With “Raanjhanaa” making waves, Delhi girl Swara Bhaskar tells us about shooting in Benaras and what it means to be an ‘intelligent’ girl in Bollywood
In many ways, the rise of Swara Bhaskar tells us what is right and what is not so right in the Hindi film industry. Here is an unassuming Delhi girl from the so-called intellectual background trying to make a mark in the please-all mainstream movies. She is being given a chance to come under the tent pole, play what she is and more importantly, what she is not. But can she be more than just a great support in the big package? Can she be the driving force in an industry dominated by dolls, many of whom feel changing attires is akin to getting into the skin of the character.For now, Swara is awaiting the response to Bindiya, the part she plays in Aanand L. Rai’s Raanjhanaa. It was Aanand, who saw a feisty small town girl Payal in Swara for Tanu Weds Manu. But Bindiya from
Benaras seems a little naïve. “Bindiya is a mad-cap! She is one of the most compelling, fun and lovable characters I have ever played. Yes, she is naïve but more than that she is innocent. There is a wonderful child-like innocence about her, about her faith in her gods, her fasts and her vows, about her love for Kundan (Dhanush), about her belief that she will actually fight him into loving her back. There is a scene in the film where she is conversing with a cow. I think it is the most endearing scene I have ever read or seen in a film. Our world is a cynical, violent, hopeless world. That there can still be a character like Bindiya, so full of love, hope and faith is wonderful. Bindiya is the most pure character I have essayed in my career so far.”
Swara says it was the complete package that compelled her to do the film. “I think the script really captures the insanity of love. That really hooked me. Also, Aanand sir is someone I would always want to work with again and again. He is an actor’s director in every sense.”
Interestingly, Swara’s maternal grandmother is from Benaras and Swara had been to the city many times. “My first ever acting work on video was shot there. Benaras is one of India’s most cinematic cities. The kinds of textures, colours, faces you see in that city, it cannot but look beautiful on screen. The people of Benaras are very lively, the street food is delicious and shopping quirky and fun – perfect ingredients for a fun shoot, I would say. Every time we shoot in the open, lots of crowds would gather and the people of Benaras are quick to comment and have a wry sense of humour. They were very responsive to the shoot. So it was like a double -performance. Performing to the camera and performing to a live audience. That was my greatest high in this film.”
Talking of colours, she recalls the Holi sequence that was filmed in Benaras in the freezing winter of mid-December. “Himanshu had beautifully written a grand Holi sequence into the screenplay capturing the energy, scale and bhaang-induced madness of Benaras’s traditional Holi. It took us three days to shoot and the days chosen were 20-22 December, the coldest days of the year. The art department had constructed a keechad (mud/slush) pool, very thoughtfully filled with warm water which soon turned cold. There were almost 200-plus junior artistes used for the scene, some of whom were pouring buckets of water from terraces on us while we ran through the streets. I was scared of slipping and thus was barefoot. I have never been so cold in my life but it was the most fun I have ever had shooting. It was also the first time in my life that I played Holi in a sari. The production was very sweet and kept blankets and buckets of hot water ready for us while we waited between shots. Interestingly, Himanshu was missing during the filming of this sequence. He did not come on the set as all the actors had sworn to throw him into the keechad pool for writing such a long and vast Holi sequence!
She is being consistently liked by the critics but still she is not being considered for lead roles by reputed banners. Has she been able to figure out how this casting business works?
“I wish critics would make films! I’d like to hope that I am being considered for lead roles. But I also understand that many factors operate upon casting decisions other than just being a good, competent actor. The fact of the matter is that certain films need stars of a certain level. No one but Hrithik and Aishwarya could’ve played Jodha and Akbar in Jodha Akbar, that film needed that level of stars. The rest is a gamble, you get what you get and you make the best of what you’re offered. I’m also a bit choosy and I do say no to a lot of films and a lot of roles of various kinds. Films last forever. I don’t want to look like an idiot a hundred years later when I’m dead. I want to build a credible and respectable body of work.”
Having done her masters in Sociology from the city’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, Swara has been associated with N.K. Sharma’s Act One theatre group and has learnt Bharatanatyam from Leela Samson. So it must be tough for her to slog it out in Bollywood considering she is not a regular wannabe whose sole ambition as an actor is to be cast opposite a Khan or a Kapoor. But more than that is it important?
“Very important I guess! And since I’m an undisciplined lazy bum, getting that damn 6-pack ab or whatever is my greatest challenge. I sometimes think that because I have other interests, I lack the drive and focus and the do-whatever-it-takes kind of killer attitude you need in a super competitive world. But then I also remember that it’s because of my background and my unique and diverse experiences growing up, studying literature and sociology, working in NGOs and riot-relief camps, training in villages, participating in political protests that I’m able to bring different emotional experiences to my characters when I act, and then I feel lucky and privileged to have had my life and background. I am what I am and I have no regrets. Take it or leave it.”
She had her share of shocks though. “Mumbai was a culture shock to me when I first arrived. Not just the crowds and rush and cement and speed and traffic…but (since my interaction has largely been with the film and media world) how well turned out everyone is! I remember at my first audition someone looking at the ethnic block-prints on my clothes and asking me why I was wearing a bed-cover!” Then she had her share of experience with shady casting managers, who keep on repeating what one can do to be an actor.
It seems she has to counter a double edged stereotype. In Bollywood she is considered an intelligent JNU girl who won’t be able to stoop to the demands of commercial cinema while in JNU, where her mother teaches, certain people must be finding her efforts to find acceptance in Bollywood as dilution of the core beliefs of the socio-political environment she grew up in.
Swara laughs and nods. “I have indeed once lost because and I quote, I ‘looked too intelligent’ for the part; and some of my friends from JNU do tease me about my TV commercials and new-found concern with weight and dieting and how I’ve abandoned my feminism. I guess some things are occupational hazards (like the weight-watching and gyming) and some of it is one’s journey in life. You walk down the path you chose and tackle what it brings.”
She doesn’t really see a contradiction though. “Why can’t an actor be educated, well read, politically informed and interested in society and politics and still be glamorous and desirable on screen? Charlie Chaplin was known to have Communist sympathies yet is one of the world’s greatest and most loved actors. So yes, I guess there are certain contradictions in some of the choices I’ve made, and I dare say that I will have to make as I do more commercial films but there are certain things I draw the line at. Like, I would never do a fairness cream campaign that is blatantly sexist.”
Does Raanjhanaa glorify stalking?
“Raanjhanaa does not promote stalking. It is a story set in a conservative socio-religious setting where young people fear their parents and society, where romance between boys and girls cannot be carried out openly. It is also a context where boys and girls do not mingle or communicate freely. This is true of many parts of small town India, still. Obviously then Kundan cannot be romancing Zoya openly. Stalking is a sinister, deeply disturbing, potentially dangerous and very unpleasant experience. I know because I’ve experienced it once myself. There is nothing sinister or dangerous or disturbing about Kundan’s pursuit of Zoya. I think those who watch the full film in its proper context will agree with me.”