Swara Bhaskar is not afraid to address issues on female sexuality that Hindi film heroines generally brush under the (red) carpet. The actress, whose performance in the just-released “Anaarkali Of Aarah”, says portraying the unapologetic nature of her character in the film was not as challenging as it may seem.
Swara plays a performer in a village and her act is being hailed as a breakthrough projection of a woman’s right to decide when to say yes or no — and she is overwhelmed.
Excerpts from an interview:
Q. Your performance in “Anaarkali Of Aaarah” is spectacular. Would you say it is the most well-received performance of your career so far?
Yes I think so, and I must confess that I’m quite overwhelmed. Happily overwhelmed but still overwhelmed. I had a lot of faith in the story, in Anarkali’s journey and in the intention and spirit with which we made the film. I was hopeful that audiences will connect with the tale but I didn’t expect this level of praise and such accolades. I feel both vindicated and blessed.
Q. How difficult was it for you to play a woman who is so unapologetic about her sexuality and so unabashed in her contempt for the lustful male gaze?
Honestly, the unapologetic nature of Anaarkali was not that difficult, because that’s how I feel as a woman about my own body. Being unapologetic about my body, my sexuality, my life’s decisions is a political belief that as a feminist I strongly espouse. What was difficult for me and my real challenge was to preserve and express the fact that however feisty Anaarkali may seem, she is still vulnerable.
Because ultimately she is a woman, and a woman considered not worthy of societal respect in an obviously male-centric patriarchal world. So keeping that vulnerability of Anaarkali alive, was my real challenge.
Q. Was it difficult for you to perform the raunchy dances and lip sync the double-meaning lyrics? How have you managed to make the performance so free of inhibition and vulgarity?
The difficult part was not so much the raunchiness of the steps as just the live dancing. I’ve never done a proper Bollywood dance number. And even though I’ve trained in Bharatanatyam, Bollywood dancing as a form is totally different. I think credit should actually go to Shabina Khan for being able to keep the choreography rustic and sensual and yet not vulgar. I think credit also goes to my dance guru Padma Shri Leela Samsonji, whose rigorous training perhaps enabled me to perform raunchy, bawdy and fairly overtly sensual choreography without it being cringe-worthy.
Q. I believe the dances were shot in front of actual live audiences?
Yes, while shooting sometimes the challenge became the all-male crowd, local to Amroha (where we shot), who I think began to enjoy the shoot as if it were a real show and passed those kinds of comments — (smiles) some of those comments were pretty vulgar and offensive but I reacted like Anaarkali would.
I believe shedding inhibitions is step 1 for any actor to get into any character, so that, I guess I did as part of my great faith in this script and this part.
Q. This is an important film, perhaps extending further the idea that a woman saying no must be respected even if she is part of an inherently disreputable profession. As a vocal supporter of gender equality and an opponent of patriarchal perversity, where do you place your character in this film?
Absolutely. This was one of my non-negotiable requests to my director Avinash Das-ji when he was writing. We were certain that there will be no doubt about our intention and message in this film, that it doesn’t matter what the woman does, what her character is, loose or slutty or whatever… She may be a prostitute, but even then consent is paramount.
I think our bravest move was to make Anaarkali actually characterless or loose from the point of view of a middle class morality. We offer no explanation, apology or justification for the fact that she may have casual sex — but on her own terms. That makes the whole question of consent totally non-negotiable. I think that is our greatest victory in this film.
Q. Swara, your career has so far demonstrated an assertive will to choose the unconventional. Would it be correct to say the unconventional is the conventional for you?
Perhaps! See as an actor, and moreover an outsider with no Godfather within the industry, I don’t have a whole lot of control on what kind of roles are offered to me. But I can control what I choose. And I like to choose tough roles that I haven’t done before and roles that make me grow as an actor by challenging me..
Q. As an outsider inABollywoodAwhat has your journey so far been like? Have you encountered prejudice, bias, cynicism and how have you tackled them?
It’s been a pretty wholesome journey. Tough and disappointing in parts but also very fulfilling in parts, so a pretty complete experience of Navarasa in that sense.