Glamour can be quite addictive. As Swara Bhaskar, whose film Madholal Keep Walking releases today, is beginning to discover. The actress, 25, is only three films old in the industry: her other two films are Pravesh Bharadwaj’s social documentary Niyati, her debut that got delayed and is set for a November release, and Aanand Rai’s romantic comedy Tanu Weds Manu which will hit screens in December this year. But, with these films, she has tasted Bollywood. And she only wants more. More and more.
You can smell her inexhaustible hunger for work when you meet her at her parents’ residence in Jawaharlal Nehru University. The actress, who has been living in Mumbai for about three years, is in New Delhi to promote her film.
She meets you at the entrance of her residence, after seeing off yet another scribe, with her father, C. Uday Bhaskar, a senior defence and strategic affairs analyst. Her mother, Ira Bhaskar, professor of cinema studies at JNU, makes a brief appearance later during the interview. Their house is nestled amidst luxuriant flora and you can hear the birdsong in the background. It’s pleasant outside, in the lawn, where we begin the conversation. Though there are signs that suggest it may rain: waves of clouds hover over us.
Swara is chirpy and vivacious. She perks up when she tells you about the films she has done as well those she wants to do. With childlike candour and honesty, she talks about her passage to 70mm which seems to have, in all earnest, just begun.
FOR THIS Miranda House graduate, it’s a journey that owes its genesis to the pre-satellite TV days when she binged on Chitrahaar on good old Doordarshan and started nursing a dream to emulate much of what the heroines of the yore did: Swirling around trees in the myriad song-and-dance sequences, catching the fancy of the viewers in an orgy of latkas and jhatkas. Over the years, as she went on to earn a Masters in sociology from JNU, she relentlessly nurtured her dream to be a part of the entertainment industry that, arguably, is the largest in the world.
Before her transition to films, she has done her bit in theatre, tele commercials and short films, some of them with Unicef and other NGOs. She did workshops with theatre veteran N.K. Sharma, founder artistic director of Act One, a theatre group. She was also associated with the JNU chapter of Indian People’s Theatre Association (Ipta) and did two proscenium plays written by Uday Praskah and Bimal Mitra. “While theatre does give the essential grooming, when you come to films you have to understand that it is a very different medium,” she says. According to her, it takes a certain kind of stylisation to do films. “The camera!,” she sighs, “It can come so close to your body that if you change how you breathe, it will register. One has to be very conscious of the camera.” (As we talk, clouds are getting ominous. Thunder rumbles in the sky.)
SWARA ALSO trained in Bharatanatyam under the legendary Leela Samsons, no less. In short, she has done whatever it takes to be an actress, clambered on everything that is widely seen to be the stepping stone for a career in cinema. Swara’s is a journey that has now brought her on the threshold of a rapidly-changing celluloid world, where rules are being rewritten every day, where many young Turks are redefining the art and craft of filmmaking: Cinema, as we know it, is in a state of flux.
Former ad filmmaker Jai Tank, 36, who makes his directorial debut with Madholal Keep Walking, belongs to that group of young men and women who are raring to take the industry by storm, albeit not through the size of their film’s budget, but through the sheer power of creativity and the art of storytelling. Madholal Keep Walking, shot in Mumbai’s chawls and trains, features NSD alumnus and Bengali actor Subrat Dutta in the lead role and has made waves in the festival circuit worldwide: It fetched Dutta the Best Actor award at the Cairo International Film Festival.
The film, which has the tagline “A song of a common man”, tells the story of one Madholal Dubey (Subrat Datta) whose life falls apart in the wake of a train blast and who goes on to regain his belief in the goodness of the human spirit with the support of his wife Kamla (Neela Gokhle), daughters — Sudha (Swara Bhaskar) and Sumi (Varnita Aglawe) — and neighbour Anwar (Pranay Narayan).
It is perhaps significant that Swara, in the public eye, takes a stride before the camera with a film like Madholal Keep Walking: An ode to the undying spirit of Mumbai, the film is a lesson in overcoming insurmountable odds. And if it’s stardom you aim for, the odds stacked against you can be far too many.
When we talk, however, it’s not so much about odds as it is about her achievements. Her debut film Niyati is, akin to cinematographer-turned-director Sushil Rajpal’s Antardwand (Inner Conflict) which releases this week, based on groom abduction and forced marriage (pakadua byaah) in Bihar. Directed by Bharadwaj (whose June release Mr Singh and Mrs Mehta garnered a lukewarm response at the box office), it features Pawan Shankar (of Star One’s Siddhant fame) and Vineet Kumar (Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa, Makdee). It is from the stable of Phat Phish Films, the producers of Quick Gun Murugan.
“Groom capturing was a prevalent practice in north Bihar in the early 1990s. Many Bhumihar Brahmin families would identify a good groom and force him to marry their daughter as they couldn’t afford the dowry,” she says. Niyati is the story of two such people: Gauri (Bhaskar) and Shailendra (Shankar).
“It has a very interesting structure. There are many stories within one story,” she says. The film was shot in Bhopal and its surrounding villages.
