Movies

A career-defining move?

IN FULL BLOOM Swara Bhaskar at her residence in New Delhi   | Photo Credit: Shanker Chakravarty

In the last few years, we have seen plenty of female protagonists on screen. But most of them have been characters one can easily relate to or empathise with. Bucking the trend comes Anarkali of Arrah, the story of an orchestra singer, who is involved in relationships of convenience, flaunts her sexuality to gain attention and yet talks about exploitation and stereotypes. Swara Bhaskar, who is playing the title role, says it is an important story which must be told because “lot of films that are made around women take an easy way out. Here is a character which is difficult to sympathise with.”

Set in Arrah town of Bihar’s Bhojpur district, director Avinash Das, who comes from a journalistic background, has drawn inspiration from the likes of Tarabano Faizabadi, Bhojpuri sensations of double meaning songs. Anarkali is assaulted on stage and she takes it as an attack on her dignity and and her art. “She gets a very strong sense of injustice. Not only that she has been violated, she has been violated on stage, her stage. She has been shown her status, her aukaat as they call it. Howsoever talented you might think you are, the point is how the world is looking at you,” relates Swara. And here in lies the crux. “It is true for most performers. Even Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan have to come face-to-face with this ugly reality. Audiences can be very unruly. Women like these are not unused to violence or brash behaviour but every such incident is far more complex than it seems. The film will make you will realise that it is not about one incident. It is about the fault lines that one incident opens up when one woman refuses to back down. She is stubborn and aggressive. May be she has made a mistake, may be a smarter person would have backed down and because she is not doing that things get murky. The incident is just a catalyst, the film is a larger exploration,” notes Swara, describing Anarakali as an extraordinary character.

Between the lines

“In our society, anybody who is digging his or her heels in, is an extraordinary person. Anarkali is promiscuous but out of her own choice. In Pink, all through, the girls were trying to prove they are normal girls. Here Anarkali is saying, she is not anything but still no one has a right to mess with her. So you cannot come out of the film and say, aisa kya hua tha...that she overreacted.”

Citing her own experiences, Swara underlines a bigger issue where female performers are considered “accessible by some men”. “Anarkali dances in front of drunk men, I have been eve teased on my set when I was shooting for Raanjhanaa in Benaras. You always have to create a crowd of your own people around you to make sure that the ‘other’ crowd doesn’t sneak in. Our faces are recognised, our bodies are seen. These are very real vulnerabilities. Take the recent Malayalam actress case. During the music launch in Delhi, a journalist asked for a selfie and in the process put an arm around me. I got very angry. I don’t know what gives some men an idea that a female performer is an ‘accessible’ person. The film is doubly close to me because it talks about a very real thing and we have placed the debate in its most uncomfortable and least sympathetic scenario.”

Building the character from scratch, Swara spent time in Arrah, interviewing girls like Anarkali. “I went to Munni Orchestra Party and interviewed the girls, recorded their songs and imbibed their body language. In the first draft, the character was only a singer but when I discovered that dance is integral to their performance, I told Avinash to bring in a choreographer.” Research also took her to Kosi Kalan near Mathura where girls perform in between acts of Nautanki. “Imagine my South Indian father and I watching young girls dancing to double meaning songs !” Swara says she has never been involved so deeply in any of her projects. “With Avinash, I have tried to maintain the fine line between creating discomfort and sleaze. The point is these characters are not highlighted in our films. The last film you watched such a character was in Teesri Kasam, where the film looked at her as a character and not some Chikni Chameli, Munni badnam or Sheela.”

What struck Swara about these women was the respect that they have for their art. “My guide in Arrah said, ‘Didi, don’t go in that area as women there indulge in flesh trade. May be they do prostitution in off season. I don’t think it is relevant. When I went to them and asked them to sing a double meaning song for me, they did. When I asked for another, one of them asked: naya ya purana. I said a new one but she insisted on singing a nirgun bhajan. They think of themselves as artists. They have a repertoire of songs.” Should we see racy numbers as contamination of culture? “What is so wrong about a woman expressing sexuality,” counters Swara. “If the idea of a woman singing in a teasing way about sex is wrong, I think there is a problem with that idea. For me, as long as it is in a consensual framework, it is okay. Such songs are part of folk tradition.”

On casting issues

Recently, media was abuzz with reports of Aanand L. Rai offering Swara the role of Shah Rukh Khan’s mother in his next. Swara called it a joke but the fact that it was taken seriously says something about casting in Hindi films. “I don’t believe that opening numbers is just a function of your star power. It is also a function of marketing, how many screens the film is releasing on. It is a very damaging arithmetic because some films need breathing time. There should be a debate on whether Bollywood as a industry is creating stories or it is pitching stars in different roles. Even the worth of a director is judged by the star he is working with. However, then comes a Sairat, a slap in the face of so many people in Bollywood. I have reached a point where I have a body of work and I have paid my dues by doing supporting roles. Nil Bate Sannata ran for 10 weeks and the producer got his money back.”

On being trolled on social media

“I have always seen myself not just an actor but also as a citizen and an activist. I hosted a show on the Constitution of India. I know its value. I am not going to go down without a fight. I have people tweeting me why do I speak in Urdu on Rangoli. Perhaps, they didn’t know I got Rangoli to do a show on dialects of India.”

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 9:14:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/a-careerdefining-move/article17446977.ece

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