Bollywood actress Swara Bhaskar, who is becoming the face of resistance in the ongoing protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citzen (NRC) in India, believes that actors are soft targets and can’t be blamed for remaining silent.
The ‘Veere Di Wedding’ star belongs to a minority of actors who chose to speak up against the government’s decision to grant citizenship to a select group of minorities, which did not include Muslims — a move that has triggered nation-wide protests in India. But the collective silence from Bollywood superstars including Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Akshay Kumar has not gone unnoticed.
“Bollywood has always been vulnerable to government interference and regulation. We have archaic censorship laws and we have a volatile public that has been encouraged to become mob-like in the past few years,” said Bhaskar in an exclusive interview with Gulf News tabloid! over email. She doesn’t judge them harshly either and calls it their personal choice to remain mute in the face of a political storm.
“The past few years have seen very aggressive targeting of superstars who have spoken up. Celebrities are vulnerable — everyone knows our faces and where we live,” said Bhaskar, adding that they don’t have any real freedom of speech or expression, unlike their Hollywood counterparts.
“Meryl Streep is protected by Article 01 of the American Constitution. The institutions in the USA and other countries rise to defend their constitution. In India we have no such protections. I don’t judge people for choosing to stay safe. If you make silence a precondition for safety, the majority will remain silent,” said Bhaskar, alluding to rights of an American citizen.
Excerpts from our interview with Bhaskar as we discuss the burning political landscape in India, the price that she has paid for taking a political stand and her rising career in Bollywood films …
You have thrown your celebrity behind anti-CAA protests, what made you take that step?
The CAA and NRC combination is a sinister and disastrous agenda to link citizenship to religion in India. It violates the very fabric of our multi religious, diverse and secular country; it violates articles 14 and 15 of the Indian constitution and it violates the principle upon which modern India was formed. We had in 1947 made a decision that we would not become a country where citizenship is based on religion — to be unleashing the CAA-NRC-NPR agenda is to basically try and give The Hindu Rashtra a constitutional base. I’m totally against this Hindutva agenda which I think is sinister and anti-India.
India is at the brink of civil resistance, what have you learnt from your experience at the protests?
I have learnt that students of India are our real heroes and stars. The students of India are leading these protests and they are the hope for our country. I’ve also learnt the power of information and awareness. I think when people become aware of the actual facts — they are able to see the ethical from the unethical themselves. I have also learnt from these protests that people’s movements are messy business that require constant monitoring and strategising on the ground. The reality is always more complex than a tweet or what’s app viral clip suggests.
What about CAA are you dead against and why?
It’s discriminatory and violates the Indian constitution, It is anti-Indian and it destroys the soul of the idea of India and it’s unnecessary. India is NOT facing any pressing refugee crisis currently from Bangladesh, Pakistan or Afghanistan. The existing refugees we have can be granted citizenship as per the existing procedures. If need be fast track those procedures. Why do you need to change the constitution for it? If Adnan Sami can be granted Indian citizenship by those procedures, surely so can the Hindu refugees from Pakistan. The CAA is an attempt to give a constitutional base to the idea of The Hindu Rashtra. The NRC are its teeth and claws.
Do you fear paying a price for taking a political stand in terms of losing out on work or friends?
I’m sure I’ve already potentially lost work. There is always a price to pay for the choices we make, but that applies to staying silent and playing safe too. If I chose the path of silence, I would have to live with a heavy burden on my conscience. Speaking out is a personal choice. Sometimes I feel very alone and anxious, but that’s okay. I remind myself that governments come and go, but our conscience remains. As far as friends who distance themselves from you for speaking out against injustice, they probably were not very good friends anyway.
Do you think actors as public figures can shape political and social narrative?
Yes, I think that celebrities, actors and public figures in general bring their credibility to the message and cause they espouse. Well-loved actors can influence thought processes, they can normalise certain beliefs, attitudes and make them seem cool. They can add legitimacy to a political and social narrative. That’s why as public figures we should be wary of falling into the hate agendas of our politicians and powers- that be. We shouldn’t become pawns in the hands of power.
You have charted a career in Bollywood on your own terms. How has the journey been and would you do anything differently.
It’s been a very wholesome journey. There have been highs and lows and ecstatic moments and moments of despair. But in the end it’s been a very rewarding journey. I feel grateful for it. No I wouldn’t do anything differently. Maybe I would’ve hired a PR agency and a management agency earlier.
2019 marked the year where dialogues about sexual harassment against women and inappropriate work place conduct took wings. How would you characterise this phase as an actress in the entertainment industry?
I think it’s a phase of churning and learning. It was necessary and late in the coming but now that it’s here. It’s time for the awkward conversations, time for introspection as an industry and time to put an end to sexual harassment at the workplace. I think actresses and victims today have more support than they ever did in the past. I hope we can use this moment to improve ourselves as a fraternity.
‘Veere Di Wedding’ saw you enter the Bollywood razzle-dazzle space. Would you call that a significant film in your career?
Absolutely. ‘Veere ...’ was my most commercial and glamorous avatar. I thoroughly enjoyed being in it. It was definitely a significant film for me, but it’s also a significant film for Bollywood. It was the first mainstream commercial film which starred four women and didn’t have a typical hero and none of the women were in love with the same guy. The film was the first female-led film in Bollywood to open to double digit crores on the box office on day one. ‘Veere Di Wedding’ broke a glass ceiling for women in [the] Bollywood trade. Apart from giving me the notoriety of being the actress who introduced the vibrator to the Indian screen.
How do you choose your scripts and films?
