Swara Bhasker: “I Work in an Industry Where You are Judged for the Way You Look.”

The actor is here to make memorable films...but also to stand up and speak up against injustices. She talks to  Cosmo Ed Nandini Bhalla about her thoughts and plans

More than just a few times, Swara Bhaskar has been branded as an “outspoken” actor. But this ‘outspoken’ label is not one our covergirl takes delight in. And as we spend an afternoon chatting, I realise the tag is somewhat milk-and-water. For, Swara doesn’t speak up for the sake of engagement. Her points of view and perspectives come from an earnest passion and ardent desire for change. Drama (and rape threats!) follows often, but Swara tells me she was raised to ask questions...and to be fearless. “I see myself as a loudspeaker for other people’s causes,” she says, “I believe activism is a good thing and it’s good to care about things other than your own life.” 

Here, excerpts from our conversation, as the Madholal Keep Walking actor gets candid about her fight against hatred, the importance of being courageous, and why, occasionally, she might just lie to you about her age.  

Nandini Bhalla: Let’s talk about ageism...why do women often face the brunt of growing older? 

Swara Bhaskar: “As an actress who lies about her age all the time, sometimes I just make up an age that I’m feeling [laughs]. And I tell everyone that I’m going to lie about how old I am. I’m 32, by the way, but I was 28 for the longest time. I was 28 for 4 years and weirdly enough, nobody noticed! But now, people have caught onto my trick. I remember, when I turned 30, I cut a cake that read 25. And then I told everyone about it. People were like, ‘What’s the point of doing this if you’re going to tell everyone about it?! At least lie properly!’

But, yeah, ageism is a real thing, and I won’t pretend it doesn’t exist. I speak as someone who has a lot of age anxiety because of the industry I work in. We are all insecure about the fact that we are growing older. And it’s not just something that bothers women; men worry about it, too. I think everyone is busy trying to look their best, getting all kinds of skin treatments. We can’t help it. Our faces are our tools. I am aware that I have to look young for work, but that does not mean I don’t celebrate the fact that I’m an adult and I’m growing up. There are so many beautiful things to discover, explore and experience in this phase of my life. I mean, my 20s were miserable! I was miserable! I was struggling as an actor, I was heartbroken all the time, I was always breaking up or getting back together. It was a disaster. But since I turned 30, I’ve become so much more sorted... I’m happier and more at peace. I hope I’m wiser and kinder, too. So, I think that’s a way to celebrate age without being brought down. 

 As far as women versus ageism goes, it’s like I said earlier: most ‘isms’ affect women harder than men. Like, I went on a date with a guy who was younger than me, and this was the first time that I had gone out with someone younger. I was like,’Oh God, I’m dating someone younger!’ And my friend was like, ‘So what? If you were a guy, would you think like this?’ So, it’s an invisible battle that we must fight. This sense of ageism comes to you even when you’re aware and fighting the wrongs. But why should my age define my relationship? You just have to fight these thoughts...head on!” 

Swara Bhasker

Asymmetrical hemline deep notch coat, Kanika Goyal; juxtaposed studs, Hyperbole

NB: And what about the age bias we see in films? How it’s perfectly alright for an older actor to woo a much younger woman, but it’s not the same when an older woman falls in love with a younger man...

SB: “Absolutely! I think, at a very basic level, our society is more judgemental towards woman, and that reflects in films, too. Which is why it doesn’t bother us when we see heroes who are 20 years older than the heroines. But it bothers us when it’s the other way around. I think that’s changing slowly, because I remember when Kareena [Kapoor Khan] did Ki And Ka, they did not address the age difference between Arjun [Kapoor] and her. And when we read Veere Di Wedding, she was cast with Sumeet Vyas. I think Wake Up Sid was also an interesting film because it starred Konkona [Sen Sharma] and Ranbir [Kapoor]. I think it’s slowly changing and your question reflects that. You’re calling it out because audiences are calling it out. Now, when you cast a 50-year-old actor with a 25-year-old actress, everyone is like, ‘What the hell?!’. When how a society thinks changes, popular culture changes with it.” 

swara bhaskar

Blazer, Nirmooha; balloon pants, Siddartha Tytler; Midi Ring, Trikona Ring and Gulzar Necklace; all Roma Narsinghani; boots, Christian Louboutin

NB: Swara, you’re not known to mince words. Where do you get your candour and courage from?

