If one looks at her filmography, it would be hard to imagine that Swara Bhasker once dreamt of dancing in Swiss Alps as a quintessential Hindi film heroine.
But the actor grew up with that dream, watching Doordarshan on her black-and-white TV, only to enter the industry years later and challenge stereotypes.
Featuring in popular and critically-acclaimed films like the Tanu Weds Manu franchise, Raanjhanaa and Nil Battery Sannata, Swara completed a decade in the city.
In an interview with PTI, the actor reflected on her journey, which she describes as “wholesome, hard and laborious” but something that has shaped her.
“I don’t know how a JNU student landed here. I think it’s the power of Bollywood. It is such a central part of our upbringing,” she said.
A Delhiite, Swara did her graduation from Miranda House (Delhi University) and masters from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), where she began doing amateur street plays.
“I finished my MA exams and thought if I don’t do this now I was already 22 I will never be able to do it. I didn’t want to be 45, and tell myself, ‘What if I had gone to Bollywood?'”
Not leaving her Bollywood aspiration to chance, she arrived in Mumbai in 2009 with a friend. The city, which sees plenty of film aspirants trying to make it big, was expectedly hard for Swara.
The first struggle was to find a society, which allowed two single women to rent a house. She was unsuccessful for the first three weeks and ended up living in screenwriter Anjum Rajabali’s office whom she knew from before.
“My struggle was learning to live on my own, learning that this is an industry where you get judged for your looks. I come from a background of academia where we are taught it doesn’t matter how you look. Then you come to the glamour world where it’s all about the looks. Just accepting that and playing that game was a big struggle.”
Swara said she had the “wrong personality, the wrong soul for Bollywood.”
The actor recalled getting her facial done for the first time and crying alone in auto.
“I used to be the girl, sitting in the back in class making fun of all the girls, who do make up. It was an internal struggle, learning to be a part of an industry that’s often very shallow in how it judges you. My struggle was never financial.”
The first offer that came her way was within one-and-a-half months of coming to the city. Niyati being the first film she shot for, which she feels had her “purest performance”. Her first release, however, was Madholal Keep Walking in August 2010.
But fame didn’t knock her at the door until filmmaker Aanand L Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu released in 2011.
Swara received rave reviews not only from the critics for her turn as smart and sensible Payal, best friend to Kangana Ranaut’s Tanu, but also earned recognition from the audience.
The actor, however, did not realise she needed to capitalise on the buzz that was created around her character.
“I didn’t know I had to hire an agency, get out there and pitch myself. I was chilling, thinking people will come to me. I didn’t use the buzz because when you’re not from the industry, you don’t know these games.”
Trying to understand the trick of the trade and a pile-up of unreleased films had broken her to the point that she was considering other options, including doing B.Ed and later moving back to Delhi.
“Every six months I’d say, ‘I’m going back.’ The day Himanshu (Sharma, the writer) called me for Raanjhanaa, I was sitting at someone’s office, thinking, ‘Should I sell the house and then move back to Delhi or put it on rent and then move back?'”
Raanjhanaa (2013) made Swara a bigger name and the popularity only increased when she returned on screen two years later in the sequel to Tanu Weds Manu.
She then featured in films, which aligned with her ideology, gender politics and her world view, like director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata and Anaarkali of Aarah, helmed by Avinash Das.
“Avinash sir wrote more than 20 drafts of the script and I read all of them. I would argue with him and had told him, ‘We will do the film but I won’t compromise on the gender politics of it. I’m not going to be part of a film that even for a minute makes it seem like it’s a woman’s fault.'”
As an artiste, she was getting clarity on what kind of art she wanted to endorse, the sense of self-awareness was also forcing her to look back at her work and understand some of the criticism for her previous films, case in point – the glorification of stalking in Raanjhanaa.
“There are many things that I didn’t see earlier. I also have grown, I’m learning. If there’s a critique of something I’ve done, instead of shutting that person down, I’ll make a note of it so that next time I’ll keep this in mind.”
But when it comes to criticism, Swara is one actor, whose off-screen conduct invites more extreme reactions than her craft.
She is undoubtedly one of the most vocal celebrities of her generation, who regularly questions the establishment, but being publicly opinionated comes with a price.
— Swara Bhasker (@ReallySwara) July 14, 2019
“I’m sure it affects the work that comes my way, I’m sure I don’t get as many mainstream offers as I ought to. Nobody has refused to give me work because I’m controversial. If they discuss this amongst themselves, I don’t know.
“I’ve had well-wishers tell me that I’m getting a reputation of being a troublemaker, someone who has a nuisance value. I understand their concerns as well.”
The actor isn’t bitter about it though, because she feels her trolls have kept her relevant.
“They’ve kind of contributed to this identity of someone, who stands up for what she believes in, and I suppose that’s the person I am. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to hold it. But at least I can look at myself in the mirror at the end of all of this,” she added.
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