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Since the day the Delhi police stormed Jamia Millia Islamia, Swara Bhasker has juggled shooting schedules with attending protests across India (Photo: AFP)
Since the day the Delhi police stormed Jamia Millia Islamia, Swara Bhasker has juggled shooting schedules with attending protests across India (Photo: AFP)

The politics of Swara Bhasker

Since the day the Delhi police stormed Jamia Millia Islamia, Swara Bhasker has juggled shooting schedules with attending protests across India

Are you scared that I am speaking at so many protests, Swara Bhasker asked her director the day after she attended one in Mumbai against the new Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). No, no, he replied, my son was also there.

“Overnight, we have gone from people cautioning me about my nuisance value and telling me I am a troublemaker to saying you are so strong, you are our hero," she says, laughing. Now producers attend protests with her, the head of a streaming platform messaged to say how proud they were of her, and protesters repeatedly thank her for being fearless and speaking up.

“I have never experienced such solidarity before," she says, emphasizing that the real heroes are the women and students who are leading the protests against the CAA, the proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the National Population Register (NPR) that together will sieve citizens by their religious identity. “I am just an amplifier."

Bhasker has always raised her voice against the establishment (and flicked off the legion of trolls who attack her on Twitter—even boycotting brands that associate with her—for speaking up) but this time she has hit the ground running. She says something changed for her the day the Delhi police stormed Jamia Millia Islamia and beat up students on campus: “I haven’t slept since 15 December."

She has juggled the rigorous shooting schedule of an untitled digital series with attending protests across India, surviving on a healthy dose of make-up and melatonin tablets. Her natural hyperactivity and the Vistara 3am flight to Delhi from Mumbai, where she lives with her three cats and her surly cook, have helped too.

Last week, she helped bring artists together for a heart-warming three-day cultural tour across cities for India, My Valentine, an attempt to fight polarization and hate in society through poetry, music and stand-up comedy. She didn’t have any releases last year—though she was scarcely out of the public eye—but she stars in the soon-to-be-released Sheer Qorma, an LGBTQ+ short film by Faraz Ansari.

You are likely to see her in two-three web series this year, including Flesh, where she plays a policewoman, and Rasbhari, where she is a “mysterious seductress". She has been writing scripts for a few years now and has found producers for a couple; last year, she began writing a biopic of con woman Krishna Sen, who had gender dysphoria and married multiple women.

We meet on 26 January at her parents’ house, located within the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus in Delhi (her mother teaches cinema studies there and her father is a retired naval officer and defence analyst). Bhasker is dressed in jeans and a black tee with oversized hoop earrings that she wears a lot these days. She has taken the red-eye flight that morning so she can speak at the historic Shaheen Bagh protest.

When armed, masked intruders attacked students and teachers on the JNU campus on 5 January, Bhasker panicked. In an emotional video on Twitter, she appealed to people to come to JNU’s north gate. The video went viral, television channels played it on loop, a thousand people showed up and many sent her videos telling her that her mother, who was also protesting at the gate, was okay.

Bhasker’s political consciousness wasn’t born in 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power, though it does trace its roots back to the time when he was chief minister of Gujarat. The environment at home was an academic one and Bhasker, then a student at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya, says she and her classmates were all “little intellectuals" by age 15. “Dinner table conversation was always this very self-conscious discussion or debate on a topic that was in the news," she says.

It’s fun to “watch" her speak because in addition to being extremely articulate, Bhasker accessorizes her words with animated hand actions and facial expressions peppered with self-deprecating comments such as “I am a loudspeaker for various causes" or “I am a menace".

In 2002, she remembers breaking down when she saw the photograph of Gujarat riot victim Qutubuddin Ansari, his eyes full of tears, hands folded and pleading with his attackers. Still in school, she and a couple of friends decided to volunteer with Aman Ekta Manch and ended up at a relief camp at the Qutub-e-Alam dargah in Vatva, Ahmedabad. “We used to deliver messages, keep the children busy, do odd jobs like organize waterproofing for the tents and fill forms to record what people had lost. We saw so much destruction. That was for me the birth of this political side," she says.

“Now when anyone says Gujarat was spontaneous, I am like, no bro…no. I saw a building where the ground floor was burnt and the floor above was burnt but the middle floor was intact. I have such a clear memory of that."

Her feminist side developed at Delhi University’s Miranda House, where she studied English literature, but it was only when she moved to JNU for a postgraduate degree in sociology that she understood something about her country: Her urban, English-speaking upbringing was just one of India’s many different realities.

“We should have, if nothing else, empathy for the different realities of people and we should be able to listen to them even if they make us feel uncomfortable. Why should our default setting be disbelief, or ‘oh she’s lying’?" she says, recalling the discomfort of a defence brat when faced with the anger of Kashmiri students against the state.

When she moved to Mumbai in 2009 and switched from theatre to film, her political side sat at the head of the table. “It’s funny because this was the one place where I should have just shut the hell up, put on the heels, put on the make-up and quietly done my acting."

Instead, she found herself embroiled in many early conflicts, such as the time she demanded a director remove the line kutte aur Bangladeshi kahi bhi ghus jaate hai (dogs and Bangladeshis enter anywhere) from the script. “I gave a 15-minute speech about stereotyping, racism, derogatory speech and ethnic biases."

Another time, she was sacked from a project because she highlighted all the illegal labour practices in a film contract and sent it back to her director. And then there’s the time she had her “first ever public meltdown", on the set of Anarkali Of Aarah when an actor threw tea in a spot boy’s face. Lots has been written about her penchant for open letters—to Umar Khalid, Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Pahlaj Nihalani—so we won’t dwell on it here.

Bhasker’s politics shadows her everywhere, including on her fake profile on Hinge, where, when asked by the app to name one thing she would never change her mind about, she typed: Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

“A whole bunch of RSS people thought I was pro-RSS and I started having a discussion on fascism from my fake account," she says. Classic Bhasker. Always political. And always ready to engage.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

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