For today’s Big Interview, ETimes got hold of the actress who, in a candid chat, opened up about her decision to adopt, moving into her newly remodelled house, welcoming her niece Junaili into her life and her idea of an ideal man. Excerpts…
You have pleasantly surprised one and all with your decision to adopt a child. What really prompted you to take this step?
I had visited an orphanage in March earlier this year and it was then that the idea of adoption first caught my attention. It kept lingering in my mind. Once you get acquainted with certain facts and numbers, then your perspective changes. That’s what happened to me. According to UNICEF data, we have more than 2.9 crore orphan children in India. The worst part is, only 5 lakh of those orphans are in orphanages across the country. I am not saying these numbers are the reason I decided to adopt, but they are staggering and the fact that the orphan crisis is so deep certainly played a part in pushing me in the right direction, decision-wise.
I have always wanted children to have a family. And I feel for a single person, adoption is one way to realise this feeling. Thankfully in our country, I can be a single mother and still adopt. While this is an emotional decision, one must also be prepared. So I have done my research, I’ve met couples who have adopted and understood how things work. I’ve also met children who were adopted and are now on the threshold of being adults themselves. I spoke to some CARA members who were very helpful. Having understood the process and experience of adoption I finally decided I would enrol and wait to adopt a child and be a parent.
You have moved back into your freshly remodelled house after 2.5 years.
Yes, after two and a half years. I call it my old new house. It feels amazing and wonderful. I am very happy. I have been living in two different houses on rent. Finally, I am back in my house, my own space and it is looking lovely.
Do you have a favourite spot in the house where you love to retire for the day after an exhausting day at work?
It is a very relaxed house. I can be myself everywhere. I have a lovely living space which I absolutely love. Like Virginia Woolf said, ‘A Room of one’s Own’.
Last year, you had back-to-back OTT releases. Even this year, you have been busy as ever. What have you been working on?
While people were baking bread, I was burning bread, I was rescuing animals and I also had some back to back OTT releases which were great. This year, I shot a very lovely film and it was weird because we scheduled the film before the second wave and we almost got stuck during the second wave. So we had to pack up and wait for the second wave to pass which was very tragic. There was so much loss of life this year too that we should all take a minute to acknowledge the kind of collective trauma we have lived through. Luckily, that has passed now and I have just finished shooting for ‘Jahaan Chaar Yaar.’ It has a lovely story and a lovely cast. I will be dubbing for that soon.
I have written two films and I am in the process of writing one more. I am going to produce them also so I am quite excited.
You won the Best Actress in a Supporting Role for ‘Sheer Qorma’ at Soho London Independent Film Festival. Did you have any kind of inhibitions while playing the character?
I had absolutely no inhibitions whatsoever before doing this role. By the time I was approached for the film, Divya Dutta had already been cast. I was excited to work with her because she is one of my favourite actresses. Then I read the script and it is such a beautiful story. Of course, it talks about a same-sex couple and their love. But it also talks about love between parents and children. I am sure we all have experienced the feeling where we have felt our parents don’t understand us. It is universal. Shabana Azmi ji agreed to play the mother’s role in the film and I was bowled over. She is someone I have not only admired for her acting prowess but for just the person she is and the kind of work she has done. So this film had two of the most brilliant actors from our industry and both were my favourites. I felt so blessed to be in this film that I used to tell Faraz that it has blessings written all over it and it is meant to do great things. I was proven right. Every time the film wins an award, I tell him, ‘See I told you this film has a higher purpose!’
How was your first day on the set with Divya Dutta and Shabana Azmi?
It was absolutely lovely. Over three months, Divya and I went on to do two films together. It was great fun and she is wonderful. Faraz is like a soul sibling. I am very fond of him. I am proud of the person that he is. He has become a very good friend. And I was waiting all my life to talk to Shabana ji. I tell her, ‘Main toh bhoot hoon ab toh main chipak hi gayi hoon aapse (I am a ghost and now I’m going to cling on to you)’. Just watching her is a lesson. I tell her ‘Main toh Ganga naha li (I’ve been blessed by the holy water of Ganga) just by sharing screen space with you’. Faraz and our producers put all their faith, belief and 100 per cent in to bring everything together in the film. It was a wonderful experience.