It depends from film to film. I did ‘Tanu Weds Manu’ because at that point it was a big break for me and Payal had some great dialogues in the film. I did ‘Raanjhanaa’ because I loved the character of Bindiya and the script. I did ‘Prem Ratan Dhan Payo’ for the opportunity to work with Salman Khan and Sooraj Barjatya and to be in a typical Bollywood family drama and I did ‘Nil Battey Sannata’ and ‘Anaarkali’ because they were the roles of lifetimes for me. ‘Veere Di Wedding’ was for the sass, the script, the set up and the fun of being in a women produced all girls film. But I invariably choose roles that will give me a chance to perform.
How important is it to have connections in Bollywood to get work?
Connections and networking are important to get ahead in every field. Bollywood is no different as it’s a relationship-based fraternity. But I’ve found that the best thing about Bollywood is that talent eventually gets recognized, however long it may take and one day it finds that crack and shines, whether you have connections or not.
What are the best and worst parts about being a public figure?
The best part of being a public figure is that strangers are nice to you, the airline staff is sweet and smiles at you extra wide and people grant you small privileges in unexpected places. The worst part about being a public figure is that you cannot go to the airport in pajamas.
Bollywood still churns out male-dominated potboilers with toxic love stories. What should be done differently? Would you ever be a part of a toxic film like ‘Kabir Singh’?
Bollywood potboilers are based on formulas that sell. If audiences stop watching toxic masculinity dripping with patriarchal love stories, filmmakers will stop making them. The problem is toxic masculinity sells and it’s a vicious circle. It sells and therefore producers make those films, the film then legitimises those attitudes in society and perpetrates and normalises that behavior which makes the film sell, so the makers make another such film.
I don’t want to speculate about my future or possible choices of films because I have done a movie like Raanjhanaa which many people criticised for glorifying stalking. At that point it never struck us that this may be a possible critique, but I always believe that creative growth is about learning. You live you learn. And I hope that I keep learning and growing.
What’s in store for you in 2020 and what kind of roles would you like to experiment with in the future?
I have three web-series up for release in 2020 and I’m trying to out my film as a producer on the floor. I’ve also written a script that will soon go on floors so it’s a busy year where I’m also diversifying into roles behind the camera. I want to play an actual historical character and I want to play a male character sometime in my career.
What’s the biggest onus of being a Bollywood star who can make a difference?
Responsible messaging and fact checking what one says.
KNOW YOUR STAR: WHO IS SWARA BHASKAR
Swara Bhaskar, daughter of a naval officer, was born and raised in Delhi. She holds a masters in Sociology from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University. Bhaskar made her film debut in 2009 drama ‘Madholal Keep Walking’. But it was her supporting role in ‘Tanu Weds Manu’ (2011) as Kangana Ranaut’s friend Paayal and ‘Raanjhanaa’ (2013) that established her as an actress to reckon with.
While she played supporting roles in these films, it was ‘Nil Battey Sannata’ and ‘Aanarkali of Aarah’ that gave her opportunity to spearhead the films. She didn’t disappoint and her role fetched her several awards for her knock out performance.
She has appeared in 16 films. ‘Veere Di Wedding’, a tale of four women navigating the treacherous quarter life-crises, catapulted her into the mainstream Bollywood league. The movie was a big hit at the box-office and her sexually-charged scene made her vulnerable to memes and online trolls.
In 2019, she launched her own production house Kahaaniwaaley and she is currently working on a relationship drama about same-sex love called ‘Sheer Qorma’.
Swara Bhaskar’s open letter to director Sanjay Leela Bhansali about his film ‘Padmavat’:
In an open letter, Bhaskar slammed director Sanjay Leela Bhansali for glorifying sati and jauhar in the controversial epic ‘Padmaavat’. The beautifully shot climax saw a group of women immolate themselves in a pyre.
“I felt like all the ‘minor’ achievements that women and women’s movements have made over the years — like the right to vote, the right to own property, the right to education, equal pay for equal work, maternity leave, the Visakha judgement, the right to adopt children... All of it was pointless; because we were back to basics.
“We were back to the basic question — of right to life. Your film, it felt, had brought us back to that question from the Dark Ages — do women — widowed, raped, young, old, pregnant, pre-pubescent... do they have the right to live?”
Her open letter invited a mixed response. While many hailed her thoughts as spot-on, some felt she wasn’t being fair to the filmmaker. Actress-singer Suchitra Krishnamoorthi tweeted: “Aren’t these feminist debates on ‘Padmaavat’ rather dumb? It’s a story ladies — not an advocacy of Jauhar for God’s sake. Find another battle for your cause — a real one at all. Not historical fiction.”
During ‘Veere Di Wedding’ promotions, Bhaskar slammed Pakistan, calling it a ‘failing state’. Her comments invited wrath from India and Pakistan and triggered heated debates on Twitter.
Bhaskar then responded to a particular tweet pointing out the collective hate being heaped on her with: “Dushman ka dushman Dost!!! [Enemy’s enemy is our friend] I’m totally okay with with being the dushman in this case if it brings some dosti [friendship] to us bickering neighbours :) :) Peace and love guys!”
She also came under fire for a risque scene in the film ‘Veere Di Wedding’ where she’s seen using an adult sex toy.
Swara Bhasker came under fire for using cuss words about a child actor during a comedy talk show. She was rebuked on social media and the actress addressed the criticism saying her words were used “jokingly and self-deprecatingly”.
“I’m not trying to justify swearing. Those were undoubtedly an ill-advised choice of words, but they were not seriously used. It was said jokingly and self-deprecatingly. Comics do it all the time without anyone blinking an eyelid,” said Bhaskar at that time in an interview with IANS. Very soon, the hashtag #SwaraBhaskarAunty started trending.