This edition of Express Adda held in Delhi hosted actor Swara Bhasker. In a discussion moderated by The Indian Express Film Critic Shubhra Gupta and National Features Editor Devyani Onial, Bhasker spoke on nepotism, invisible privileges and why she speaks out.
On why she joined Bollywood
The real reason why I went to Bollywood is pretty sad and narcissistic. When cable finally came to India, my parents didn’t want to get it. So, there was only Doordarshan in my life for a very long time. The only entertainment we had was Chitrahaar. I was obsessed with Chitrahaar and I wanted to be in it. At that time — I don’t see them so much now — there used to be posters of film stars in autos and I wanted my pictures in autos. I wanted to be Shah Rukh Khan. But more seriously, when I was in college, I was seduced by how intimate the medium was.
I look at the whole nepotism debate as how you would look at caste and class privilege in society because it is a question of people being born into a certain kind of privileged position when it comes to access for the industry. This is an industry that could not get bank loans till the late ’90s. So, if you have a producer who is taking out a mortgage on his house to make a film then isn’t it obvious that he will cast his son? Once the corporates came in, once funding could be raised from sources, you saw films change. How is it that people like me or Rajkummar (Rao) or Richa Chaddha or Huma (Qureshi) or Nawaz (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), how is it that there are so many of us on screen now?
On speaking out in an industry that doesn’t
No one has told me in so many words that we didn’t cast you because you talk too much or that you are risky but many well-wishers have told me to be careful and that I may be running the risk of projecting myself as a troublemaker. Generally in India, and especially in today’s India, I think filmmakers and producers are a very vulnerable lot. If you look at the series of events that have happened, whether it was Karan Johar feeling pressured to apologise for casting Pakistani actors in his film, or it was the kind of violence that surrounded Padmaavat, I am not surprised that producers or directors feel nervous and scared.
On whether an artiste can be disengaged from society
Are we as a society ready to listen to people who have an opinion that is not in tandem with the dominant opinion? I don’t think we are. Look at what happened with Aamir Khan and that very innocuous remark he made at a dinnertable conversation with his wife. Why would a big star with a family put himself/herself at risk to these seemingly unhinged people for the sake of airing and venting opinion? I don’t see myself as a Bollywood star. I see myself as an actor, an artiste, and I don’t know how to be an artiste without engaging with the world around me.
On Veere Di Wedding breaking the glass ceiling
What is important is that a female-driven film, with four girls, two female producers, one of the writers is a girl — and in the mainstream commercial space — has made money. Veere… has really cracked the glass ceiling by giving an opening and making money. Why should commercial, masala entertainment only be a male space? Why can’t we, as girls, be flippant and have fun?
On the casting couch
Well, I haven’t gotten onto the casting couch. It definitely happens and I am sure it happens. I went to Bombay and I was fully prepared for the casting couch and had prepared a small lecture on feminism to deliver if I were propositioned. A year-and-a-half went by and nobody asked me. I then realised that nobody turns around and says, ‘Excuse me, you have to have sex for this role’, but there are a lot of other hints that they were giving that I was not taking. This one guy said to me, ‘I can see fire in your eyes’. And I’m thinking, I’ll bag this role. But then he went on to say, ‘There are thousands of girls who can do this role but what are you willing to do for it?’ I said I’m a sociology student and I’ll be able to locate my character in a social context. He said, ‘That everyone does. What can you do?’ So, I said my memory was really good so I’ll be able to learn the dialogues really well and he said everyone does that. This conversation had gone on for seven-eight minutes and I’d exhausted all that I could do. And then it dawned upon me, and I said, ‘If you’re asking me if I can have sex for this role, I don’t think so’. And the meeting ended in the next five seconds.
I think it happens everywhere, because it’s basically about power, right? But I feel the onus shouldn’t be on girls, because hum apne sapnon ka mohtaj kyun ho jayein? Why should our ambition be our greatest threat and make us vulnerable to this kind of nonsense? But equally, the only way to deal with it is to just say no and to lose that role, because until people in power realise that it’s not going to fly, it’s not going to stop.