What are your thoughts on LGBTQIA+ representation in Bollywood movies?
You will not get an authentic representation of any community until you have representation from that community by being part of that process in any capacity. The authentic voices will come from people who have lived those experiences. To this day, ‘My Brother Nikhil’ has some kind of effectiveness, appeal and power. I feel the representation has been very stereotypical for a very long time in mainstream films. I am glad that we are not getting to hear more authentic voices. This is true for all communities, not just LGBTQIA+. For the longest time, Hindi films have been stereotyping South Indians. That is changing. I am not saying that everybody has to be from that community. For example, ‘Anaarkali of Aarah’ is a story of a woman who has been wronged. I have to give full credit to writer-director Avinash Das who is a man but he took me along in that writing process. He made me read every draft. He accommodated inputs from everyone. It is not like if you are a man you cannot write a story on a woman but at least include a woman’s point of view in it.
Your choice of work is often associated with the issues you want to talk about. Has your work or brand image ever got affected because you played a certain character or took a certain stand?
I don’t think I have ever been punished for the kind of roles that I have done. What I have been punished for are the opinions I have had or the fact that I have been very vocal about certain things. More than giving opinions, I think about participating in protests, rallies or campaigning in 2019. I definitely had to suffer for that. There is no doubt about that. I have had brands terminating contracts who said I brought disrepute to the brand by participating in the CAA, NRC protests. But I don’t want to look like a victim here, even if I am. These are the choices I made. This is the fight I want to fight and if this is the price I have to pay then it is unfortunate. If I am being punished for believing in what are basically the constitutional values of this country then I am willing to take that punishment.
How does your family react to all this?
They are like ‘chup ho ja Swara’ (laughs). That was on a lighter note. My family, in fact, has been very supportive. Of course, they are very concerned and worried for me when FIRs and criminal complaints are filed against me for different reasons, when people harass me and threaten me. But despite all this, they have never stopped me. They have always encouraged me. My father and mother have often told me that this is a good fight. They have the same values. I have them because they gave them to me. They always stand behind me. A lot of my confidence and a lot of what people describe as ‘courage’ comes from the fact that my parents have my back.
Your mother is a professor of cinema. Is she the one who has shaped your cinematic vision?
No, actually ‘Chitrahaar’ and ‘Superhit Muqabala’ shaped my love for Hindi films. My mother is an amazing teacher. Before she taught film studies, she taught literature. She has definitely shaped my love for books, for reading. She is actually a bigger movie buff than me. She tells me which films to watch and also gets angry saying that I don’t watch enough good films. I just feel all that I have is somehow shaped by my parents.
But were you a movie buff growing up?
I was a huge Hindi film buff. I was a huge Akshay Kumar fan because of the song, ‘Chura Ke Dil Mera’. I was impressed with how high he can jump. After ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’, I became a Shah Rukh Khan fan which I am even today.
How were your initial days in the industry?
I was a rank outsider so I have almost the same story of struggle that most people have. It was interesting because I had two kinds of struggles. I had moved to Mumbai from Delhi for the first time so living in a new city, away from your parents and all that. The other struggle I had was I was a total jhalli. Until then, I had never done my eyebrows and I did facials for the first time after I came to Mumbai. All this was a different struggle for me. To be in an industry where looks are everything took time to get used to because those were not the kind of values I was brought up with.
I never came from a world where you were so ruthlessly judged based on your looks. This was my struggle more than getting work. I started getting work pretty easily. In ‘acting’, I got the ‘act’ part but the ‘ting’ part took a lot of time for me to get used to.
Unlike earlier, today we have actresses above 40 who are not standing out with their performances in films but are also shouldering a film on their own. How do you look at this change as an actor?
I agree that actresses have to face ageism in the industry as opposed to actors. I hope things are changing. What gives me hope is that Tabu has had a second wind in her career. Neena Gupta ji is back on screen and she is an amazing actor. It gives me a lot of hope to see that Shabana Azmi ji has never had a break and she is always giving great performances. I hope actresses will also keep on having opportunities like actors do even after they attain a certain age. Of course, it won’t be entirely equal but yet at least we should try.
