Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.Helen Keller
The night of the JNU attacks in Delhi, we witnessed something different. Almost every film personality put forth their views (except the so-called A-listers). The next night, we saw Deepika Padukone be in the campus of JNU to offer her moral support. We do know how badly it went with the right wing. Her film ‘Chhapaak’, which was beautiful and sharing the story of acid attack survivors bore the brunt of her moral support to the students who were attacked by masked goons (who are yet to be arrested by the police, the police had in fact done a press conference putting the blame on those who were attacked – later found out to be false). The messages she got were filthy and brought to light the ugly side of a celebrity taking sides. About a month later, she did a speech on mental health and people claimed she hasn’t actually recovered yet seeing her support for ‘tukde-tukde gang’ (which, according to the Home Minister’s Office of India, does not exist).
The filth and the trolling, much of which was shameful, and plenty had language that people would think ten times before rejecting to use in front of women. And this has been a constant in the life of one of my heroes – Swara Bhaskar. Coupled with the films she does, her education, and the fact that she has been raised so beautifully that she doesn’t only understand the difference between right and wrong, but also doesn’t mince words in putting them across – in an atmosphere that is bad enough for those speaking anything against a particular group, but worse if you are a woman. Swati Khanna recently reported a rape threat. Since it was from a Dubai Chef, their government took action. He was fired from his job, sent back to India. Swati, of course, is another such hero. She is an LLB student though, and her life will go through this only. Now Swara. She has much to lose.
So what does she have to lose exactly? The fact that she struggled hard and spent over a decade trying to get from ‘Madholal Keep Walking’ to ‘Veere Di Wedding’. Let’s not get into the cinematic aspect of the films. In India, an actor’s success is judged by the kind of films she gets to be a part of, and from Madholal to this was a journey of having arrived – of delivering a 100 crore film, the benchmark for success in Bollywood. And then, putting it all at stake for the sake of truth and justice. She is a female actor, and female actors have very short shelf life. Add to that, she has already spend a decade in struggles. So when she has been accepted, why would she risk everything? Perhaps because some people cannot simply go through something that is unacceptable and keep mum.
Her presence at Shaheen Bagh, at JNU, at AMU, and at every place where she speaks against the government policies and acts, it isn’t easy. I have myself received threats and abuses several times while simply posting my views on social media. She is a celebrity – the one who hasn’t yet achieved everything, and yet one who is known enough to be under serious threat. And she happens to be a female. Why does this require reiteration? Women have been merely a tool to show strength in patriarchies across the world. Women have been treated as sex objects or housemaids, or both. Here, we have a woman who is a picture of strength herself.
Then I noticed a tweet from her father, naval officer Commodore Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar (retired) and I truly understood where her strength comes from – probably her parents. The kind of trolls she has, her parents would be the first to get worried. In a country where even now, fathers control, directly or indirectly, majority of a daughter’s decision – this comes as a beautiful surprise. They say if you truly love someone, be their strength and not weakness. This showcases that beautifully.
Coming to her films, I’ve seen only 3 of her films which have her in main lead. I remember her cameos in films like Ranjhana, but I’m not going to talk about them. The first I can remember from the top of my mind is ‘Nil Battey Sannata’. She plays the role of a high-school drop-out, a single mother, and a housemaid living in JJ colony. Her daughter is weak in maths, and she is determined to make her study. For this, as story unfolds, she enrolls in school herself. The character is so different from Swara, but you would not find her in the film. It looks like there’s an actual housemaid who walks and talks the same way, but has a burning desire to see her daughter study and become somebody other than a housemaid. This Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s film is beautiful in itself, and Swara’s performance is something that you will take home and remember for years to come. There’s also Pankaj Tripathi as school principal – the guy who never ceases to amaze. The kids in the film are delightful too.
There’s this film called ‘Listen Amaya’. I saw the film for Farooq Sheikh (the great actor whom we all miss most certainly). Obviously he was great in the film. Obviously Deepti Naval was great too. But to stand up to those two legends like she did in probably her 2nd or 3rd year is something that is unprecedented. Even great actors don’t achieve this level so soon. You can find false notes in most of the careers of people who have excelled as actors. It seems though Swara is a different breed. The film is about a single mom (Deepti Naval) and her daughter (Swara) who run a cafe together. The story talks about the relationship between mother and daughter when the mother develops a relationship of sorts at an old age with a regular Cafe customer (Farooq Sheikh). She is Amaya in the film. Watch it to be amazed. The film is directed by Avinash Kumar Singh (feature film debut).
And of course, there’s Anarkali of Aarah. Again, she plays the titular character. She again plays a girl from the villages – away from her roots. She nails the language and the innunciations so beautifully that you will be amazed this girl can talk so refined as well – be it in Hindi or English. She is local dancer and singer who mesmerizes people with her stage performances. Things take a different turn when a university’s vice chancellor takes fancy of her and attempts to molest her when intoxicated. This man (played by the ever so great Sanjay Mishra) has police under control and is backed by the CM himself. The film also happens to have Pankaj Mishra in a delightful role. I had avoided watching this film for a long time as it appeared to serious as well as lusty topic, a thing I abhor. However, it is a fun to watch film, and there’s no real vulgarity – except realism perhaps. It is Avinash Das’s directorial debut.
If you have seen the trailer of Sheer Qorma, you are in for another surprise. The film stars four very strong performers – Shabana Azmi (one of the woman who has had a similar career both on and off the screen as Swara, and one of the strongest women of independent India), Divya Dutta (the one who never got her due, but she managed to stand tall in whatever she did – for example ‘mujhe mard bana do’ from Dilli 6), Surekha Sikri (the one who refuses to let age and illness stop her from acting – she recently said she misses acting when she could barely move due to illness), and Swara. It is an LGBTQ+ film directed by Faraz Ansari (first feature film).
If you see – all these four films (three completed, one trailer) have a debutante at the helm as director. All these films provide a different canvas of emotions and characters, of different cities and locations, even different forms of sexuality. And Swara nails it perfectly. For someone who doesn’t have a large filmography, to do this is beautiful. This is what is the scary part. This is what we will miss if producers and directors stop approaching her or casting her. I know for certain this is already happening. It might not show. I’m afraid we will lose someone who, it appears, is born to act, to this terrible place we all are reaching where intolerance is almost normalized.
But here’s another take. She might be a very talented and hard working actor. She’s an even better human being though. She is a leader. She is an epitome of modern woman. I do not agree with her every time, like her open letter to Sanjay Leela Bhansali. Frankly, Bhansali portrayed an act as per the times, and comparing it with present times isn’t something to be done. Yet, it is one of the most beautiful things – she wouldn’t lose sleep over someone disagreeing with her as long as he expresses it properly (I sincerely hope). She is the leader we have got, and we should all stand behind her and support her. We should report trolls, take them aside, whenever we can. We should do at least 10% of what she does. And we should let her do her first job, and not do to her films what we’ve been doing in the past – case in point Chhapaak.
When I came to Mumbai, I didn’t know a soul. The only person I knew was an assistant director, which, everyone agrees, is the lowest form of life on the set. So, it was not a great contact to have. So, I knew from day one that I wasn’t going to be launched opposite a superstar.Swara Bhaskar
To Swara, I hope you read this. I want to tell you that in the darkest of times, you have been my light. I see that you have grown taller and taller despite everything that has come your way. Some day, hopefully soon, I’ll be a storyteller on my own. You are one of the few actors I desperately want to work with, if not for anything but just for a chance to listen to you speak. And yes, you have the characters of a geek but you are beautiful in all the standards of the world.