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Home / Entertainment / Taapsee Pannu on being the go-to girl for gritty roles in Bollywood

Taapsee Pannu on being the go-to girl for gritty roles in Bollywood

'There have been some great successes and I have tried to push the envelope every year’
Taapsee Pannu

Priyanka Roy   |   Published 16.05.20, 12:43 PM

Would Minal’s ‘No means no’ in Pink have been as emphatic without the angst and helplessness in Taapsee Pannu’s eyes? In Manmarziyaan, would Rumi’s confusion in picking the man she wanted to truly be with come off as relatable if Taapsee hadn’t rooted it in a deep sense of self? Would Naina’s diabolique in Badla pack in the same edge if the see-saw emotions on Taapsee’s face hadn’t kept us second-guessing? Would the sting of the slap in Thappad have resonated across demographic and psychographic if Amrita hadn’t held up a mirror to all of us in the way only Taapsee can?

Today, Taapsee Pannu is, without a doubt, the first choice for many a woke filmmaker for parts that require courage and confidence, pluck and boldness and an assured sense of self. The 32-year-old Delhi girl has gone from a virtual outsider in Bollywood to having roles specially written for her. Even as she has impressed with her brave turns on screen, Taapsee’s ability to call a spade a spade, calling out everything from misogyny to nepotism, is refreshing in a business that largely wants its women to conform.

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With both praise and box office (last year’s Mission Mangal was a Rs 100-crore-plus blockbuster), Taapsee is today in an envious position, picking and choosing the parts she wants to play. Over a long conversation recently, The Telegraph delved into the mind and motivations of the intelligent and articulate actor. Our verdict at the end of it? You go, girl!

You’ve had a rollercoaster ride over the last couple of years. It’s been back-to-back releases and jumping from one film set to another. In a way, does this break feel surreal?

I was making the most of it until this week because in my head, I was expecting things to get back to near normal by May. Some people working in the public and private sectors have slowly started going back to work, but for someone like me, it’s been a total lockdown. And working from home is very limited in my case. I really want to go out. I am a little restless now.

Have you been able to accomplish anything during this break that you couldn’t do earlier because of lack of time?

Because of both lack of time and lack of interest, cooking has always been something that I have run away from. My mother would keep pestering me to learn the basics, but I always told her I will find some way to escape it. But I love eating and food really defines my day. I belong to the category of people who decides a day in advance what I am going to eat the next day (laughs). If I don’t have good food on the table then my entire day goes for a toss, and in times like this, I can’t afford to do that. So I have had to step into the kitchen and start cooking after seeing all these recipes on YouTube. And it’s turned out to be quite a revelation. I have started cooking every day... dal, chawal, sabzi and even biryani and chicken curry (laughs).

For someone who’s been on a film set almost every day in the last few years, what does not being on one for so long feel like?

Yes, for the last couple of years, I actually remember my film sets more than my house! (Laughs) I am actually enjoying being at home now because I got this apartment two years back and since then, I have barely been in it. I have only been shooting outside the city and even when I was here, I would leave early in the morning for shoots and promotions and come back late in the night. So I was enjoying being at home initially but now, as I said, I am really itching to go back to a film set. There’s only that much I can do at home and once the monotony sets in, it becomes a little difficult. Having such an experimental life and leaving the option of becoming an engineer professionally was because I didn’t want a montonous life.

Your career has exploded in the last few years. Now when you have some time to look back, what do you think has worked for you?

I am someone who constantly self introspects. After pack-up, I have always thought back over my choices and I have been very real and honest about how the graph is going, what’s working and how and why it’s working. So this process of self-introspection has happened parallelly with the jump in my career... I give myself a reality check all the time. I know I have done a lot of work over the last few years, but when I come back home or to the hotel room after the day is done, I don’t think so much about work... I think more about my life and what my reality is. I am always aware of where I have come from, how far I have come and where I need to go.

The last few years haven’t been a planned journey. Yes, there have been some great successes and I have tried to push the envelope every year. I have always been like, ‘Okay, these experiments were successful, so let’s push it a little further’. I have tried to raise the bar in comparison with my own films. Of course I am aware of what everyone else is doing as well, but I am more interested in choosing better films each time and bettering myself as an actor.

You are the go-to actor for parts that require grit and you are increasingly being seen as a risk-taker in terms of the roles you pick. Do you consciously accept roles that perhaps many others wouldn’t or are these the parts that come naturally to you?

