In conversation with Swara Bhaskar

Swara Bhaskar has acted in several Indian movies, including two top grossing Bollywood films. She is currently working on writing the screenplay of a film titled Split Ends for which she has been awarded the New Voices Fellowship 2016 in Screenwriting by the Asia Society (India chapter). She is a founding member of the artists collective Swaang that creates and performs protest music, theatre, and poetry. Bhaskar recently visited Yale at the invitation of the South Asian Studies Council at the MacMillan Center to screen and discuss the new comedy drama. While she was here, Tiraana Bains, a graduate student in history department, spoke with Bhaskar about her work. An edited version of the conversation follows:

You have a Master’s degree in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, you’ve conducted archival research on the Anti-Nautch debates, and your mother, Ira Bhaskar, is a professor and scholar of film studies. How have these encounters, both personal and more institutionalized, with academia shaped your understanding of cinema, and your work as an actor?

Well, I think I have a pretty schizophrenic relationship to films. I wasn’t thinking very seriously about cinema growing up because one was basically part of the audience [even though] I was a huge Bollywood fan and loved Hindi films. Since I didn’t speak any other language, I was really only exposed to Bollywood or the Hindi film industry, in more politically correct terms. I studied Literature before I studied Sociology, and because of my mother’s work, I would look at films as a different kind of text. Like how we would look at novels, and the kind of textual criticism you do for novels. We, my friends and I, were young, dynamic, and excited students. The Literature department at Miranda House, where I got my Bachelor’s degree, was avowedly political, feminist, and left-leaning. Then I came to JNU, where the campus itself it a fairly politicized space. So I had that kind of background. But actually going into Bollywood was a kind of fangirl decision; part vanity, part secret fantasy. When I got there, and started working there, I realized that there was a big difference between being an analyst and a practicing artist in a place like Bollywood which comes with its own set of constraints because film-making isn’t an actor’s medium. It’s a director’s medium. So I would find myself spending a lot of time wondering “what the hell is this?” I remember my mom telling me that you are going to have to shed this condescension and arrogance if you want to be part of this industry. You can’t be dismissing the work you’re doing and the world you are in. I think, over the years, spending time being an actor in Bollywood has changed me. One has grown from being a student-activist into a professional. The way in which my academic training affects my work is in the kind of preparation I do for my roles. If you look at my scripts they are always full of sticky notes. I’ll first take the script and do a kind of textual criticism job on it. Then, because I guess I’ve been trained in sociological approaches and this is not something I do consciously, I’ll look at a character and ask what social class they belong to. You locate the person in what in Hindi is called a tabaqa (social hierarchy). Who is this person’s father? Their mother? What do they do? Where does this character live? Build the social world in which this person operates and then build that individual person. Take body language: a shrug is a very urban gesture in India. You don’t see this shoulder movement in rural areas. I remember someone pointing this out to me while I was doing this gesture in a play. So I have to build a character from this perspective. In Nil Battey Sannata, I had to be very conscious of this. This is really where my sociological training comes in. Of course, I’m still a viewer so the rest of the intellectual or academic baggage comes in when I’m watching films. As an actor in the industry who has gained some amount of recognition, one is asked to comment on things. Over the last few years, I have found myself constantly commenting on current affairs, what’s going on in the country and so on. And I’ve often found myself on the wrong side of the populist discourse that is prevalent in India today. During interviews, lots of people ask me, “You aren’t afraid to speak your mind?” And I think that is actually the legacy of my academic training. My opinion of what the place of films is in the life of a nation, in the culture of people has been deeply shaped by it. Some sections of Bollywood have a very utilitarian understanding of what cinema is, which is “entertainment, entertainment, entertainment” – a very popular dialog from the film Dirty Picture. I think there could not be a more negative and dead-end understanding of films and art in general. Film is a very powerful medium and has the potential to be hugely transformative, especially when it comes to public discourse and discourse. We’ve seen that repeatedly in India. I would describe it as the “alive artist in interaction with society” part of me that is really the product of my upbringing, my family, and where I studied. But when you are on set, you are really there for the director to put their vision together.

You also spent some time doing theatre. How has that training been formative?

It’s a bit of a misconception that I am a theatre person. I don’t actually have any formal training in theatre. In Bollywood, if you are a good actor and can speak Hindi, it is assumed that you must have a theatre background. I only did theatre during my two years at JNU with IPTA, Indian People’s Theatre Association, which is a progressive and one of the oldest theatre groups in India, and has an illustrious history. What IPTA did for me was provide me with the understanding that art can and should be political. In fact, the National Conference of IPTA was recently disrupted by the Bharatiya Janata Party (one of the two major political parties in India, along with the Indian National Congress), who didn’t let it happen. There’s a protest organized in Delhi, but there’s been very little said in the news nationally or internationally.

