When Swara Bhasker says, “Sometimes I think I have the wrong soul for Bollywood,” it’s easy to see why.
A Master of Arts in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University and a part of Left-leaning theatre groups as a student, Delhi-born Bhasker is an outlier in Bollywood. Her straight talk about sexism in Hindi films and criticism of the Bharatiya Janata Party government has made her a beacon of bravery in a usually sycophantic film industry.
Bhasker’s latest role, however, is as Bollywood as it can get: the angry cop. In the Eros Now series Flesh, Bhasker plays Radha, a police officer tasked with saving a young woman (Mahima Makwana) from a sex trafficking racket. Standing in her way is a psychopathic criminal (Akshay Oberoi).
Flesh, which will be streamed from August 21, sounds a bit like the 2014 film Mardaani. Bhasker argued that unlike Mardaani, Flesh has the runtime to engage with the “nitty-gritty” of the flesh trade, taking into account “real cases” and “real testimonies”.
“As a student who had engaged in activism for years, we always had a different view of the police,” Bhasker told Scroll.in. “But working on Flesh gave me a different perspective on the police’s thought process I wasn’t privy to before.”
Bhasker clarified that she doesn’t advocate vigilante or mob justice. “But what happens with this character, and what I realised speaking to many cops for this show, is that even when the police are honest and catch criminals, they manipulate the law and ensure that someone higher up gets them out,” she explained. “Radha, in her anger, only communicates that frustration. So it comes from a more complex place than it being a simple abuse of power.”
What shocked her the most was becoming aware of “the complicity of civil society, lawmakers, law keepers, and law enforcers in sustaining the flesh trade, made easier with the way tech, ease of transportation and communication have evolved”.
Bhasker recalled an incident in which a housewife in Mumbai was caught renting out her apartment for trafficking and prostituting girls while her husband was away at work and her children were at school. “This shows how evil really lurks within us,” Bhasker said. “These are not aliens who come and do this, but people like neighbours in our local community.”
Radha is the spiritual sister of characters previously played by Bhasker. There’s Chanda, who goes to great lengths to educate her daughter in Nil Battey Sannata (2016). In Anaarkali of Aarah (2017), Bhasker’s small-town entertainer battles a local strongman who assaults her. Sakshi in Veere Di Wedding (2018) won’t let her husband stand in the way of her right to pleasure herself. Even in her supporting roles, such as in Raanjhanaa (2013) or Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015), Bhasker plays a woman confident of what she wants and goes for it.
“Early on, I became focused on seeing how I am getting to do in a film in terms of performance, how complex it is, how much I can sink my teeth into,” Bhasker said. “So I always found characters with agency, even when they were victims or women of no means, like in Nil Battey Sannata.” Her upcoming roles include a stand-up comedian in the Netflix series Bhaag Beanie Bhaag, and a woman in a same-sex relationship in the film Sheer Qorma.
Part of this attitude, Bhasker said, was formed out of her reaction to her first film, Pravesh Bharadwaj’s unreleased Niyati. “There I played a docile, pure victim,” Bhasker said. “It was a powerful story, a complex script, but the progressiveness was in the story, not so much in the protagonist. I felt uncomfortable thinking how full of suffering must one be that your agency dies? I got frustrated by that. I cannot be a pure victim.”
Bhasker’s image of a firebrand, produced by the compound effect of her on-screen roles and off-screen activism, frequently invites judgement. In 2019, Bhasker found herself in the crosshairs of social media-moralising after she used an abusive word to refer to a child on an episode of the Disney+ Hotstar talk show Son of Abish.
“What is wrong with women abusing?” Bhasker wondered. “Who is to say that women can’t feel frustrated the same way as men? Who is to say that women do not have access to the same language as men do? We are just as much a part of society. Of course, the abuses have to be analysed to see how sexist they are, but if the words are part of a culture, women will pick them up as well. When people are uncomfortable about women abusing, it means that people don’t grant women the same flaws and frailties one is willing to grant men.”
Bhasker has encountered such reactions several times in the past, such as in the case of Veere Di Wedding, in which her character was particularly foul-mouthed.
“I have noticed that when women abuse, they ask, is that a sign of being liberal?” Bhasker said. “Women swear all the time, it’s just that we are finally seeing them on screen. We had a particular idea of women in films as being virtuous and angelic, while men got to be tormented and angry, like Devdas or Dev D. Now we are seeing the change, so people have a problem.”
Another prominent aspect in Bhasker’s roles has been sexual confidence, which has provided social media warriors ammunition to abuse her on an hourly basis.
“It’s amazing what these trolls latch on to,” Bhasker observed. “They think, haww she has masturbated and played a prostitute, so she must be like that in real life also. That’s such a childish, sexist, juvenile, misogynist way of thinking.”
Bhasker’s role as a small-town seductress and high-minded teacher in the Amazon Prime Video web series Rasbhari plays on the dichotomy of her public image: a sex-starved woman, as Hindutva supporters believe her to be, and the progressive activist, which she intends to be.
“The aftermath of Veere Di Wedding, and 2019, when I campaigned during elections [for candidates such as Kanhaiya Kumar and Atishi Marlena] and participated in CAA-NRC protests, coloured the reactions to Rasbhari,” Bhasker said. “And that married with the content of the show in a strange way, to make these parallels happen. I actually chose to do Rasbhari because I had never done a double-ish role. And I found its conversations around sexuality interesting.”
Bhasker is amused by the reaction Flesh has received online. “The same guys who exhausted themselves with Rasbhari a month ago cannot find what to troll me with about Flesh,” she said. “Because no one, across the ideological spectrum is in disagreement with the essence of the show, that exploiting women is wrong. How do you troll a cop trying to fight crime? Seeing the trolls fumble about how to attack Flesh is giving me great joy.”
Bhasker’s background in academics and activism, which includes a two-year stint working with the Indian People’s Theatre Association, initially made her uncomfortable operating in the film industry in Mumbai, where she moved to in 2008.
“A lot of the values I grew up with are not conductive to surviving in this industry,” Bhasker said. “Ultimately, the world of show business will judge you on the basis of looks and presentation. Shallowness is part of this line of work. The first two years I really struggled and I was always in conflict. I was that person who got her first facial done in Bombay.”
She credits her mother, film scholar Ira Bhaskar, with motivating her to stay on course. “She said, if this is the industry you want to be a part of, shouldn’t you learn to play the game?” Bhasker recalled. “Is not wanting to wear stilettos really your battle? Then I realised that if getting those lead roles require me to look a certain way on the red carpet, hire PR and get a manager, I should just do it. The industry has made me a much less judgemental person and has shorn me of my intellectual arrogance, which is good, because all arrogance is arrogance.”
Bhasker finds inspiration in her predecessors, who did not shy away from being actively political. Citing examples of Balraj Sahni addressing students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1972, and Majrooh Sultanpuri, who was jailed for reciting a poem critical of Jawaharlal Nehru, Bhasker bemoaned a “culture we have lost and we are losing now”.
But she is optimistic: “Bollywood is changing. There’s so much interaction now between the industry and the audiences on social media. It is now addressing questions and issues it previously did not feel the need to address.”