How Rakhi Sawant, the OG Queen of Cringe and Camp Lost Her Crown


How Rakhi Sawant, the OG Queen of Cringe and Camp Lost Her Crown

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Neeru Bheda was once a typical, middle-class Maharashtrian girl from a determinedly unglamourous family. Like most middle-class Indians, the thought of Neeru becoming an actress was unthinkable, since the industry was not “for people like us”. Neeru’s family tried to thrash any such fanciful dreams.

This, of course, is Neeru’s version of the story. Today, we know her as Rakhi Sawant.

More than Sawant’s work in films, we are now more familiar with her antics on social media. Her most recent shenanigans include a wrestling match that ended with her being taken away on a wheelchair, a preposterous press conference where she claimed that actress Tanushree Dutta raped her at a “rave party”, and an Instagram video of her dancing in a makeshift chastity belt.

Sawant regularly pops up on our timelines. And you may loathe, love, or laugh at her, but it is impossible to ignore her. Yet it’s difficult to put her in a box. She doesn’t qualify as an actress – despite her overacting on and off the screen – but to describe her merely as an entertainer or an item girl, another Malaika Arora, is not fair either. Sawant is not the Bollywood bombshell, all flawless skin and tiny waist and groomed to reek good taste, who can sit on the Koffee with Karan couch as comfortably as she sits in her own living room or on the pot.

But when she did appear on Koffee with Karan, at the peak of her fame back in 2007, she immediately stood out from the mealy-mouthed, Bollywood-bred waifs who usually populate the talk show with their poise and political correctness. A bindaas Sawant spoke in Hindi, had no qualms about not being fluent in English, and spoke candidly about her extensive plastic surgeries and her experiences with the casting couch. This was the time we laughed with her, at the bizarreness of the world we occupy – not at her.

Then came Rakhi Ka Swayamvar, a reality show where she chose a husband from a set of suitors, only to promptly separate from him, making it loud and clear that she was in it only for the money and the TRPs, patriarchy and societal norms be damned. Even when Rakhi Sawant made implausible allegations – her infamous “chitting” comments in 2015, when she insisted that the AIB Knockout roast was fake – it wasn’t something we couldn’t fathom. We’d come to expect this of Sawant: a fatuous yet harmless celebrity. Sure, her claims of being #BFFs with Ranveer Singh were never believable, but there was an honesty in the way she threw herself into the snooty, unwelcoming Bollywood fraternity, forcing them to acknowledge her. Her dogged refusal to conform to anyone’s idea of who she should be, and her rejection of any pretence of good taste, has always been the most compelling thing about her. After all, it’s this shameless persistence that transformed her from Neeru Bheda to Rakhi Sawant.

Sawant regularly pops up on our timelines. And you may loathe, love, or laugh at her, but it is impossible to ignore her.

We’d learned to love her for what she was, but something changed between her “green chilli” political party launch and her potty videos. This all-press-is-good-press mantra has taken Sawant from being a scrappy, imperfect heroine who started from the bottom, to a national laughingstock.

While her confidence remains unshaken – she’s not hesitant to donate her boobs or discuss her lust for Mike Tyson on Instagram – her brand has taken a beating. She hit an all-time low when she trashed #MeToo as a foreign infiltration; she took it too far with her #SheToo bullshit, attempting to hijack a movement for some social media points.

However, the greatest blow to Sawant’s stardom is that her sense of authenticity has been undermined, not just by her harmful accusations against Dutta, but also by the fact that her unabashed attention-seeking is no longer unique. Neeru Bheda, the Everywoman, only became the celebrity Rakhi Sawant by smashing the same barriers with which she was brought up. Whether it’s the perpetual weight of “log kya kahenge”, the expectation to uphold family honour and sanskar, our cultural horror of a woman getting the “wrong” kind of attention, or the idea that you have to be excellent to succeed, Sawant circumvented every deeply ingrained obstacle in her way – and in doing so, has paved the way for others.

It is much after Sawant that we saw the rise of cringe-pop stars like Dhinchak Pooja and Omprakash Mishra, who are famously awful. Even the massive trainwreck value of Bigg Boss, which now spans several states and languages, stems from the popularity of Sawant in its inaugural season. Today, we see many versions of Sawant in scores of clips on TikTok, of ordinary people who seem to forego self-awareness and potential embarrassment in favour of 15 seconds in the limelight.

No wonder Sawant’s space in the spotlight is shrinking, as everyone clamours to be on the same stage as her. She is the OG queen of cringe and camp, but looks like her reign is over.