – Swara was always taught that true beauty lies below the surface and nowhere above it!
So the journey she had to embark on was not only the journey to beat the crowd of millions and make it large but also the far harder and tougher journey of the transformation of the very mindset of the dilliwali Swara of JNU days, in tattered jeans, white kurta and jhola, who did not know how it feels to get the eye brows done; or what difference the facial or the manicure or pedicure can make into the filmi Swara who can bring the enigmatic make-belief world of Shanoo Bansal and Sakshi Soni into life!
It was Prof. Ira Bhasker who had to step in and make Swara understand (when she had already spent some two / three years in the industry) that she can’t keep complaining about the industry, how the industry is – it is a glamour world, a show business with its own set of rules. And she told her why don’t she concentrate to reach a place where she has a voice enough for people to hear what she is saying and then think of breaking the rules. And this advice stayed with Swara and this is what she found her doing – just by being herself, she ended up breaking a lot of rules! And now she has been in a position, where she can say, “I am what I am and I am totally unfiltered about it!”
Before Swara finally bid adieu to Delhi and her parent’s home, her father gave the most invaluable piece of advice that’s Swara treasures even today! He said, as there is no way that he or her mom will be able to track and keep an eye on her daily life, she should remember one thing – everyday as she wakes up, she should be able to meet her own eyes in front of the mirror and this she must ensure! There should never be a situation when she feels ashamed to meet her own eyes ever! This piece of gem of an advice – the most grounding and the most liberating at the same time – has stayed with Swara and it is her guiding angel for the rest of her life!
Life and times of an artist, who has always prioritized content & context over the just anything else in the last decade and a half
‘Frailty, thy name is woman.’ has long been a passé. Swara stands for everything that is the other way around. Swara’s presence on screen has been indeed rebellious and has every shades of the grey, the black or the white. What was initiated by the portrayal of Bindiya Tripathi in Raanjhanaa, was followed by the challenges of playing Ayesha Saxena in Machhli Jal Ki Rani Hai; the dogged resolute Chanda Sahay; the fearless enchantress Anarkali; the iconoclastic Sakshi Soni, the unfazed Sitara; the mysterious seductress Shanno Bansal or the to-be-or-not-to-be beanie Bhatnagar: Swara has time and again proved her mettle with her oeuvre so far.
She has grown from strength to strength with her sheer dynamism and versatility and has shown her ability to get below the skin of any character, no matter how light years different these characters are from one another! Well, we see the effortless ease that radiates on screen, but the toil of hard work, the research, the screen tests, the workshops and the intent – every piece of her sweat and blood that she put into the character to bring life into it, often go unnoticed. Swara has won numerous awards for her contribution to Cinema and last year she had the distinction to become the first Indian artiste to join the international competition jury of the Cairo International Film Festival (CIFF). Beside the nominations and awards she has been winning in India, she has won the Best Actress in a Supporting Role at the Soho London Independent Film Festival, 2021, for her portrayal of Sitara. She has also won the International Indian Film Academy Award for her character in Raanjhanaa. Now Swara is all pumped up for her upcoming release, Mrs. Falani, a film about women aspirations, where she has taken up the challenge to portray nine characters!
Like any true artist, who has expressed themselves through any of the medium of performing arts, Swara is too sensitive a person to be kept seated in her cozy couch of cinematic fame & complacency. Rather, she happens to be restless, to be a true, real life iconoclast and a rebel, who wears her heart on her, folded sleeves.
The mutinous soul in her is not only vocal against all form of political oppressions of contemporary times; she is also equally outspoken to point out the fault lines of the film industry and its heavyweights. Indian Film industry has mostly preferred to remain in a ‘comfort sphere’, with its people never being eager to rock the boat and face the wrath. But Swara is different and she does not give a damn to the high consequences for being one!
It is a fact that her list of films would have been much longer, her associations with filmmakers would have been much wider and of course income tax she pays would have been a headline often! She is that versatile an actor and she has already proved that time and again. However, she is happy that she is being conveniently ignored.
