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Bhaskar is something of a rarity in Indian cinema

Swara Bhaskar’s own bio on Twitter describes her as “an armchair activist, Twitter warrior, troll destroyer, right-wing baiter, liberal hysteric.”

The candour is admirable. But the bio also accurately sums up the facts.

 

Consider a recent instance involving her latest film. It is called Veere di Wedding, and though it is a commercial movie with star power (the actresses Kareena Kapoor and Sonam Kapoor play major roles), it is distinguished by the absence of a male lead and its focus on women’s concerns.

 

   Bhaskar plays a spoilt, rich girl who is married to a man who is unable to sexually satisfy her. She turns to a vibrator and in one of the film’s most talked about sequences, pleasures herself. (This is Hindi cinema so there is no actual nudity; only the suggestion of self-gratification.)

 

   Shortly before the film was released, right wing activists urged viewers to boycott it. The call for the boycott was not prompted by the vibrator scene but by another controversy. Some months ago, after a rape was reported inside a temple, Bhaskar and other stars took part in a campaign to protest rapes. Hindu activists treated this as an insult to Hinduism and some denied that any rape had taken place in the temple.

 

   In the event, hardly anyone boycotted the film. It took one of the biggest openings ever for a film without a male star and is on target to earn Rs 100 crore (a crore is ten million) at the box-office, making it the surprise hit of the summer, (Oddly enough, while Indians welcomed the film, Pakistan, a regular target of Indian trolls, may actually have followed their lead; it banned the movie).

 

   But by then, the trolls had focussed on the masturbation scene. One tweeted that he had taken his grandmother to see the film and that she had been appalled. Exactly the same tweet, with the same wording (down to the misspelling of the word masturbation) appeared again and again on Twitter, being posted a variety of different handles, all pretending that this was their own experience . Their obvious cut-and-paste tweeting campaign soon became the subject of endless jokes on social media and fodder for stand-up comedians. In the process, the trolls gave the film the kind of publicity that money could not have bought.

 

  "So far at least, the film industry and sponsors have taken these threats seriously. Bhaskar is one of the few stars to refuse to be cowed down and to actually do battle with the trolling mobs."

   The controversies may have shaken a more timid person but Bhaskar, as befits a woman who calls herself a “troll-destroyer”, is amused by the furore. She did not back down even when trolls launched a campaign to boycott Amazon (and to delete the app from their phones) for associating with Bhaskar. To its credit, Amazon held firm though on previous occasions, trolls have succeeded in getting online companies to drop such stars as Aamir Khan when they have said things that the right wing disapproves of.

 

   All this makes Bhaskar something of a rarity in Indian cinema. She was born into a reasonably well known Delhi family. Her father, who retired as a Commodore in the Indian navy, is one of the country’s leading defence experts and appears frequently on TV while her mother is a Professor of cinema. Bhaskar went to Jawaharlal Nehru University, regarded as a bastion of left-wing thought but her politics were essentially centrist and she is clear that she is not a Marxist.

 

   Her desire to fight the right wing, she says, comes not from any revolutionary zeal but from her own sense that India is going through a dangerous phase where the liberal values enshrined in the Constitution are being trampled on. “We live in surreal times”, she says. “We live in times when people can burn somebody alive, film the act and then post the video on social media.”

 

   She accepts that discrimination against India’s religious minorities is not new and that lower castes have often been mistreated in India. But, she argues, what is new is the complete lack of shame that now accompanies such discrimination and violence.

 

   “There was a time when people who were prejudiced might express those prejudices in private. But now they go on TV and declare them openly. There is no shame any longer. People are not even embarrassed to defend rapists”, she says. “We have to stand up for the values written in our constitution.”

 

   The Hindi film business has long been one of India’s most secularly-united industries with no distinction being made between Hindus and Muslims. Nor is caste a factor; most people in the business are not even aware of each other castes. And there is some history of activism. The award-winning actress Shabana Azmi fasted in public in the 1980s to prevent a slum colony from being demolished.

 

   So Bhaskar’s positions are not entirely unprecedented. But what makes them different is that she speaks not from a radical or Marxist perspective but from a position of old-fashioned liberalism. Moreover, she takes these stands in a social media age where Twitter mobs or What-Apps lynch groups can easily be deployed to threaten and intimidate any target, especially one as high-profile as Bhaskar .Often, the intention is to cut off the target’s livelihood by threatening sponsors and advertisers with boycotts and by encouraging viewers to stay away from movies so that they flop.

 

   So far at least, the film industry and sponsors have taken these threats seriously. Bhaskar is one of the few stars to refuse to be cowed down and to actually do battle with the trolling mobs.

 

   The importance of Veere di Wedding’s box-office success is that it demonstrates that no matter how virulent a hate campaign on social media is, stars and movie makers can still flourish if they have the guts to fight back. Perhaps others will take courage from this example.

 

   As for Bhaskar, she is now even more determined to take on the trolls. As her Twitter bio says, she is a “liberal hysteric.” And sometimes hysteria in the defence of liberty is not such a bad thing.

 

  

CommentsComments

  • Ganesh Acharya 16 Jun 2018

    I am guessing you didn't see the film
    dont you think the other actors & crew deserve some credit for its success? :-))

  • Ulfat Hashmi 16 Jun 2018

    errr... no, I wouldnt draw such conclusions
    sorry for sounding cynical but she's parroting what can make her stand out, and in the current scenario it appears to be a 'liberal' stance
    there's a little too much desperation to seek attention to boost her flagging career

  • Glenn 16 Jun 2018

    you didnt mention her long harangue in the WIRE about padmavat which no one read but got a lot of flak all the same, and that according to film insiders was the maximum she got to speak than all the footage from all her films combined. that trend continues she spoke more in your interview than she has in all her films combined :-o

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