Swara describes Gauri’s character as someone who doesn’t have a character. “It was an interesting character to play,” she says, adding that it was tough too as she couldn’t relate with her: “You don’t know that world at all. You don’t feel those thoughts at all. Playing Gauri was like having to question everything, even things that you know about yourself.”
The idea, she says, that somebody will force her to get married doesn’t exist even as an option for her. “That was like a real process for me. Also, what was challenging was to portray a character who can’t do very much in terms of action — she can’t hit anybody, she can’t even say certain things,” she says.
Madholal…, which is technically Swara’s second film, was ready by mid-2009 when it started doing the rounds of the festival circuits across the world. “What tends to happen with a lot of small-budget films that have newer people is that you can get it made, but it is difficult to find distributors who are willing to take them on,” she says. Thankfully, Madholal… has crossed that hurdle, largely owing to the worldwide acclaim that helped the film “sell” itself to the distributors. In the film, she says, she plays “an ordinary, simple kind of a girl”. She is very true to life. At some festivals, many youngsters told her that they could identify with her character: “It could be our story”.
The character Swara plays comes from an “ordinary” background, but is confident because she is educated. She is a “loving, responsible, goody-goody kind of a girl” secretly in love with her Muslim neighbour who is a little older than her. “Jai has kept the film very normal. He doesn’t try to exaggerate, dramatise or extra dramatise,” she says. (Thunder, again. But this time, with some rain. It’s beginning to drizzle.) NAYAB-RAJA’s music in Madholal…, she says, is also true to the kinds of sound you would hear in those areas. “If it’s a song on the train, then suddenly you don’t hear some fancy saxophone. So, the sounds are real to the atmosphere and the whole context of the film,” she says. Aslam Sabri’s qawwali, Khuda ke waste (which begins with the sound of a moving train), is her favourite track from the film. “It has such good energy,” she says.In her third film, Tanu Weds Manu, which also stars Kangana Ranaut and Madhavan, she plays the second lead, opposite Eijaz Khan, the popular TV actor. “My character keeps coming out in contrast with Kangana’s character,” she says.
(It’s pouring rain now. And we rush inside for the rest of the conversation).
“Tea? Coffee?” Her father asks. It’s the holy month of Ramzan. And I am fasting. And though I am tempted to have a steaming cup of tea, I can’t honour his offer.
WE GO back again. To where we began: Madholal Keep Walking. Did she jump at the script when she first heard it? “When I read the script after the audition, I realised there was something so genuine about it. It was so straight, it felt there was something right about it. There was an overwhelming honesty about the script. It’s not pretending to be anything greater, even as a film, than what you see. It’s the story of a simple man and his struggle with life which is a universal kind of a story,” she says.
Swara would have like Niyati to release first. “It would have made my life a lot more easier. (Laughs). I would have been talking to you a year ago. Or may be two years ago,” she says.
We talk about what seems to be the new wave in Hindi cinema. A lot of debutantes, many of whom are in their early 20s, have made forays into films with aplomb. “Some of it is very impressive. Which is why I think this is a good time for a film like Madholal… It comes at a time when films like Tere Bin Laden, Udaan, Peepli [Live] have all done well. Madholal… is like an urban Peepli [Live], not in terms of the story or anything, but just in terms of the fact that you are dealing with ordinary people leading ordinary lives, and showing the ordinariness of their lives and whatever happens to them,” she says.
Hindi cinema, says Swara, is definitely changing. “It is largely due to the audiences. Filmmakers and producers have realised that audience do watch different films. Multiplex has opened up that space. If films like Khosla Ka Ghosla, Bheja Fry, Dev D, Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! didn’t run in multiplexes, there would have been no space for such films. You can’t make an ass of today’s audience. You can’t. There is a lot more awareness,” she says.
I ASK her if it is easier now for an outsider like her, with no godfather in the industry, to make a mark? “Definitely. There are more works being offered as there are more kinds of films being made. The fact that you don’t have a producer father or a boyfriend actor but still getting work is a proof that that space is available now,” she says.But, equally, what has also happened is that precisely because the space has opened, and there is corporatisation of the industry, and it is “cool” to be in the city, everyone is in Bombay: “Itni bheed! It’s teeming with people. It’s insane. Every time I go for auditions, I see people who were either two batches below or above me in school.”
Since Bollywood continues to churn one potboiler — run-of-the mill or otherwise — after another with staggering regularity, the major thrust is on marketing which seems to be the preoccupation of every filmmaker worth his salt. “It plays such a big role in films today that you start thinking about the marketing strategy even before the shooting starts. For big-budget films, it is easier. But for a film like Madholal…, it isn’t,” says the actress.
With more and more people making films, says Swara, there is work, but there is also competition. She hopes that after her films release, she will be in “a better position”, getting more roles, paid more money.
She says: “For a lot of young people who are really no one, so to speak, but are trying to make it independently, the fact they don’t have a value-added already is a bit of a disadvantage.”
If the “nondescript” actors of Madholal… have that disadvantage, it is offset by the big buzz around the film — its story, its international awards.