What you sow is what you reap: the all-embracing contribution of her parents, her education and all her mentors and friends
Born to Professor Ira Bhasker and Commodore C. Uday Bhasker, Swara grew up in a family, where free expressions and sensibility reign supreme. Also the broad and liberal mind of her guru, Padmashri Leela Samson (her beloved Leela Akka) had a telling contribution to Swara’s psyche as she grew up. The window in Swara’s impressionable mind, which opened to her mom’s room, made her fall in love with enigmatic world of Cinema; whereas the window to her dad’s, empowered and encouraged her with wit, a killer of a sense of humor and also gave her a glimpse of what happens when honest intent, courage and dignity get mixed with your love to serve your country on and off the battlefield.
Well, on behalf of the millions of ‘Swara Bhasker fans’ across every age groups in India and around the world, I often wonder what is the unending source of this kind of courage that she has been able to show consistently and that too putting everything at stake under such a menacingly polarized world that we are living now and where, the margin of error is nil, and as compared to, the takeaways of allegiance are unlimited to say the least. Swara clarifies, that her parents ensured the best upbringing that she could have ever imagined for – enabling her with this kind of self-confidence to ask questions, to debate and argue, to voice her opinion uninhibitedly, to depend her logic and ideas. Prof. Bhasker and Commodore C. Uday Bhasker are very liberal, open minded and non-authoritarian as individuals in their respective fields of work and also as parents. So they gave Swara all the unrestricted liberty and a culture of open conversation that she needed to be the Swara Bhasker that she is! And most importantly, Swara always had their backing, come what may! Swara knew that the world may turn upside down one day, and even on that day she will find her parents standing in solidarity with her and backing her up! And this very foundation of steel that her parents paved for her, gave her every bit of that emotional invincibility and mental strength that she mastered over time.
Also the kind of education that Swara was given access to, by her parents, it made her all the more fearless a fighter! Especially in the murky reality of our country, where even today, gender based discriminations are rampant as far education is concerned, Swara got the best education that the country could have offered! Even when she wanted to become an actor, her parents were insistent that she completes her post graduation before chasing her dreams whatever that might be. So, when one is educated and qualified enough, the confidence to live an independent life / to have a free mind, the confidence to sit for a job interview do a huge favor to the confidence to articulate one’s views and defend one’s views – complementing one another.
The kind of mentors she had, the kind of teachers she had starting from her school days, the type of theatres she did and the politics she was part of – not the electoral politics as Swara correctly reminds us, but the kind of cultural politics she actively participated in. Her theatre mentors the legendary Pandit N. K. Sharma of the theatre group Act One she was part of. He played a very important role in Swara’s life. Her History teacher since class nine at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, Chitra Srinivasan, one of the most well known teachers in Delhi in those days, has also been a towering influence in her life. She was also her class teacher in eleventh and twelfth. As Swara lets us know without any kind of hesitation, “The person I am and the person I became was so much due to her.” She had a defining influence in Swara’s life.
Her professors from the English Department of Miranda House with the likes of Prof. Ira Singh, Prof. Sharmila Purkayastha, Prof. Shampa Roy, and Prof Deepika Tandon, the iconic Prof. Keval Arora, who was the mentor and advisor of the theatre group ‘Players’ of Kirori Mal College. Her dear friend from JNU, Manish Shrivastava, who was also a part of IPTA. He indeed had a fundamental influence on the person that Swara is.
Also the reason why Swara was able to come to Bombay – writer-director and lyricist Ravinder Randhawa – writer of the National Award winning film Hamid and other popular films like Durgamati: The Myth. He was literally like a mentor of Swara, who encouraged her to come to Bombay and also her senior in IPTA. Everything that she learnt about theatre, about performance, about films, about politics, was mainly from him. They also dated for many years. Even though unfortunately that did not work out, Swara always remembers her with great fondness and respect. He is a very talented person and indeed has a very formative influence in Swara’s life.
