Why you should care
Swara Bhasker is one of few in a timid industry to address injustice — and take on the Modi government.
When Swara Bhasker got her first facial in Mumbai after moving there in 2008 to be an actor, she burst into tears on her way home. A passionate feminist and minority rights advocate, she was never one for makeup or fancy clothes. “I used to make fun of girls who wore makeup in college,” Bhasker says, “and here I was doing the same thing. I struggled with my soul for a long time. In fact, my single biggest achievement is having learned to walk in heels!”
And yet she’s found a way to stand tall while retaining her voice, an unlikely feat for one of contemporary Bollywood’s most widely acclaimed actors. Always standing up to injustice on social media and participating in debates comes at a steep price of merciless trolling, hate messages and death threats. “Social media is a virtual public sphere, but it’s rarely treated as such,” she points out. “That’s why all the filth is so out there. Counter narratives are so important. It’s the only way to fight the illegitimacy of fake news, arguments, ‘facts.’”
India is in the midst of extreme social turbulence ever since the conservative government led by Narendra Modi came to power — mob lynchings targeting minority ethnic and religious communities, vigilante violence against Muslims in the name of protecting cows and just general normalization of bigotry and hate. “Indians are so afraid today,” says Bhasker, 30.
My mom was really helpful. She told me I had to accept the rules of the world I’d decided to be a part of, develop empathy for it.
Her family, friends and loved ones are constantly anxious about her well-being, but Bhasker refuses to step away from social media or soften her rhetoric. “We need people like her to speak up, provoke and challenge mindsets,” says Sinjini Mukherjee, one of Bhasker’s closest friends, pointing out how an assailant tried to shoot student activist Umar Khalid in August. “The threat is real, but Swara refuses to cower.”
Bhasker’s double life of Bollywood celebrity and vocal liberal are contrary to each other because the film industry has a long history of remaining silent on sociopolitical matters. Even as the #MeToo movement takes India by storm, Bollywood powerhouses have chosen to offer vague statements or remain silent. They are routinely criticized for not speaking out, particularly in a country where actors and actresses enjoy godlike status.
Bhasker walks a different path. The government, in her mind, is not doing enough to fight back against far-right religious mobs like those who vandalized the set of the film Padmaavat because of a rumor about a sex scene. “The industry does not receive any support from governments, which always cave into bullying tactics by the populace,” she says. “If a Rs200-crore [around $27 million] film got stalled, or worse, [if it] isn’t released or [it’s] banned because of a stand the actor or director made, it would be a disaster. Do you know how many people’s livelihoods would be affected?”
Bhasker tangles with the bullies often, such as when she spoke out against the infamous Kathua and Unnao rapes of young girls. A group of right-wing Twitter users responded by ginning up a boycott against Amazon India — which went on to delete a tweet in which Bhasker endorsed the service. “It was tragic to see a multinational giant, which owns The Washington Post, to give in in the face of the rape of an 8-year-old,” she says, referring to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who also owns the Post, though the paper is separate from Amazon. Similarly, when Padmaavat was released, Bhasker wrote a stinging open letter to director Sanjay Leela Bhansali about glorifying the practice of committing suicide by self-immolation — unthinkable in an industry that thrives on bootlicking and where women are still second-class professionals. As significant as the letter was, Mukherjee believes Bhasker would invite less trolling and abuse if she more often paused and pondered before delivering her most undiplomatic opinions.
Regardless of her politics, Bhasker remains much sought-after as an actress. Her most recent film, Veere Di Wedding, featuring four female protagonists, is the highest-grossing Hindi film with women as lead actors. “Her politics have nothing to do with her ability to act, so why should it matter?” asks director Danish Aslam, who is working with Bhasker on the Voot web series “It’s Not That Simple.” “She is good at her job and minimizes the amount of work I need to do on set. She could start coming on time though!”
With a literature degree from Delhi University and a postgraduate degree in sociology from India’s prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), Bhasker took a long time to overcome the culture shock she experienced when she moved from India’s capital to Mumbai. Her father, Chitrapu Uday Bhasker, is one of India’s leading experts on security and strategy, while her mother, Ira Bhasker, is a professor of film studies at JNU, so her upbringing was markedly unglamorous and intellectual. Bhasker’s friends thought she was a sellout. She often complained to Ira about how shallow people were or how her values clashed with the ethos of Bollywood. “My mom was really helpful,” says Bhasker. “She told me I had to accept the rules of the world I’d decided to be a part of, to develop empathy for it.”
The journey has been fulfilling, professionally and personally. Now she even enjoys dressing up and following skin care regimens. But more importantly, she has learned to pick her battles as expertly as her roles, which are as wide-ranging as a half princess, a housemaid and single mother, an erotic folk dancer who fights sexual harassment and most recently a rich Delhi girl being blackmailed by her ex-husband because he caught her masturbating. The masturbation scene went on to become hugely controversial because women’s sexuality is still taboo in India. But Bhasker is done trying to fit a mold. “I still feel like an outsider,” she says. “This is who I am.”
OZY’s Five Questions With Swara Bhasker
• What was the last book you finished? There are two. Mr. And Mrs. Jinnah: The Marriage That Shook India, and Ants Among Elephants: An Untouchable Family and the Making of Modern India.
• What do you worry about? My career, my family and that hate is being normalized in India too much too soon.
• What can’t you live without? My family, but also my cellphone and tea!
• Who are your heroes? Gandhi, Nehru and the bais of Mumbai who make it possible for women like me to get to work on time.
• What’s one item on your bucket list? Travel to South America and Africa.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the names of Swara Bhasker and Danish Aslam.