Does Bollywood take women producers seriously?
I think we have some great female producers in Bollywood. Ekta Kapoor is one of the powerful producers we have. She is sort of a trailblazer when it comes to the kind of films she has made. Anushka Sharma is a producer. Guneet Monga has built it from scratch a whole possibility for independent cinema to be made and told. OTT giants have a content team headed by women, whether it is Monika Shergill in Netflix or Aparna Purohit in Amazon. We should recognise the good work women are doing in roles of leadership. I did a great series called, ‘Flesh’ which was helmed by Riddhima Lulla and Mamta Anand. It is not like the efforts of women are not recognised.
What do you think connects and attracts your fans to your performance?
I hope they relate with the honesty and realness that I bring to the part that I have played. I can just hope that this is the case. We will have to ask the audience for the answer. But a lot of people I know say that ‘We love your work but more than your work we love what you say on social media. I am just like, ‘So do you like the actor or just the opinion?’ I also have people who have said, ‘We love your acting but hate your opinions.’ So I have had both.
With content gaining more importance in films and with the growing emergence of OTT platforms – do you think it is the end of star power in Bollywood?
I think there is no harm if star power is diminishing a little bit and content is gaining more centre stage. There is no harm if actors are given credit for their ‘acting’. There is nothing wrong with it. It is good for the people and the industry. You will get to watch better actors and better acting.
Some unfortunate events last year shed light on the importance of mental health. How do you deal with pressure and failures?
We have had a lot of tragedies last year. Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide is perhaps the most unfortunate thing that we have witnessed. It also shines the light on how vulnerable actors are in terms of how vulnerable our minds and hearts are. Like any freelance work, this too is tough, uncertain and filled with insecurities that will chase you your entire life. No matter how big a star is, the insecurity of that Friday release or what my next work will be and how it will do, this will never end.
I deal with it by recognizing that this is a reality but this is not the only reality. I recognise that the glamour industry is such that everything gets exaggerated. So if success gets exaggerated, failures are too. You start feeling that the world is ending when you don’t find your next work in two-three months. So you can recognise and then find healthy ways to deal with it. I have a lot of support in the form of my family and my friends. I do a lot of other things. I am involved in activities that help me. I have an active life outside Bollywood. I travel a lot. I think the thing to always remember is that yeh duniya bahut badi hai (the world is a big place) and Bollywood uska ek chota sa hissa hai (is a small part of it). This is not the end of the world. I would like to say this to everybody that it is always good to have a little distance from your dream. You have to learn to balance it. It is fine if you were unable to fulfil your dream the way you wanted. It will get fulfilled in some other way.
Apart from acting, what do you love and enjoy doing?
I am a gharelu keeda. I am this snug bug. I love being at home. I love going back to Delhi to spend time with my family, my pets and my dog. I love playing with my dog. I love travelling. I take every opportunity to travel. I am going mad now because I have not travelled for the past two years now. I love reading and I am a big event planner. When I don’t have anything else, I sit and plan events and parties for my family.
You recently became an aunt to your beautiful niece…
Yes, my brother and sister-in-law had a baby girl and she is amazing. She is very tiny but very cute. I have never seen anyone so cute in my life. I don’t see her that often because I am not in the same city. Her name is Junaili. It means the light of the full moon. In all the languages of the mountain, it is associated with radiance or light.
Wedding season is here and love is in the air in Bollywood. Does Swara have someone special in her life too?
Do you think I have anyone in my life? I have basically made everyone in my Instagram list my boyfriend. I just keep talking to them. I am very single.
How would you describe your ideal man?
I don’t know who is an ideal person. I have had some not-so-ideal experiences in the past. So I will just start by saying an honest man would be great. Let’s just start with the basics. I would like an honest, decent and respectful man. And also he should be someone who does not get intimidated by all the drama that I bring in.
Do you have friends in the industry with whom you hang out?
My friend from the industry has moved to London and Delhi. I haven’t seen her (Sonam Kapoor) for a while now. But yeah I do hang out with friends. I make a lot of plans with my co-actors on the set.
Tell us something about your upcoming projects.
I am working on producing a romantic comedy which I have written. I am hoping to act in it.