Talking about commerce vs creativity in cinema, she says: “At the end of the day, it’s all about art and creativity, but there is a very big aspect of market. It is not art for art’s sake. It can’t be like that. Let’s be practical. So, art for market’s sake? She laughs: “Not entirely, I hope! It’s important to strike the right balance. What’s market? It is the audience. It’s important to make films that can touch the audience. It doesn’t matter what you are doing in the film.”
WHAT ARE her priorities as an actor at this stage? She wants to get some commercial success. “I am dying for a bit of that success to come to me. I love commercial cinema. When I watched Chitrahaar, I hoped in my heart of hearts that one day I would like to be in those songs. I’ll be very frank. That’s what drives the reason I am in Bombay (she sticks to the city’s erstwhile, more decent, name),” she says.Her “desire” for glamour is rather seething. “Else, why would I be dying and struggling in Bombay? I am going to get the return. I think all artists want some kind of recognition. They are selfish creatures, all of them,” she says.
Beyond the sheen of glamour, she views stars as larger entities: “Indian actors give a complete kind of performance more than Hollywood actors. Everybody says that Hollywood has good, realistic actors. Sure, but how many Hollywood actors will be able to dance in the manner and with the ease and lack of inhibition with which our actors do? That says something about our performers. Look at SRK. I think that man is a fantastic all-round performer.”
Her argument is that there can be various “styles” of acting. After all, our cinema comes out of traditions like nautanki and bhand and jatra and Parsi theatre, which is a bit dramatic. “Even that (the complete entertainer’s performance) is a certain style of acting. I definitely want to be that complete performer.”
Another aspect, she says, is that as an actress, if you long for longevity, you have to break into commercial films. “You can also keep doing small-budget films, but I don’t know how long can one go on with just doing that. Also, for actresses, there is a certain age, a period, which is their most intense period. If you want to maximise those years, you should do as much as possible,” she says.
IN ALL the three films that she has done, Swara has got “plenty to do” as an actor. “That’s how I look at it. But, now, the aim for me would be to try and target a big-budget film with known actors. I am hoping that once these films release, that will begin to happen,” she says.
SWARA WAS floored by Eijaz Khan, who has romanced small screen for long, on the sets of Tanu Weds Manu: “He was very friendly, supportive and the most wonderful thing was that he would keep a lookout for me. He is a very experienced actor and knows his camera like the back of his hand. He is an actor who will take you on board, not caring much about his own space or camera. He shares it with you.”
Though he is big on TV, Swara says he has no tantrums, no airs. He was quite “phenomenal”. During the shoots, when she would sit with him, girls would walk up to her, asking her to get an autograph from him. “I don’t watch TV. I didn’t know he was such a big star,” she says.
Kangana was fantastic too and very, very helpful. “We had to play best friends. She is a lot of fun. Deepak Dobriyal (who also stars in Tanu Weds Manu) is a brilliant actor too. I am good friends with him. I learnt so much from him. I would ask him to teach me acting,” she says.
For Swara, “Bombay”, the city of dreams, is kind of addictive too: “You get a certain kind of high on the sets because of all the creative energies going around,” says the actress, who has signed an untitled project with Arjun Bagga (he has worked with Anurag Kashyap and Sanjay Gupta earlier). The shooting schedule for that film has not been fixed yet.
Swara’s friends often ask her if she is ever asked about casting couch. “Mujh se koi nahin poochta (No one ever asks me). I wonder if I am abnormal,” laughs the actress, whose dream list of directors include Vishal Bhardwaj, Sudhir Mishra, Madhur Bhandarkar Mani Ratnam and Aditya Chopra. Vishal Bhardwaj, Sudhir Mishra and Madhur Bhandarkar get special mention for their very “distinct female characters”.
And, of course, Mani Ratnam, for his craft that is “quite phenomenal”. If Raavan bombed, Swara says that, as an actress, her concern doesn’t lie there. She reiterates: “I am a selfish artist. I look at what does an actress get to do in a film. Who cares what happens to the rest of the film.”
Her priority, however, seems to be tilted more in favour of Aditya Chopra: “I loved even Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi. I thought he did something different in that film. I am really waiting for my chance to dance around trees.”
Before that happens, Swara, in a bid to stay in touch with theatre, is working on a dramatised reading of some poems of the legendary Punjabi poet, Avtar Singh Pash. The play, which links his poems with his politics and his life, will be directed by Ravinder Randhawa. “Theatre is the best way of working on your speech,” she says.
SWARA’S INTERESTS are many and varied. She reads. She loves to travel. She tries to watch more international cinema, but keeps coming back to Hindi films. She loves Hindustani classical music: Vocal, qawwali, Indian folk, et al, but old Hindi films’ songs remain her eternal favourite. She writes, too, and is trying to get one of her short stories collection out.
It’s been raining all this while and I can hear the pitter-patter of rain in her courtyard.
I step out into the rain, thinking whether I disappointed her by not asking anything about the casting couch. And also wondering that for Swara, who lives in the vortex of glamour, isn’t it only fair that she too wants her share of fame on the road to stardom?