Swara Bhaskar is undoubtedly one of India’s most critically acclaimed actors. But what makes her stand apart in an industry known to keep its head down is her resolve to always speak her truth. The Nil Battey Sannata actor has often created waves with her bold statements on more than one occasion. In her open letter to Sanjay Leela Bhansali in 2018, where she criticised him for glorifying jauhar (the Hindu practice of mass self-immolation by women during war to avoid capture) in Padmaavat, she said she felt ‘reduced to a vagina’. When queen of controversy Kangana Ranaut takes petty pot-shots at her every now and then, Swara isn’t afraid to give it back with her firebrand wit. “I’ve actually always been pretty straightforward and outspoken about my opinions. I feel very strongly about social justice or more importantly, injustice,” she says.
Unfortunately, being an outspoken woman in India comes with a caveat—incessant trolling, bullying and harassment. When her movie Veere Di Wedding was released, Swara featured in a masturbation scene. While some people praised the film for candidly portraying female pleasure, others slammed the actress for going against ‘Indian culture and values’. She was flooded with vile, derogatory and violent comments, messages and tweets. But trolls don’t faze Swara, who deals with them by simply ‘not giving a four-letter-word’.
Swara’s Twitter bio reads ‘more than Bollywood’, and her earnest activism is a testament to that. With over one million followers on her social media accounts, Swara makes an active effort to use her platform responsibly. “A lot of people have told me “you give us a voice”, and I want to be a role model of how to use power correctly.” And she did just that in 2020, when India was facing its worst migrant crisis during the national lockdown.
When Swara was driving from Mumbai to Delhi in May last year, she encountered migrants in Rajasthan, and was horrified by what she saw. Scores of people walked for hours in the blistering heat, in an attempt to return to their homes—which were thousands of kilometres away. Moved by their plight and conscious of her privilege, Swara sprang into action and got in touch with social workers and volunteers on ground. She learned that the one thing migrant workers needed on priority was shoes, as walking for hours at end was destroying them. She partnered with a few footwear brands, who agreed to donate shoes for the cause. Working in collaboration with NGOs and MLAs working on ground, she managed to send over 3,000 pairs of shoes to those in need.
Of course, Swara didn’t stop there. Calling the crisis “the most shameful and severe human impact story of our time,” she followed up on the promise of using her influence for good. She formed a team with two of her associates, and used her Twitter account to help people stranded owing to the lockdown. “I said, whoever is stuck and can’t go back, send me your details, your names, numbers and I will help you all get tickets.” And that’s how Swara Bhasker helped over 1,500 migrant workers board buses and return to their native homes.
Swara’s passion for not only her acting, but also for social justice, is awe-inspiring. With the POPxo Power Women List 2020, we are celebrating phenomenal women like Swara, who went the extra mile, swiftly adapted to the new normal and made strides that had a lasting impact. So it isn’t a surprise that we are thrilled to feature her on the list. In a candid conversation, Swara spills the beans on her new production company, what she loves and loathes about Bollywood, and her one-stop solution for dealing with trolls. Lightly edited excerpts below:
What does power mean to you?
Power is being able to influence the lives of others, and to change the world around you. And in that sense, power can be used to make positive enabling changes, progressive changes, changes that will better the lives of people.
You use your influence to speak up about what’s right. Do you hope it will encourage young women, who are often silenced, to use their voice?
I didn’t start from a place where I thought I had that influence to begin with. I’ve actually always been pretty straightforward and outspoken about my opinions. I feel very strongly about social justice or more importantly, injustice. And I think it’s just that earlier because I was younger and not famous, so nobody noticed. And I think that as I became better known for my work and then when I was still saying stuff, people sort of sat up and started taking note. But now I have realised that I have a platform and I’ve also realised that people look up to and notice what I say. And a lot of people have told me “you say things that we feel we can’t say or you give us a voice”. So, yeah, in that sense, I do hope that I’m able to inspire people to speak up, inspire women especially, young women to speak up. I do feel that if there are young people who are noticing what I’m saying, then I want to be responsible and I want to say the right thing. And I want to be a role model of how to use power correctly.
What made you reach out to and help migrants get home during lockdown? Can you tell us more about the initiative?
I was in Mumbai for the first two months of the pandemic. But then my mother fractured her collarbone in Delhi, so I got medical emergency permissions and I drove from Mumbai to Delhi. And I remember when I was driving through Rajasthan to Delhi, I saw a lot of trucks lined up on the sides of the road. There were men sleeping under the truck and they were drying their clothes on the side. It was the month of May and the heat was scorching. And of course, I had been tracking the journalists who were doing stories on the migrant crisis.