Since you used the phrase, “films in the life of a nation,” I wonder what sort of transnational aspect do you see in your own work, and cinema more generally? What has been your sense of audiences elsewhere, both diasporic populations, and those who are engaging with your work through subtitles and translation?

I think Bollywood has huge transnational appeal and possibilities. It has apparently had it from the time of Raj Kapoor. The Soviet Union had a major viewership for Raj Kapoor’s films. At this stage, the industry is only seeing it in terms of markets, and where they can release films. But I actually think that Bollywood has so much potential for diplomacy. Our diplomatic problems with neighboring countries can be solved through film because the amount of warmth that is generated by the viewership of Hindi, and Indian cinema is huge.

Do you think the ways in which Pakistani actors and artists in India have been targeted is demonstrative of how powerful that connection can be?

Yes, I think it’s definitely demonstrative of that because this warmth and connection is threatening. It is also the least imaginative response that anyone could come up with in a context of difficult political relationships. Every week, my belief that artists are very vulnerable — just the fact that they are so accessible for hate and abuse, sometimes physically accessible — has been confirmed. Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan have both repeatedly had trouble over the past year. The whole Pakistani artist controversy in India is in some sense very expected given where India is at today, given the intersection of its politics, public discourse, and how the media is developing. It’s not surprising, but it’s certainly sad that not enough people are being able to stand up to it. The news channel NDTV did not air an interview with P. Chidambaram because he criticized the Uri attack. They put a notice out saying that they will not air any comments compromising the security of our nation.    

Judging by your social media presence, it seems that you’ve been commenting actively on the U.S. elections.

Yes, and I’ve been obsessively watching John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight, as well as Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah, and Seth Myers. I’m so impressed with how one is able to have this format in the U.S. In India, our channels are so heavily censored that you can’t make a political comment on general entertainment channels. I don’t know if this is something the government has enacted, or if this self-censorship. These channels are so afraid of having their licenses revoked that you can’t talk about religion, politics, or sex.

In recent years, the United States has seen a lot of conversations and controversy over the place of women in the industry, the roles they get, the longevity of their careers, as well as questions of racial diversity, representativeness, and inclusion. In India too, one sees a move towards more critical conversations about the state of the industry and cinema. To what extent do conversations over representation of women and marginalized communities in both countries intersect, and to what extent do they diverge?

I followed the Oscars diversity controversy very closely. We have almost no discussion of the representation of marginalized communities or stereotyping in the Bollywood film industry, which is sad because Bollywood has a troubled history in this regard. Regional cinema, particularly Marathi cinema, for instance the film Sairat (2016), is far more engaged with questions of caste and gender, and the representation of Dalits. Bollywood has, in the past couple of years, begun to discuss the pay gap, the income inequality between actors and actresses, and skin color. Actors have started talking about these issues. Recently, an actress named Tannishtha Chatterjee walked out of a comedy show because all the jokes were about her skin color. Given the amount of censorship more generally, it is absurd to suggest that these jokes are due to a policy of free expression. Such crass jokes are pure insensitivity and ignorance. Bollywood is, however, really changing not only in terms of the films being made but the involvement of actors in political questions and current affairs, which is really due to the internet. Because of social media, one is forced to step out of one’s bubble and engage. Increasingly, lots of actors have become very vocal. Take Sonam Kapoor, and Kangana Ranaut, not to mention Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan.

One of your next projects is an online series called It’s Not that Simple, which focusses on infidelity. What drew you to this medium and subject?

The web space is a new space that has opened up in Indian media. It takes off from the success of Netflix, particularly in India. All the big media houses in India have started investing in digit media and digital platforms. It’s Not that Simple is a six-part series that looks at relationships, marriage, and adultery from the perspective of a woman. It’s a very progressive show and I don’t think we’ve had this kind of content before. The way they’ve approached the unfolding of this story is so matter of fact, that it makes it quite radical. The series almost refuses to accept and address the fact that it’s a woman pursuing such a relationship. It’s got a kind of chutzpah to it in its approach to adultery. I was always worried that my character shouldn’t come off as bitchy. But the director and the writers, and kudos to them for this, would say, “So what? She’s a human being. Why can’t she be manipulative?” The series has been received very well. I also see this particular form and media from the perspective of censorship. The film industry has always had a very vexed relationship with the CBFC, the Central Board of Film Certification, or what is called the Censor Board. Ever since the BJP came into power, a highly moralistic, right-wing person, Pahlaj Nihalani, has been in charge and has been making some very arbitrary decisions. In this context, the web space doesn’t have the pressure of the box-office and TRPs (television rating points). It is outside the clutches of the Censor Board. So this is an exciting new avenue, and there is the possibility that we will have some amazing political content come out of it.