On whether Bollywood will get its #metoo moment
I think what happened in Hollywood is, that when American society and media became more sympathetic to women survivors and victims of these kinds of stories, and public discourse was more receptive to these stories, that women started speaking up. I don’t know if I want to tell a survivor that you come and tell your story, and then get trolled and have channels that will put mics in your face and ask you really insensitive questions. I don’t know if I should bring a survivor and put them through that again without being able to guarantee that there are enough of us with you and will stand by you publicly. But I think that is happening. The Malayalam film industry is doing some very interesting stuff. There are a bunch of actresses who have gotten together (Women in Cinema Collective) and some of them just resigned from AMMA (Association of Malayalam Movie Artists), protesting their misogyny.
On being trolled in Pakistan for calling it a failed state
Pakistan had banned Veere Di Wedding and I was not surprised because you know it is an Islamic Republic and the film has a masturbation scene, and there are people abusing and drinking and swearing and smoking. But what I realised was we’re very similar, Indians and Pakistanis, in the matter of trolling and abusing. But honestly, I don’t think that it’s fair to say to someone that, ‘oh, you said that you love the city and you love the people so how can you criticise the government’ because that’s the exact same logic of the rightwing in India — that if you love the country, then you can’t criticise the government. But a land and its people are not equal to the government.
On her journey and coming from privilege
My poor parents made the early mistake of being liberal with me when they were bringing me up and they’re paying for it. I told them I’m like the Indian Railways, I’m a heavy investment. Abhi aap patriyan lagaon, bees saal baad return aayega (Lay the tracks now, you will get the returns in 20 years). What that did for me is that I never had to do any work that I didn’t want to do. And I think that freedom to say no is the most precious thing that any parent can give to their children, especially to their girl children.
I am very privileged I have to admit. I did struggle to get work, but my struggle was never economic. I think my background, and the fact that I come from a pretty privileged class of people in India, that I come from a certain kind of social and cultural capital, and I speak English, really helped me in Bollywood. I don’t think I was at that moment the most talented actor out there necessarily. I’m sure there were girls from smaller towns who perhaps didn’t quite look the same class as me, who didn’t perhaps speak
English, or didn’t have the flair for the language to crack a joke, or be witty, and talk to big producers. So, I think privilege also really counts, and when we talk about nepotism and where we’re born, there are many invisible kinds of privilege that operate.
BJP Youth Wing leader
There are women who want to be traditional, conservative, and they are happy. In Russia and the US, women have supported Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, who are conservative. Why should they be forced into a feminist project?
Feminism is about choice. If women want to deny themselves their own rights, sure. If you want to wear a sari, keep karvachauth, vote for Trump, or Modi, sure go ahead — they are doing it already. As long as people are having conversations, all is good. As long as people are not being lynched, they are not being burnt alive, as long as they are not being tied on jeeps and being flogged, and as long as our leaders are not attending pro-rape rallies, I think all is good.
Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation
Do you think we’ve reached a point of no return as far as online abuse is concerned?
I think what is happening with social media is that it is being used in a very conscious way to create a certain kind of noise around developments that are taking place in India. Social media is pointing to things that are happening in our country because I think when somebody burns a man alive on so-called love jihad charges and then records it and puts it out, I think that is saying something about where we’re at. How are all these videos coming out? It’s important for (the filth as well) to know where we’re heading and where we’re at.
President, YES Global Institute
What are the kind of projects that you’re looking forward to?
I’m doing two very interesting shows in the digital space, which is stuff I haven’t done before. At some point in my career, I want to play a historical character, like a biopic, and I also want to play a man — because I think for a true performer, gender should not be a bar —not like a tomboy, baal kata liye (cut my hair) and all, but a male role.
Associate Professor, National University of Educational Planning and Administration
Your film Anaarkali of Aarah, which was critically acclaimed, should have definitely been given a National award. Do you think the National Award is given for substance…?
I don’t think about things that I can’t control. Elections jo hain woh har paanch saal mein hi hote hain (elections take place every five years), Rashtriya Puruskar toh mujhe nahi dikhta nazar aa raha bahut jaldi (I don’t see the National Award coming my way anytime soon).
Rosanna M Vetticad
Why do you think that men did not like Veere Di Wedding?
I don’t actually completely agree with that. There were one or two male critics who slammed the film, but there were also some girls who hated it, who wrote very scathing reviews. I know a lot of guys who liked the film and one of the earliest, and sweetest comments, came from a young boy who came up to me and said, ‘Ma’am, thank you so much, kyunki humko finally ab pata chal gaya ki ladkiyan jab hum nahin hote toh kya karti hain (we finally know what girls do when we are not around).