Screenwriter Anjum Rajabali, who is the first person she met in Bombay and who was of huge help to her. Fellow actors like Deepak Dobriyal, Zeeshan Ayyub, who indeed helped her to hone her skills and make her understand about the industry so much. And Sonam Kapoor Ahuja – through her friendship with her, Swara feels she is a part of the industry. Sonam is so generous, kind and gracious a person and Swara is indeed thankful for being able to learn so much from her. The public persona that she has and the way she carries herself, it is indeed a great example to Swara. She has always seen Sonam to be kind and helpful. Sonam is indeed someone, who Swara often looks up to.
And then of course the kind of friends she had interacted with and the way she has learned something from all of them – Divya Cherian, Aditi Anand, Katyayani Dalmia, Rafi Sengupta, Prashant Jha, Moyukh Chatterjee, Ashis Roy, Samar Narayen, Sinjini Mukherjee – to name the closest ones in her life – all combined to give shape and figure to the kind of personal politics that she developed for herself and the life-philosophy to ‘fight for everything that you love; – be it your interfaith marriage, your beliefs or for the basic human rights of your fellow citizens or for a established place in the Hindi film industry. The personal politics to have eyes sensitive enough to see the wrongs and to stand in protest to voice for what is right.
The Fire of Intelligence and the fiery soul that she inherited
Swara Bhasker and the Center of Attention go hand in hand! And often she falls easily into the ‘right’ eyes for wrong reasons! How her marriage would have been different! She has just married a political activist Fahad Ahmad and got it registered under The Special Marriage Act (to marry legally, irrespective of your religion or caste – a privilege for what she feels lucky enough to be born in this great country). And when asked about it, she is immediately at her logical best, which she always is! – “I am someone who courteously believes in the institution of marriage and I am very much family oriented.” However Swara – being a true artist – the passionate, imaginative soul and the highest level of EQ that she has, made her stand committed to the institution of marriage, which is of love, for love and by love. She represents a generation of our country, who believes marriages are absolutely everything about personal likes and dislikes over any other ‘arrangements’ whatsoever. In fact Swara grew up cocooned in the marital blissful life of her parents, Prof. Ira Bhasker and Commodore C. Uday Bhasker, who did marry out of love. So marrying for love was always on her cards. Fahad and she became good friends first and as Swara rightly points out, the most rock solid foundation for many a relations to thrive and grow and develop is quintessentially friendship. And by virtue of knowing Fahad as a person and also seeing his activism and his work from the closest quarters, Swara quite frankly admits whenever Fahad is around, she feels ‘safest’ – and what more can someone expect from whom you have married! Swara and Fahad got all their respective families, friends, well-wishers and colleagues standing in full support of their decision to share each other’s life. And that is a wonderful beginning of yet another beautiful chapter in the life of this in and out beautiful person.
The many dimensions of someone, who is dynamism personified
A perennial problem that every biased and externally motivated critic or troller of Swara Bhasker finds them in is how many Swaras can be ignored or criticized! So, say for example, if the actor-artist gets ignored; here comes the short story writer and columnist, who has been regularly writing and penning her protest across various mediums and also in some of the leading newspapers; let’s say we are taught to ignore that as well, now Swara goes on behind the podium across many national and international centre or forums to be at her eloquent best on topics and issues close to her heart. Dare to stop her there, she will walk into the streets – into the mud and dust – shout at the top of her voice to make you hear! Her faith and inclination to the Left of Centre ideology remain literally unaffected and unaltered no matter the prices she has been paying, seen- unseen or the consequences that she has to face head on.
Over the last few years, India has been going through a perpetual Annus Horribilis as far as freedom of press or freedom of expression is concerned. Many dissenting voices were maimed, jailed, beaten, intimidated, harassed, questioned, murdered, made to disappear or forced to choose silence. Gigantic,360-degree machinery keeps an eye and prosecute randomly so that each and every known face with their popularity either goes unheard or just lives a life of dread and fear. Under such a Nineteen Eighty Four-like backdrop, let us just try to figure out what Swara is doing and how that is just out rightly magnificent to say the least!