So I felt really bad when I came to Delhi in the comfort of my parents home. I began to feel very guilty, and then I was chatting with some activists and I asked them—what is it that you need? What are you doing? One of them just said ‘madam chappal dilwa do. They want slippers because even if they’ve started out walking and they have shoes, their shoes are breaking after so many hours of walking. So, the first thing I did was, I got in touch with Relaxo, Altheo shoes and Action shoes. Very generously, those brands agreed to give us between 2 and 3 thousand pairs of shoes each. So the first thing we did was, we distributed those shoes and slippers. I got in touch with activists who were already on ground from Karwan e Mohabbat, Pushti Foundation, and Aam Aadmi Party MLA Dilip Panday. So, we got in touch with all those people and started distributing all the shoes. The next thing that I realised was that the Delhi government is starting trains to send the people back home. So, I just turned me and two associates of mine into a team and we turned my Twitter handle into a call centre. I said whoever is stuck and can’t go back, send me your details, your names, numbers and you know I will help you all get tickets. That’s how we were able to send more than 1,500 people back, and it was amazing. And it was a very very humbling experience to see those migrants board the busses and go back home, and I really want to say kudos to all those activists on ground who enabled that.
You’ve started your own production company—any interesting projects we can look forward to?
Yes, I’ve started a production house with my brother called Kahaniwale. We have two scripts that are ready and one of them which I’m hoping that we will be able to put on the floor by the end of the year. One is a romantic comedy with a twist because it’s the story of two best friends and it’s a really fun, fresh, edgy, story. I’m really looking forward to being able to make it!
What’s the one role you wish you’d got the opportunity to play?
The one role I wish I had the opportunity of playing, and I hope I get that chance someday, is Anarkali from Mughal-e-Azam. I wanna be in a historical film. I also want to do a biopic, and I want to do a role like Erin Brockovich—I think that was an amazing role! What Julia Roberts did (in Erin Brockovich) was absolutely stunning. Oh, and also Rani Mukerji’s role in Black—I think she was amazing!
What do you think is the biggest challenge women face today?
Well, I think women face many different challenges, and despite the fact that there has been a lot of progress, there are certain endemic problems and structural inequalities that remain. But I think today, the single greatest problem that I feel women face is the problem of sexual violence and lack of physical safety. We have seen in the last few years, the manner in which rape cases in India have been on the rise—very brutalising cases. So, I think that rape is sort of becoming an epidemic in this country and it’s something that should worry us all. And I think that the physical safety of women is something that is really one of the single biggest crises for women. And this is something that cuts across cities and rural areas, so it’s not like it’s just happening in rural India—it’s also happening in big cities, like the Hyderabad case. So I think the rape epidemic is one of the most pressing urgent crises that Indian women are facing today.
What has been your most meaningful role in a movie to date, and why?
Well I think my role of Anarkali Aarahwali in Anaarkali of Aarah and Chanda in Nil Battey Sannata—they are the two most meaningful roles I’ve portrayed in my career. Nil Battey Sannata is a very inspiring story of a domestic worker who teaches her daughter that your context does not have to determine your dreams and that dreams can be independent of your context and you know, which I think is a very empowering message. It’s a very beautiful heart-touching story. And of course, Anaarkali of Aarah is a cry for justice and it’s a really inspiring story of a feisty dancing girl who is someone that the typical middle-class morality will shun as being bad or promiscuous. And it’s the story of how she gets molested on stage but continues to fight for justice in a society that sees her as not even deserving of justice, because she’s a “fallen” woman. Both of these are my most memorable roles and my most challenging ones too, and I enjoyed playing them! I’m really honoured to have been a part of both those stories.
If you could only work with one director for the rest of your career, who would it be?
I have never worked with Anurag Kayshap but as an actor, I really love what he does, how he directs his scenes…so maybe Anurag. And also Zoya (Akhtar)—I have not worked with her but I love what she does, so my answer would b Anurag and Zoya.
Tell us the one thing you love about Bollywood and the one thing you loathe.
The one thing I love about Bollywood is the films, is the chance that it gives me to act and live so many lives of different characters. And the fact that talent chupta nahi hai Bollywood mein—it can take many years, but you will get recognised. And what I hate about Bollywood is having to wear heels, and well, not a fan of the paparazzi either.
Trolls don’t get under your skin. What’s your 5-step guide to dealing with the ‘IT cell crowd’?
There’s no five steps, there’s just one step—do not give a four-letter-word. These people are cowards—a lot of them are bots using age-old techniques of bullying, which is bullying someone and shame them into silence. And so the best way to deal with them is to not fall for it, is to not feel ashamed, not feel bullied and to give it back to them. And some days I just ignore them. Mostly, I don’t even read my comments so I don’t actually engage (with them) on a daily basis. Sometimes, when I’m in a mood to have a scrap, then I’ll read a comment or two and give it back. So yeah, but for the most part, do not give a four-letter-word about it. Trolls are vermin.