"Once upon a time, a man named Majnun fell hopelessly in love with a woman named Layla. So enraptured was Majnun by Layla, so desperately he pined for her, that tales of his burning love travelled far and wide...”
Swara Bhasker is narrating a legendary love story, in response to my question about beauty standards. I ask her how her personal concept of beauty has evolved over the years. “And so,” she continues, “a man who had heard of Majnun’s undying love, decided he simply had to meet Layla—a woman whose beauty must be beyond compare, to have driven her lover to such madness. The curious man travelled for many days and nights to arrive at Layla’s doorstep. But when he set eyes on her, he was horrified, for Layla was one of the most ordinary-looking women he had ever seen. Some might have even considered her ugly! This made the man furious, and he rushed over to Majnun to angrily demand what he could possibly see in a woman so...unattractive. Majnun, who had been languishing in a desert, responded with a smile and answered: ‘You must understand...to see Layla’s beauty, you need Majnun’s eyes’.”
Swara’s smile broadens into a grin. “I absolutely love this story...it’s my favourite!” she beams. “Of course, the industry I work in isn’t like that; there are certain expectations around beauty, and I’ve learnt to be clinical about it,” she shrugs. “So if a photographer tells me he needs to Photoshop my image, that’s fine...I understand it’s a requirement of the industry. The versions of beauty we see in magazines, on the television, in advertisements are fine, too—as long as we are aware that they are not real! Often, on Instagram, I’ll post a picture of myself all dressed-up, and I’ll follow it up with a photograph where I’m wearing pyjamas and glasses, all my acne scars visible, and a funny caption. I believe that as long as you can accept it and have some fun with beauty, it’s alright...it’s just important to be aware.”
More than just a few times, Swara has been branded as an “outspoken” actor. Google her name, and you’ll find a few dozen citations...followed by countless storm-stirring incidents. There was the time Swara wrote an open letter to Sanjay Leela Bhansali, stating that she “felt reduced to a vagina” after watching Padmaavat (she was lambasted for her views, but even more so for uttering the ungodly ‘V’ word.) Then there were the reactions to that famous masturbation scene from Veere Di Wedding (“I still get shamed and trolled for it,” Swara shakes her head. “I think this discomfort with sex is so juvenile...get over it!”). Not to count the frequent incidents where Swara has questioned cultural patriarchy, Bollywood stereotypes, and regressive political views that have angered many netizens, who now sneeringly address Swara as a ‘fake feminist’.
Carbon Blazer, Bloni; tropical printed shirt, Versace Jeans Couture at The Collective; Sonder Tales Smoky Topaz Earrings, Zariin; chain bracelet, Tribe by Amrapali; personalisable round link bracelet, Isharya; Nandi Ring, Roma Narsinghani
Here, excerpts from our conversation, as the Madholal Keep Walking actor gets candid about her fight against hatred and the importance of being courageous.
Nandini Bhalla: Why is it so important for women to find their voices...for them to speak up?
Swara Bhasker: “Well, primarily because women have been silenced for far too long. I know that can sound dramatic, but just look around us—our stories, our legends, our epics. Most of them are from a man’s perspective...our recorded history is written by men; our political history is written by men. And that’s because of a society where men ruled, and, therefore, men wrote. I think I can apply that to the film industry as well, because for the longest time, it was the men who wrote the stories, built female characters, their emotions, their voices, everything! I think women have been silent for far too long, and I think this century is finally witnessing a change. Have you noticed how women across the world are now discovering their voices and finally getting the chance to tell their stories in their own voices?! We need to speak up and claim our own stories!”
NB: Society tends to label women fairly quickly... You’re either the ‘good girl’ or the ‘outspoken one’, especially when it comes to sharing opinions and thoughts. You’ve also been given the ‘outspoken’ label fairly often...
SB: “I think many unsavoury things tend to happen faster to women, than men. Again, that might sound like a generalisation, but it is true in many ways. Women get judged more for the way they look, even in 2020. They receive more online hate than men.
But let’s talk about labels, which aren’t just limiting, they can also be very dangerous. I think we live in a time where we continuously try to put people in boxes; it’s our way of making sense of the world without having to use our brains too much. I think that’s lazy. It’s intellectually lazy. It’s like, you’re not even making the effort to discover the other person! Human beings are complex; human beings are contradictory. That’s our make, the quality of our race. I think it’s a missed opportunity if we only stick with labels. Some healthy questioning of labels can be a great thing. That said, there are some labels I don’t mind wearing. Like, I don’t mind wearing the label of a feminist...I’m a proud feminist, and you can go ahead and put that label on me. And I don’t mind being called ‘progressive’, because I am. And I don’t mind wearing the label of being an ally to the LGBTQIA+ or minority communities. But, I think the real label we should aspire for is being kind. Being able to say, ‘He is kind; she is kind’. That is the label the world needs the most right now.”
Blazer, Polo Ralph Lauren; tulle multi-panelled skirt, Siddartha Tytler; Amoeba Skein Belt, Shivan & Narresh; Witty And Wise Baroque Pearl Earrings, Zariin; boots, Swapnil Shinde
NB: What needs to change about how the world views women’s bodies?
SB: “Our bodies are our greatest pleasure and our greatest pain. I’m an actor, and my body and face are instruments that shape my work. And I’ve trained as a dancer, so my body is also a form of expression. For me, there is no distinction between the body, mind, and soul. I believe that if you are unhappy with your body, you won’t be happy in your heart or mind, either. And the acceptance of our bodies and the way we are is the very first step towards understanding ourselves—and the world—better. That said, I realise that I work in an industry where you are judged for the way you look. A lot. We spend a lot of time dieting, working out. I do it all the time and when people tell me I look thin, I tell them that’s because I have to be. I don’t have a choice there, really.
I have always taken this whole ‘body obsession’ with a pinch of salt. To me, it’s a clinical thing and I have to do it while I’m an actor. Of course, every person should be fit, but I don’t think there is just one definition of fitness or the perfect size.”
Star boy tuxedo set, Namrata Joshipura; Heartful Love Duo Studs, Isharya; Disruptor-Animal Shoes, FILA
NB: As a feminist, what are your views about women becoming better allies to other women?
SB: “I think the whole point of being a feminist is that you help other women find their opportunity, equality, voice... It’s important to say here that women have always supported women. Just think back to our mothers, sisters, or aunts, who have supported each other forever. It’s just that we don’t hear those stories. We see stories like Sholay with the song, ‘Yeh dosti hum nahi todenge’, which is based on men. We watched Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara or Dil Chahta Hai where male friendships were glorified, but we don’t see female friendships in the same way. Which is why, when I was shooting for Veere Di Wedding, I’d always say that this is such a special film. Because for the longest time, the friendship stories in Hindi cinema had been about two girls falling for the same guy. There was always some competition around a man, right? We just need to acknowledge female bonds and we need to see more stories about it.
That said, supporting other women does not mean that you don’t call out another woman if she is misusing her voice or is lying or spreading hate. I’ve always maintained that women are equal to men in every way, even in our flaws. We can lie, we can do wrong, we can be manipulative, we can be deceptive, and we should be called out when we are wrong. But there is a way to do that without name-calling or making insinuations about someone’s personal life. There’s a way to call people out without being tacky, sexist, or personal.”
Styling: Priyanka Yadav;
Photographs: Kay Sukumar (Faze Management)
Make-Up and Hair: Anu Kaushik;
Location Courtesy: Andaz Delhi;
Fashion Assistant: Manveen Guliani