We find Swara continuously voicing her dissent against the anti-NRC and CAA protest that rocked the nation few months’ back. Not only she travels extensively across all protesting epicenters of the country and tries to make every ordinary people understand the sinister plan of minority sanitization in the guile of these two exercises by the Govt. with her power packed data backed speeches, she makes sure her well structure explanations comes out on YouTube and are widely circulated. We also find her joining hand in hand with protesting farmers at Singhu border against the three draconian farm Laws passed in the Parliament. She decisively stands with the students of Jamia Milia, when unprecedented violence are unleashed on them; so does she goes and sits in dharna when her alma mater JNU gets brutally assaulted with murky rampage and violence. Be it the Nirbhaya massacre or the Hathras gang rape and its shameful aftermath – the flame of Swara’s untiring and protesting voice and unarmed fists burn bright and high on each and every occasion.
Whether she is writing a short story or an open letter of dissent to Pahlaj Nihalani or Sanjay Leela Bhansali or explaining the true spirit of our Constitution or penning the Foreword to INQUILAB A Decade of protest: Swara’s pen has always been an extension of her truest self, which selflessly cuts through everything unfair and unjust. She knows democracy will cease to exist without a strong and functional opposition in our country. Or supporting protest campaigns like STANDUP against street harassment in India. Her intention behind matching the steps with Rahul Gandhi on his all India Bharat Jodo Yatra was primarily to strengthen the hands of Democracy – to give hope to millions like us, who have now turned too cynical to at all expect anything better! And whenever she gets some precious free time (which she hardly gets actually) she keeps updating herself with various academic research and refresher courses, presenting papers in seminars or giving keynote speeches in the most respected universities in the US. Swara is a primal force, too genuine and committed to be silenced or bogged down. No amount of political or professional pressure and witch-hunt can deter her and inch from her commitment to her country; from her commitment to the upbringing and her inheritance that we have already discussed in the beginning.
The fear not to be afraid of, but to be won over!
Swara does consider fear as a very natural human emotion and she thinks it is nothing to be ashamed of at all. And she is not fearless in an unqualified way. In fact, Swara very rightly says, it is the emotion of fear that acts as a deterrent to many crimes. So, she does not look down on fear, but the challenge is, as Swara puts it, “How to overcome it?” It was just few days before the first nation-wide lockdown to be imposed in 2020. Bearing the brunt of the Pandemic outside and backlash of her political stand both on her professional and personal life at the same time, Swara was in a emotionally vulnerable stage, “feeling so hopeless and lost”. After a week of self imposed quarantine, she stepped out for a breath of fresh air in a coffee shop, just opposite to her home. Suddenly an unknown young man came to her from nowhere, tapped on her shoulder, handed her a piece of hand scribbled paper and left before Swara could figure out what is happening! And as Swara read the note, it was perhaps the highest order of appreciation that she could have ever dreamt of receiving in her life!
“THANK YOU for your voice. It helps live a regular life for a regular Muslim boy like me. It is easy to lose mental stability but being regular is the best most of us can do to keep our sanity. Keep speaking & hopefully keep fighting.” –
It was the biggest favor that the writer of this note, who just went away by handing it to her, ‘a regular Muslim boy’ did to Swara and her world of confidence and self belief. She immediately darted outside, but the boy was to found nowhere! It was an epiphany for Swara and a moment when she permanently win back over all her doubts. And ever since she is fighting nonstop!
And the Winner is . . .