SB: “I think it comes from my parents and the values they gave us. And also from the education we received, which instilled a certain confidence in me to speak my mind. My brother and I were both taught to be confident, and our parents never stopped us from asking questions. Sometimes, I have to hold back and think, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t have said that. Maybe I was too candid. Maybe I was too honest’. 

I have experienced an unusual style of parenting, for an Indian girl child. My parents were not ‘typical’ in many ways. My brother and I were brought up equally, and they did not instil any fear in me, as many girl children in South Asia grew up with. They made it abundantly clear that they will always have my back, no matter what. There tends to be this unnamed, unspeakable fear that develops in many children’s minds, especially girls. I simply never had that. When I was moving to Mumbai, my dad said to me, ‘Swara, you are going to be away and we are not going to keep a check on you. You’re an adult now. Never do anything that will make it hard for you to look yourself in the eye.’ And I thought that was such a wonderful way to set a child free, but also give her this responsibility for her own actions. So, I think my parents really encouraged that fearlessness in me.  

I was also a liberal arts student, and I studied literature. So, there was a certain critical rationality that I was trained to think with. I was always part of progressive-theatre movements, and that encouraged a culture of questioning and learning to identify injustices and raise your voice against them. The fact is, Nandini, fear is such a negative emotion...it shuts you in and you crumble and can’t move. It’s a paralysing emotion. And how will you be able to take action when fear paralyses your mind? That is something I have actively fought against, and it is reflected in my choice of work. I’ve worked on films that were rejected by other actresses, and I’m not ashamed to admit that. Whether it was Prem Ratan Dhan Payo...nobody wanted to be Salman’s sister [laughs]...or Nil Battey Sannata. I firmly believe that fear should not be the basis of my actions, ever.” 

Swara Bhasker

Dress, Mohammed Mazhar; wing earrings, Bhavya Ramesh; pumps, Christian Louboutin

NB: Let’s talk about online toxicity. You’ve certainly been a victim of Internet nastiness...

SB: “I think it’s really sad, because we are such a privileged generation, to be living in this time. We have the best technology, we have access to more resources than ever, and we are connected to the world 24/7. Social media should have connected us with more people, more cultures... Instead, it has made us explore the most pathetic sides of our personalities, and turned us into bullies who take pleasure in abusing famous people. I feel that is the lowest way to explore technology. And the only way to deal with this, with a bully, is to call them out. 

Initially, when I began receiving this flood of online hate, I would get very upset. But later, I realised that these are like Aadhaar card numbers...these people are statistics and voter ID cards, who cares? You can’t take that stuff so seriously and we cannot ignore the fact that there are IT cells for these things. You can pay and start trending. You can pay to harass someone, you can pay to troll someone. Sometimes, I feel like I am helping the person earn a living. Someone is able to eat dinner because of me, which is fine by me.” 

NB: Is this one of the causes you feel strongly about?

SB: “I feel very strongly about hate and the fight against hatred. I believe hatred is numbing our minds, making us blind as a society. And our hatred spills over into many areas. Against the homosexual community, trans community, minorities, Dalits... There is an attitude of hatred and it is all linked to the toxicity we were just talking about. I often wonder, ‘Where does this hate come from?’ Look at our world...we have so many things to explore, we have so much power and opportunity...why isn’t it making us better people? Why are we not focusing on issues like climate change? That is what bothers me the most.

I believe tolerance is so important, especially in a country like India with multicultural diversities. We need to learn to ‘live and let live’. That doesn’t mean we have to tolerate what’s wrong. Don’t be tolerant of hate, don’t be tolerant of injustice, don’t be tolerant of wrong doings. Unfortunately, we are often tolerant of the wrong things, and we are not tolerant of the things that deserve tolerance. The secret truly lies in understanding and identifying the difference.”

Swara Bhasker

Blazer, Nirmooha; balloon pants, Siddartha Tytler; Midi Ring, Trikona Ring and Gulzar Necklace; all Roma Narsinghani

Credits

Styling: Priyanka Yadav;

Photographs: Kay Sukumar (Faze Management)

Make-Up and Hair: Anu Kaushik;

Location Courtesy: Andaz Delhi;

Fashion Assistant: Manveen Guliani