At least over the last few years, the parts that I have played have come naturally to me... there are very few that I have gone ahead and snatched. I think it’s the ripple effect of one film and one character — Pink (the 2016 film in which she played the firebrand yet vulnerable Minal Arora) that made people see me in a different light. Baby (2015) did make people notice me but Pink made them see me as a full-fledged actress who could shoulder real characters... the girl next door with both inherent strength and vulnerability.

After that, I started getting these kinds of characters, in different backgrounds and different situations. From then, it became a snowball effect from one film to the next and then to the next. Now I have the option of a lot of characters to choose from. I always get attracted to parts I want to watch. I am very clear about the fact that I will do the films that I will pay to watch. It can be a Judwaa (2) or it can be a Thappad... because I want the audience for both.

Something that always attracts me towards a role is, ‘Yeh pehle nahin dekhi hain. Chalo, yeh kar ke dekhte hain’. It has just happened by chance that the last few films that have clicked have had experimental and rooted-in-reality subjects that have struck a chord with the audience. Unconventional characters, of course, are attractive. I like grey characters, like Rumi in Manmarziyaan or the character that I am playing next in Haseen Dillruba... both have been written by Kanika (Dhillon). In our society, we tend to put people in boxes of black and white and right and wrong, especially when it comes to women. Women are supposed to shoulder the responsibility of righteousness all the time. So I do these characters to break that notion. Actresses are very wary of being negative on screen and roles come to me with people saying, ‘Yeh thodi si grey hain. Yeh off the regular conventional path hain toh Taapsee kar legi’. So I started playing these roles with the honesty and intent of trying to make them believable, rather than trying too hard to make them good or bad.

Given the roles of great import and intensity that you have played lately — women with a voice and a mind of their own — does it put pressure on you to be wary when offers like Judwaa 2 come calling, a film which was frankly quite misogynistic...

Not really. That’s because I have chosen both the parts with the same mind. If I have had a reason to choose a Pink or a Thappad, then I have also had a reason to choose Judwaa 2. I can’t be doing a certain kind of film because people want me to do them. I do them because I enjoy them. I never wanted to become an actor or a famous person. My plan was to do an MBA and take up a job in an MNC and just have a regular life with some creative usage of my brain. So since this was never the plan, I don’t really need to make sure I am at the top of the ladder. That’s why I do what I want to do and make sure that I am enjoying every day at work... the day I stop enjoying will be the day I will switch to some other job. My motivation is not how people see me, it’s whether I enjoy what I am doing. If I enjoy myself, my audience will enjoy watching me.

Do you look for a bit of yourself in the characters you play?

Every time you can’t play people who are closer to you. But because I am not a trained actor, I don’t know any other way to play a part than to connect one thread. I need to have that one common thread with a character and then I build on the rest.

Your Twitter bio reads: ‘With flesh, blood and SPINE’. You are refreshingly honest and outspoken in an industry that is anything but. Is this someone who you have inherently been or have you evolved into this person over the years in the business?

From what my mom says, I have always been like this (laughs). Yesterday, I did a video interview with my mother for Mother’s Day and the interviewer asked me whether I have always been this person who’s been independent and one who keeps asking questions and my mom was like, ‘Yes, she’s always been like that’. I don’t know where it’s come from because my parents are not like that. They are very low profile and not-wanting-to-get-into-any-kind-of-mess kind of people. But I have always felt that if I am not wrong and I am not targeting a person or hitting them below the belt, I don’t need to be scared. I have never targeted a person. I have always followed the mantra of hating the sin and not the sinner. I have always called out something that’s wrong... I have never called out people. I have never tried to impose my right or wrong on anyone. And that’s why I find it very stupid when people impose what they feel is right or wrong on me. I will never take it.

When people laud me for my brave and experimental choices in films, I always say that when you have nothing to lose, then you become extremely brave. It’s very scary to mess with someone who has nothing to lose. You cannot take anything away from me because I never had any of this... I have built it from scratch. On my own credit and by myself. It’s not like that I am worried that tomorrow all this will vanish into thin air. No, it won’t... I have built it brick by brick... it hasn’t been an overnight thing. I don’t have a surname to live up to. I don’t have any of these obligations. So I don’t get scared of doing what I feel is right. That makes people feel that I am fearless and that I can speak my mind without worrying.

Do you think being the central focus of your films prevents certain filmmakers of potential big-budget blockbusters, that have male superstars as the lead but the heroine is reduced to a prop, from approaching you?

