Once upon a time, a man named Majnun fell hopelessly in love with a woman named Layla. So enraptured was Majnun by Layla, so desperately he pined for her, that tales of his burning love travelled far and wide...”
Swara Bhasker is narrating a legendary love story, in response to my question about beauty standards. I ask her how her personal concept of beauty has evolved over the years. “And so,” she continues, “a man who had heard of Majnun’s undying love, decided he simply had to meet Layla—a woman whose beauty must be beyond compare, to have driven her lover to such madness. The curious man travelled for many days and nights to arrive at Layla’s doorstep. But when he set eyes on her, he was horrified, for Layla was one of the most ordinary-looking women he had ever seen. Some might have even considered her ugly! This made the man furious, and he rushed over to Majnun to angrily demand what he could possibly see in a woman so...unattractive. Majnun, who had been languishing in a desert, responded with a smile and answered: ‘You must understand...to see Layla’s beauty, you need Majnun’s eyes’.”
Swara’s smile broadens into a grin. “I absolutely love this story...it’s my favourite!” she beams. “Of course, the industry I work in isn’t like that; there are certain expectations around beauty, and I’ve learnt to be clinical about it,” she shrugs. “So if a photographer tells me he needs to Photoshop my image, that’s fine...I understand it’s a requirement of the industry. The versions of beauty we see in magazines, on the television, in advertisements are fine, too—as long as we are aware that they are not real! Often, on Instagram, I’ll post a picture of myself all dressed-up, and I’ll follow it up with a photograph where I’m wearing pyjamas and glasses, all my acne scars visible, and a funny caption. I believe that as long as you can accept it and have some fun with beauty, it’s alright...it’s just important to be aware.”
More than just a few times, Swara has been branded as an “outspoken” actor. Google her name, and you’ll find a few dozen citations...followed by countless storm-stirring incidents. There was the time Swara wrote an open letter to Sanjay Leela Bhansali, stating that she “felt reduced to a vagina” after watching Padmaavat (she was lambasted for her views, but even more so for uttering the ungodly ‘V’ word.) Then there were the reactions to that famous masturbation scene from Veere Di Wedding (“I still get shamed and trolled for it,” Swara shakes her head. “I think this discomfort with sex is so juvenile...get over it!”). Not to count the frequent incidents where Swara has questioned cultural patriarchy, Bollywood stereotypes, and regressive political views that have angered many netizens, who now sneeringly address Swara as a ‘fake feminist’.
But this ‘outspoken’ label is not one our CoverGirl takes delight in. And as we spend an afternoon chatting, I realise the tag is somewhat milk-and-water. For, Swara doesn’t speak up for the sake of engagement. Her points of view and perspectives come from an earnest passion and ardent desire for change. Drama (and rape threats!) follows often, but Swara tells me she was raised to ask questions...and to be fearless. “I see myself as a loudspeaker for other people’s causes,” she says, “I believe activism is a good thing and it’s good to care about things other than your own life.” Here, excerpts from our conversation, as the Madholal Keep Walking actor gets candid about her fight against hatred, the importance of being courageous, and why, occasionally, she might just lie to you about her age.
Swara Bhasker: “Well, primarily because women have been silenced for far too long. I know that can sound dramatic, but just look around us—our stories, our legends, our epics. Most of them are from a man’s perspective...our recorded history is written by men; our political history is written by men. And that’s because of a society where men ruled, and, therefore, men wrote. I think I can apply that to the film industry as well, because for the longest time, it was the men who wrote the stories, built female characters, their emotions, their voices, everything! I think women have been silent for far too long, and I think this century is finally witnessing a change. Have you noticed how women across the world are now discovering their voices and finally getting the chance to tell their stories in their own voices?! We need to speak up and claim our own stories!”
NB: Society tends to label women fairly quickly... You’re either the ‘good girl’ or the ‘outspoken one’, especially when it comes to sharing opinions and thoughts. You’ve also been given the ‘outspoken’ label fairly often...
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