After playing Salman Khan’s sister in his last blockbuster, Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, Swara Bhaskar is gearing up to play a mother in the upcoming Nil Battey Sannata. The actor talks about being accepted by the mainstream audience, but not at the cost of her politics.
You came from a completely different space. Have you become a part of Bollywood today?
I’m quite stunned by how much the mainstream audience has accepted me. Five years ago, I was one of them, buying the cheapest tickets at cinema halls in Delhi. Somewhere, the audience relates to my characters and their vulnerability. I believe they see themselves in me. After Raanjhanaa was released, I had gone to Jodhpur with my cousins. When we were visiting a monument there, a girl came running to me and hugged me and said, “Wow, you are Bindiya”. This kind of reaction comes from identifying with the character.
What convinced you to play a mother to a 15-year-old in Nil Battey Sannata?
When I read the script, I knew it was a great opportunity to perform even though most of the film’s producers had not been signed on yet. I want the actor in me to be alive enough and not turn away a good script because a big banner is not attached to it. If I can see the possibilities of a performance, I do everything to put the film together. I badgered Aanand L Rai to watch Nil Battey Sannata and come on board as a producer. Even my next film, Anarkali Aarawali, has a new producer and director. It is the story of a feisty orchestra singer in Bihar, who belts out lewd songs full of double entendre.
As part of your prep for Nil Battey…, you interviewed your mother?
It was totally weird talking to my mother (Ira Bhaskar, a professor of cinema studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi) with a recorder in hand. She was doing her MPhil in English when I was born. I wanted to understand the responsibility of having to manage both work and family — and the accompanying guilt of having to leave the child alone even though you are working to give them a better life.
Some of your popular characters are based in the Hindi heartland. How helpful have your UP and Bihar roots been for your career?
My mother’s family is from both Patna and Benaras. For some roles, I tap into the Patna side, for others, the UP side. However, for Nil Battey…, which is based in Agra, I had to work on the accent; it is very different from the eastern part of the state. I hung out with a number of house helps, walking with them to their employers’ homes, ate lunch with them and recorded extensive interviews with them. I listened to these over and over again to nail the accent.
What is your background like? How did acting come about?
I come from a middle-class family. My dad (Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore) was in the navy and my mother taught at Gargi College, Delhi, and later at JNU. We’ve always lived in government accommodations — armed forces officer’s flats earlier, and now on the JNU campus. I had the privilege of living in Lutyen’s Delhi — growing up on the either side of India Gate, close to National School of Drama and Kamani auditorium. I went to Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, and later studied literature at Miranda House. After a year-long stint with an NGO, I did my master’s degree in sociology from JNU.
In India, thousands of people want to be in the movies because Bollywood plays such a huge role in our lives. At my home. we got cable connection much later than others. But I was already hooked to Chitrahaar and Superhit Muqabla. My fantasy was to be in Chitrahaar.
When you lived in Delhi, how actively did you pursue theatre?
There is a myth about me that I am a theatre actor. I have done theatre for only two years — mostly street theatre with Indian People Theatre Association’s student chapter at JNU and workshops with NK Sharma’s Act One. However, what has taught me to be a performer, as well as develop an understanding of story and rhythm, is my Bharatnatyam training under Leela Samson.
What made you move to Mumbai?
Just like in those scenes in Hindi movies, I came to Mumbai in 2009 with a friend on the Rajdhani Express. I knew only two people in Mumbai — an assistant director who is now a documentary filmmaker, and screenwriter Anjum Rajabali. I started doing the rounds and worked my way up the audition route.
You have acted in films where Sonam Kapoor and Kangana Ranaut have author-backed roles. Yet, you have stood out. How?
I have done an almost equal number of lead roles as supporting roles. It is just that lead roles were in small-budget films, Madholal Keep Walking and Machhali Jal Ki Rani Hai, which did not do well; whereas, I had supporting roles in films which were box-office successes. I have been lucky with supporting roles, they were well-written and interesting characters by themselves. You can’t miss them — the central conflict of Prem Ratan Dhan Payo is around my character.
You recently said you have never been part of any political party. What helped you form a strong political opinion?
I meant that I have never been a card-holding member of any party or contested in any elections. However, not just JNU, even Miranda House had very liberal, progressive and feminist teachers in the English department. I was heavily influenced by them.
When my college friends say that their parents run their houses with Rs 1,000 and spend the rest of the money on their children’s education, it makes you realise there are so many Indias. You realise that when someone says, ‘Had I not come to JNU, success for me would have meant opening my own paan shop’. This makes you realise the power of education to transform lives and the fact that the government should subsidise education.
However, my politics and beliefs were not just shaped by the teachers or the general milieu, but by the people I became friends with, whose lives were different from mine. You have to look beyond your known limited experience. Politics should be based on compassion.
You wrote an open letter to JNU student Umar Khalid as well.
I got trolled for that. I believe that people start abusing when they don’t have any logical counter argument.
At a time, when most actors are not taking a clear political stand, you nurture the dream of becoming India’s prime minister.
I am a self-destructive idiot. Have you not noticed I play Salman Khan’s sister, mother to a 15-year-old and I’m now talking about politics (laughs)? I definitely want to get into politics — at least, I will work in the public sphere, though that would be related to something that I know — acting, theatre, culture. I am already part of a progressive artists’ collective called Swaang, whose members are from the film industry. We have a YouTube channel called Swaang Songs where we post protest videos.
I am very open about the fact that I have political views. I don’t believe politics is a bad thing — just don’t do it badly or be corrupt.
Will you be making a shift to politics anytime soon?
Right now, I am concentrating on films. The way our politics is structured, we put our artists and filmmakers in a vulnerable place. Look at the way Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan were attacked; Aarakshan was banned in three states on the basis of its trailer. People complain that we make bad films. If you create a culture where to be stupid is safe, then you will get stupid art and stupid entertainment. We should be able to protect our artists and their freedom of expression.
Your script, Split Ends, has been selected for Asia Society’s New Voices Fellowship for Screenwriters. How long have you been writing?
I used to write short stories during college which were published in various magazines. When I came to Mumbai, I got sick of the work I was offered in the first few years and started writing the script of Split Ends with the intention of acting in it. I am also working on another script — a comedy about two girls and their personal journeys. Once it is written, I will start pitching them to producers. And I will act in both of them because I am a greedy and selfish person.