(Spoilers ahead about a crucial plot point in Veere Di Wedding.)

Who is more controversial – the actress Swara Bhasker or Sakshi Soni, the free-thinking and expletives-spouting character she plays in Shashanka Ghosh’s Veere Di Wedding? The choice is tough.

Bhaskar has been regularly attacked by online trolls for her political views. Ahead of the June 1 release of Veere Di Wedding, produced by Rhea Kapoor and Ekta Kapoor, some offended Twitter users urged people to boycott the comedy because it featured Bhasker. The outrage continued after the release of the movie, which stars Bhasker alongside Kareena Kapoor, Sonam K Ahuja and Shikha Talsania. The film tells the story of the friendship between four women, each of whom is at a different juncture with respect to the institution of marriage. Bhasker’s character is in the throes of a divorce that is precipitated after Sakshi’s husband catches her masturbating.

The moment has been praised as well as criticised for its boldness. Some Twitter users detected a pattern that suggested that bots were at work behind the tweets posted by people who claimed to have been offended by the scene. The campaign does not seem to have worked: the movie had earned an estimated Rs 46 crores between Friday and Tuesday. Excerpts from an interview with Swara Bhasker, whose credits include the Tanu Weds Manu films and Nil Battey Sannata.

Have you started to feel that viewers are not able to separate your politics from your craft? Is the outrage caused by your views casting a shadow over the responses to your performances?
Well, I don’t know. Maybe it is. But I suppose it is not only me. We are now a country that does not know how to tolerate opinions, especially if it is an opinion that is different from your own. I think that’s a problem every public figure will have to face. I keep going back to the case of Baahubali’s Sathyaraj, who had to apologise for something he said ten years ago ahead of the film’s release.

I’m a lot more vocal, and I don’t seem to stop. I seem to keep saying things, giving my opinion or whatever that seems to be angering people. I don’t know what to do about that, frankly. I don’t respond to things because I’m an actor. I respond to things because I’m a citizen. I think it is the job of all of us citizens to participate in a responsible manner in public discourse because that shapes public opinion, which in turn shapes policy. If there hadn’t been such a massive outrage to the Kathua and Unnao cases, these cases would not have even moved forward. I think we do bear that responsibility, and I make my comments in that light.

But I do have to say that Veere Di Wedding reassures me a lot because despite the hateful, bigoted calls to boycott the film because I had initiated that placard campaign [in protest to the Unnao and Kathua incidents], people turned up in huge numbers to watch the film. I’m so happy to see these numbers. I guess people do not judge you for your political opinions after all.

Veere Di Wedding (2018).

Would you have picked Sakshi Soni if you had to choose between the four characters?
When Rhea [Kapoor], Mehul and Nidhi narrated the script to me, they were actually offering me Meera’s role [played by Shikha Talsania]. I read that role and I felt that the character is a little similar to what I had done in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, where I’d already played a mother. I felt that I didn’t want to carry another baby around the sets. So I actually asked for Sakshi’s role because I thought it is a character I’ve not done before.

Did growing up in Delhi help in preparing for the role?
There’s a certain swag, a certain quality to Sakshi’s language and a certain bluntness to her which I think is very Delhi. Of course, Sakshi represents a very uber-rich part of Delhi, which is not at all where I came from. My parents were middle-class government servants. My mother is a professor, my father was in the Navy. So, in that sense, I’ve had a privileged upbringing, but a very comfortable government servant-kind of upbringing. It isn’t this crazy money that Sakshi represents.

That said, culturally, the fact that she also comes from a big city and an English-speaking background – that helps you decode the character right in the beginning. And then you build into it. I decided that I didn’t want Sakshi to be a cardboard cut-out of this rich bitch. There is a very human and a very endearing quality to Sakshi. She’s not a bad person. She’s just this entitled, snobbish person, but there’s a lovableness to her because of her madness. She’s very fond of her friends – she’ll use her father’s credit card not just to solve her own problems but those of her friends as well. That’s kind of sweet.