Every time someone asks her for a selfie or an autograph, Swara feels that is big enough an achievement; every time someone lauds a character she has portrayed on screen, Swara feels that’s what an achievement is! Every time someone praises her for speaking out, for writing on twitter, for her columns or her public speeches and thanks her for what she has been doing – sailing against the high and mighty tides, Swara feels an achievement to cherish! Swara thinks end of the day, how people remember you and how you are able to evoke a kind of respect from everyone is what finally matters! The regard that people have for her, the loves her fans shower on her is her biggest takeaways in this life. She remembers an instance of 2015, during the screening of her film ‘Nil Battey Sannata’ in China in the 2nd edition of the Silk Road International Film Festival in Fuzhou, where she won the Best Actress Award and was greeting and applauded with a standing ovation, when she felt if her art can enable her to connect beyond boundaries and beyond languages, that is indeed special. Also another occasion in Hong Kong, when a Pilipino teary eyed woman came and hugged her after watching the same film and told her that this is her story and she wants to thanks her for making able to relate and relive it in its entirety – well this was also too special a moment of pride for Swara! Also the happiness and appreciation that came spontaneously from a sex worker in Nepal after she saw Anarkali of Aarah made Swara indeed very pleased with utmost pride and satisfaction.
All that smolders is not fire
Behind her socially committed fire brand self, lives a gentle human being who is fun loving, witty, loves to live a cheerful life and out and out a family person. Her social media handles bare true reflection of this side of this charming, and extremely beautiful individual. Be it her reminiscence of her grand mom’s sweet legacy or wishing her parents on their respective birthdays or spending quality and quantity time with her closest friends or getting the interior of her home décor right and of course a glimpse into a lion share of her heart where all animals (especially dogs and cats) and her pets stay – Swara happens to be too expressive, who just loves to share every slice of her happening life with us! She loves to travel or experiment with cooking (live recorded!) and her travel videos and photographs are something that her ever-increasing Instagram family always eagerly waits for! Beside her films, she is also a fashion icon and loves to wear outfits and dresses of all hues and color, of all designs and types.
The work and life balance – confessions of someone who is too branded of an individual to lose her individuality
Swara admits she does not do enough to maintain her body at its fit best and following a strict diet is something that she has never done in her life! But of course whenever the character demands, there is a different Swara altogether, which just puts her head down and does everything that the character puts on the list of do’s and don’ts. She however does insist that keeping a healthy mind and body should be a top priority in everyone’s life. However this should not turn into an obsession and desperation out of the complex that photo shopped augmented illusions can trigger! She warns not be fall prey to this massive trap of a vacuum. She herself being an insider of the industry, who knows it much better than her! “Love yourself and love your body and learn to love the person that you are and you look like” as she says. However Swara cautions, “First one should love and accept the way he / she looks and then move on to have a healthy life style. That would indeed give a balance!”
Swara’s Power boosters: “My zidd is my only secret sauce and scent to success – being ziddi is never about being desperate”
Being resolute and being persistent is like being Swara Bhasker! Swara just never gives up! No matter how hard it is, no matter how dark it can be, no matter what comes her way – she is at it, day in and day out before she finally gets over and conquers. Another very important orientation that Swara brings in as far as chasing one’s dreams are concerned. And every budding performing artist or entrepreneur should learn how not make your dreams the very be all and end all of your existence! Dreams should never be a catalyst to lead us to desperations; it should never be an end in itself, rather it should be means to reach to the end. As Swara observes, the world is very big and truly beautiful and if one or two dreams doesn’t work out, one has to learn to move on and forgive yourself!
A Swara Bhasker today, a million Swara Bhasker tomorrow
As Jean Paul Sartre once said, “The best work is not what is most difficult for you, it is what you do best.” well, Swara is doing what she does best. She is now a youth icon, who is adept in channelizing her creative fervor into every medium of public expressions. Beside her contribution to the film industry, she has been a torchbearer and inspiration for millions faceless and nameless individuals all across the country, empowering and emboldening each and every one of them every passing day. Anywhere there is an injustice or an unfair treatment – be it on an individual level or as a collective mass – the Swara Bhaskers in the streets or inside the homes, come of them would always rise in protest!