O ne of Swara Bhaskar’s earliest memories of same sex relationships is from her days at Miranda College, New Delhi. “My best friend came out to me. I have witnessed his struggles in the years since. From the time I understood same sex relationships, I have been okay with it. It’s someone’s personal choice, so I don’t get why anyone should have a problem. Someone’s life is not a community participation project,” she says, displaying her scathing humour in a recent late night telephone chat.
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The 33-year-old’s new short film, Sheer Qorma , directed by Faraz Arif Ansari, is a tender love story between a woman (Bhaskar) and a non-binary person (Divya Dutta), who returns to India to meet their mother (Shabana Azmi). “It’s an interesting film because it tells the story of the LGBTQI+ community. Gender fluidity is not something that all of us are necessarily familiar with. Even I wasn’t entirely clear about what it meant when I did the film,” she explains. “Both the women are Muslim, both are lesbians. This film is very specific to the communities that are underrepresented in our society.” But, at its core, she says the film has a universal emotional appeal (as does her second short, Dobara Alvida , which is about the “emotions one tries to hide when a relationship is over”). “You don’t have to be an LGBTQI+ person or ally to empathise or understand children feeling misunderstood by their parents, and parents struggling to accept the choices of their children.”
It is only fitting that Sheer Qorma has started its film festival journey this month — celebrated as Pride Month all over the world — with a screening at the Frameline Festival in San Francisco. The short film locates itself quite comfortably within Bhaskar’s very versatile and, at times, risky choices as an actor. Her first film, Niyati , never saw the light of day and she had almost packed her bags when Tanu Weds Manu (2011) came her way. She shone once again as the heroine’s friend in Raanjhanna (2013), but it was the sole leads of Nil Battey Sannata (2016) and Anarkali of Aarah (2017) that really cemented her credentials. Her last big screen release was the sequin-fest, Veere Di Wedding (2018). Last year she had three OTT outings, with Flesh (Eros Now), Rasbhari (Amazon Prime), and Bhaag Beanie Bhaag (Netflix). “More than Bollywood” is what her Twitter bio reads, and it is accurate. In a parallel life, this JNU alumna with a Masters degree in sociology is at ease taking on trolls online and making speeches at on-ground protests against some of the present government’s most oppressive policies. She has a voice and is not afraid to use it. “If I wasn't an actor, I would have been an activist, working at some NGO,” she says.
When The Hindu Weekend catches up with the actor, she chats about the price she pays for her outspokenness, the direction she wants her career to take, and why she doesn’t like the ‘activist’ tag.
What does it mean to you to be an LGBTQI+ ally?
One of the important aspects of being an ally is to actually listen to the people from that community and learn from their lived experiences. When it comes to posting anything publicly, I always check with activists I know. Recently, I was tracking a debate about being outside the LGBTQI+ community and using the Rainbow flag, and if it is appropriation. Another time, I wanted to post a photo of myself in a pista-coloured lehenga on Instagram with the caption Tutti-frutti, and I checked with them if it is offensive. I always assume that I don’t know enough.
While we have had a few films about same sex relationships, we are quite behind in our film industry.
When there is diversity behind the camera, there will be diversity in the stories we see. This is not just true for LGBTQI+ stories, but also women, differently-abled, or Dalit stories. I am not making any value judgements, but compare a Gauri Shinde or Alankrita Shrivastava’s female protagonists with Madhur Bhandarkar’s and you’ll notice how different they are. You can see how a same sex story is handled in Onir’s film as compared to the more stereotypical lens of the ‘masala’ directors. People tell stories of their own lives and experiences. If we want our popular culture to be more inclusive, we just have to make sure that we have people from underrepresented categories behind the camera.
You have always been vocal with your opinions. But have you been more involved in social causes in the last few years [starting with the CAA-NRC protests]?
When I am called an activist, I feel like a bit of an imposter. I know real activists, and I know the everyday, grassroots kind of work that they put in and the lives they lead. I am a Bollywood actor who is trying to make more money, get famous, buy a bigger car. But yes, there is a side of me that is very involved and interested in what’s happening in the world. And that’s not something new. I have done it since college. What is new, however, is that now people recognise me at protests, and ask me to come and speak.
You have often talked about how your activism has affected your acting career. Has it become better or worse?
What has gotten better is I’m not the only person who is vocal now. Ever since the CAA-NRC protests, I’m not the only person from the film industry who is speaking up. Having said that, I know that more and more people are getting nervous to cast me. They’re scared of controversy. There’s a lot of talk that ‘Swara is trouble’. Every producer that I've worked with since 2015 is concerned about my Twitter account. What’s different now, though, is that I’ve accepted it. I don’t care.
Your last feature film was Veere Di Wedding , a little over three years ago. Doesn’t that worry you?
I’ve also had five releases on the web in that time. The industry is changing with different platforms that have come up and these are offering newer kinds of work. Also, of the three years, we’ve spent the last one in a pandemic. Of course, I’ve been concerned when I’ve lost brand work or when controversies [get attached] to my films. Every time something crops up, the right-wing social media will start a boycott Swara’s film or brand campaign. So, brands are scared to approach me unless it’s Women’s Day; then they want a strong, independent woman. It’s a negotiation. I’m old enough to understand that I chose a path and there is a price to pay.
You have been writing scripts. Is that the direction you want your career to move towards?
I’ve actually written two stories already and I’m struggling with a third. One is a very intense love story with a lot of angst, and the other is a happier film about friendship and a very messed up girl. So that’s more autobiographical. I want to write more and, hopefully, be able to produce it. But I don’t want to give up acting because I am still a vain and self-obsessed actor [please add that I am being self-deprecating so people don’t think I am an idiot!]