I also think the language she uses makes her very relatable – however fancy she may be, wearing rich clothes or whatever, the moment she opens her mouth, it is the Delhi street that’s talking. That I think saves Sakshi from being very unlikable.

Swara Bhaskar as Sakshi Soni. Image credit: Balaji Telefilms, Anil Kapoor Films & Communication Network and Saffron Broadcast & Media

How challenging was it to perform the masturbation scene? How did you prepare for it?
There’s nothing to prepare, other than be aware of the fact that women can pleasure themselves and that it is okay and normal adult behaviour.

The thing with all such scenes, whether it is an intimate love-making or a masturbation scene, is that you have to trust the makers. I read the script and I really just trusted the intentions of Rhea [Kapoor] and Shashanka [Ghosh] and the writers. The only thing I told Shashanka was, let’s keep it on the comic side because I knew that it was a shocking scene. I knew people are going to take some time to even understand how they should respond to it.

I wanted it to be funny. Even if it is shocking, it should make you go wow, woah woah, but not disgust you. I told Shashanka that even if it meant that we play it a little over the top, we should play it like it is embarrassing for her as well. I didn’t want it to go into a porn kind of space at all, which is why we decided to put Sakshi’s own characteristics into the scene. She’s the kind of girl who tells her husband to wait while she finishes masturbating. She won’t be like, oh baby, you come now, let’s do this together.

I was very conscious of the scenes before and after that scene too. I was, like, let her be a little sheepish. Let’s see her vulnerable side as well. It is embarrassing for her to talk about it to her friends. However rich she may be, we don’t come from a culture that is particularly encouraging of expressions of female sexuality. We all internalise that sense of shaming that women are forced to face. Sakshi is no different.

How many takes was the sequence shot in?
We did three takes, I think. I don’t know which one they kept. Nothing is done in one take in films – we have to factor angles, light etc. Everything is done a couple of times, however awkward the scene.

Bhangra Ta Sajda, Veere Di Wedding (2018).

What kind of energy is generated on a set dominated by women?
I think there is a certain bonding that women have on the sets when they work together. It is nice to be in an atmosphere where you don’t have to be even a little bit careful about what you say, how you come across. It is just a less judgmental atmosphere. Or maybe it was just these women are so amazing and so much fun.

Also, there’s that whole sexual dynamic at the workplace that gets diffused and nullified completely. When I’m working with men, I’ve always felt the need to be a little careful – that I shouldn’t be misunderstood because I’m someone who’s very vocal and very friendly. I’ve always wondered if I’ve given the wrong impression or hoped that I haven’t sent any mixed signals. All those silly fears we have – all that gets completely nullified and that’s great.

There was a negative online review from a journalist who said that you are not used to playing affluent characters.
I think that journalist can thank me because she was quoting me verbatim from an interview I had given her. She was quoting from my response to her question about any apprehensions I had about playing this role. So, I’m happy to draft her review in the future as well.

Pakistani actress Urwa Hocane accused you of expressing contradictory views on her country. You said that ‘Pakistan is not like an enemy state’ in an interview on a Pakistani television channel and that it is ‘a failed state’ in a conversation on an Indian network.
I think I said this on my Twitter profile as well. I personally don’t think there is any hypocrisy in what I said. I don’t think there’s any change in opinion. I do not think a government or a people are equal to each other, which is true of all countries. You can’t hold an entire people or an entire culture responsible for the actions of a government.

As an Indian citizen, I have a full right to say that there are areas where the Pakistani government has failed. We will ask Pakistan about their role in state-funded terrorism, for instance. But that in no way denies the possibility that I may have a lot of love and regard for the people of Pakistan. I’ve been there twice, I’ve received warm hospitality. I’m proud to have very close friends who are Pakistanis. I’ve gone on television shows in Pakistan and spoken about how Lahore is one of my favourite cities in the world and I don’t see why I should change that opinion.

It is basically a stupid, reductive argument. It is nice to see India and Pakistan united in so many things and that includes trolling.

Nil Battey Sannata (2016).