(Pauses) Maybe… maybe. But then in the year that I had a Mulk and a Manmarziyaan, I also had a Soorma; in a year with a Saand Ki Aankh or a Badla, I also had Mission Mangal. It’s not that I always want to be the centre of attention in my films. I am okay with a lesser part but it has to be meaningful. It shouldn’t be like that if you take my part out of the film, it doesn’t reduce the film in any way. That is the only condition. But it’s okay for me sometimes to take a back seat because I know I am doing so many other films where I am the central focus. It so happens that the films that I do as the protagonist are so talked about and the subjects are so intense and relevant that people have started looking at me as someone who will only do these kinds of roles. But that’s not true. I am trying, in my own small way, to do all kinds of films.

What’s been your most satisfying experience as an actor so far?

Thappad (2020) was when I felt relief that I had finally reached a certain level as an actor. I am not saying it suddenly happened with Thappad... it was also because of a lot of other films that I have done through the years, in the run-up to Thappad. But when Anubhav Sir (Sinha, the film’s director) and I discussed that a film on domestic violence and patriarchy should be made, dealing with it head-on and not as a sub-layer, it was a high for me knowing that he was willing to write an entire script knowing that I will do it. Usually a script is written and then an actor is approached for it. It’s only in the case of certain big stars where a director writes a script for them. That was a very, very satisfying high. Even though I had played the title role in Naam Shabana, it was the first time when I saw a poster, in the case of Thappad, that had my name on it. Frankly, it was very intimidating and scary for me when I saw it for the first time because I always feel that a film is much bigger than an actor. Seeing the bold font of ‘Taapsee Pannu in Thappad’ scared the hell out of me, but that was also the moment that made me realise that, ‘Okay, all of that was leading up to this. I am going in the right direction and it’s all going to be good’ (smiles). 

Manmarziyaan (2018)

Anurag Kashyap’s exploration of fundamentally flawed love had Taapsee ace the part of the unfettered Rumi, a woman torn between love and marriage, with the actress making all bits of the character — confused and crazy yet endearing and emotional — extremely relatable. Rumi is variously described as “atom bomb”, “daayan” and “woh jo aankhon se goli maarti hai”, with Taapsee owning the film, giving us a heroine who’s unapologetic about who she is.

Saand Ki Aankh (2019)

Taapsee’s strength as a performer lies in the fact that she slips into all parts seamlessly. In this biopic based on the Tomar sharpshooters, Taapsee slapped on the prosthetics to play Prakashi Tomar but her win didn’t just lie in her physical transformation. The 32-year-old became the 60-plus Prakashi effortlessly, her eyes weary with the burden of patriarchy and prejudice but her face lighting up every time she hit bullseye and broke a glass ceiling.

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Pink (2016)

Her boom-bam-whack-thwack turn in just those five minutes in Baby may have made us go ‘wow’, but it was with Pink — a fact that she acknowledged in this interview — that Taapsee came into her own. As Minal Arora, the feisty, independent woman unafraid to bring a bottle crashing down on the head of her abuser and then having the guts to stand up in front of the world, at the cost of being branded and bullied, to defend her act, Taapsee — all fire, but also a lot of softness and vulnerability — was a revelation.

Badla (2019)

Never one to shy away from playing grey characters, Taapsee matched Amitabh Bachchan word for word, stare for stare in this Sujoy Ghosh thriller. Naina Sethi may have easily been reduced to a stereotype, but Taapsee gave her layers and emotions that made her a flesh-and-blood character that we empathised with even when we didn’t want to. The twisted-ness of Naina came through, so did the vulnerability.

Mulk (2018)

If Pink had her in the dock, in Mulk, Taapsee was the ballsy lawyer named Aarti Mohammad calling out religious stereotyping, social prejudice and more specifically, Islamophobia, in the way only she can. The Anubhav Sinha film may have had Rishi Kapoor frontlining it but it was Taapsee who was the scene stealer, scoring with both courage and chutzpah.

Thappad (2020)

“Ek thappad... par nahin maar sakta”. Few could have uttered this line with a winning mix of resilience and heartbreak like Taapsee did in this Anubhav Sinha film that called out the normalisation of domestic violence and had Taapsee’s Amrita at the front and centre, not only shouldering the film but also taking on the misogyny and male entitlement that’s so unquestioningly entrenched in our society. 



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