When she went to Agra to meet the city’s domestic workers and learn about their lives, Swara Bhaskar also went shopping for Chanda, the character she plays in Ashwini Iyer Tiwari’s directorial debut Nil Battey Sannata.
“I bought the handbag that Chanda carries in the film for Rs 100, after much haggling at a local market,” says Bhaskar. “I also got a comb, a mirror and a pair of rubber chappals. I started walking around in them two months before the shooting began.”
Nil Battey Sannata (UP slang for a loser) is the story of a domestic help who failed class 10, but tries to convince her daughter to study further by going back to school herself. In the film, 28-year-old Bhaskar plays mother to a teenager. Since she had no life experiences to draw on for this part of her role, Bhaskar interviewed her mother, Ira (who teaches film studies at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University), about her experiences handling 15-year-old Swara. “A whole list of complaints came out,” she says laughing. “But it made me realise that we never look at our parents as individuals dealing with their own failures, successes, and desires. That helped me breathe life into Chanda.”
Bhaskar won the best actress award for this role at the Silk Road International Film Festival in China in September 2015. Back home, even before the film’s release, superstars Amitabh Bachchan and Aamir Khan were all praise.
From her debut in 2009 in the little-known Madholal Keep Walking, to her break as a supporting character in Tanu Weds Manu (2011), followed by a character role in the Sonam Kapoor-Dhanush starrer Raanjhanaa (2013), to Salman Khan’s sister in Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015), the limelight seems finally to have found Bhaskar with Nil Battey Sannata.
“I am an outsider,” says Bhaskar. “I don’t have a producer-father or an actor-boyfriend or a Karan uncle I can call up. But in under six years, I have been able to build a certain kind of credibility. People trust my presence in a film to deliver something good.”
Her first solo lead in a film was Listen… Amaya (2013), which had Farooq Sheikh and Deepti Naval in pivotal roles. “Because it was an indie film, it did not reach the audience,” says Bhaskar. “I’ve realised it is not enough to just do a film, you have to sign one that gets a good release. I’m glad Nil… is getting the backing of a big studio like Eros. As an actor you must become street smart in some ways.”
Bhaskar says she sees her time in the industry as a journey to becoming an adult. “I have become a little more cynical, and I would like to believe, a little wiser. When I first came to Mumbai, I was very idealistic,” she says. “Now I can look anyone in the face and tell a lie. But I’m in a good place.”
An English literature graduate from Miranda House (Delhi University), Bhaskar completed her Masters in sociology at JNU. But her innate nautanki-ness, she says, brought her to Bollywood. “I love acting, though I don’t like the frills around it—red-carpet appearances, dressing up to look a certain way,” she says.
Bhaskar also stands out for her candour: she’s refused to endorse a fairness cream and made her opinions of the casting couch and the industry’s fixation with appearances clear. In February, she came out in support of the JNU students charged with sedition. It got her, she says, “into all sorts of trouble”. “Apart from the abuses and trolling online, there were calls to boycott Nil.... I didn’t know we were not supposed to criticise the government because I assumed that is our democratic right,” she says.
Bhaskar now says she’ll ‘try’ and tone down what she says in public. “There is a lot of money riding on Nil..., my producer’s money. I don’t want to jeopardise that,” she says. “But I don’t believe any meaningful art can come out of a society that is scared to ask questions.”
The Wonder Years
Maths Mein Dabba Gul
I got 85 per cent in the class 10 board exams, then I failed the class 12 maths pre-board. I don’t know why I took up maths after class 10.
History and English
As a student I was...
Not naughty because I was a prefect. But I looked the other way when others played pranks.
None. I was once caught climbing out of the classroom window while bunking a class. I lied that I had to go to the bathroom and the exit was crowded. The principal believed me.
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From HT Brunch, April 24, 2016
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