She wanted to study so enrolled in the computer engineering undergraduate programme at the Guru Tegh Bahadur Institute of Technology in Delhi but realised in her second year that she didn’t want to pursue engineering. She sent her pictures to a model coordinator for pocket money. A few casting directors got in touch with her, and after a few ads, offered her films in Telugu. “I told them I had no idea about the language, they said they’ll teach me, and well, here I am,” says Taapsee Pannu. It is not as simple as it sounds but Taapsee keeps her theatrics for the big screen. In the last year, she has released four movies, which have collectively grossed over Rs 300 crore at the box office. This year, the 32-year-old began on a high with Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad, where she plays a homemaker who suddenly wakes up from a stupor as it were when her seemingly loving husband slaps her at a party. What follows is a battle for self respect. With an excellent ensemble cast, Sinha shows class and caste are no barrier to misogyny. In between promoting Thappad across the country and returning to shoot a new thriller Haseen Dillruba in Haridwar, Taapsee, who has shown as much confidence in her feminist choices on screen as off it, took time out to answer a few questions from Kaveree Bamzai:
What made you choose Thappad?
This particular subject is very close to my heart. I’ve seen a lot of women in my life go through this and it makes me really angry and sad to see them normalising violence and saying it is okay, they can go through this. That it’s so called love which I honestly don’t understand. So when Anubhav (Sinha) Sir told me this basic idea I jumped at it. It was in my mind that if I ever got to headline a film it would be this. I’ve seen it happening so much in upper middle class educated homes that for me it really challenges the whole belief in love and marriage. I’m happy Anubhav Sir let me do this film. I don’t know the result at the box office but I believe when the audience walks out of the theatre this film will bother them, will keep asking them questions. As an artiste what more can one ask for?
What was the turning point in your career? Baby in 2015?
Baby did change the perception that even if it was a small role it didn’t matter much. It made me and a lot of others believe that if it has meat in it, even if it is a ten-minute role, it’s enough to create an impact if you do your job well. And I knew it’s going to be a rare feat to achieve where a girl in salwar kameez is doing a solo action sequence without the help or support of the hero. I knew if I did it well, I might get noticed and thankfully I was right. It did give me belief in my craft. That I don’t have to be there onscreen for the entire two hours for people to notice me and like me. I was very, very careful of not repeating the mistakes I made in south Indian films, I was very, very careful about every film I said yes to.
This particular subject is very close to my heart. I’ve seen a lot of women in my life go through this and it makes me really angry and sad to see them normalising violence and saying it is okay, they can go through this.
How did Pink help in your cinematic journey?
Pink (2016) actually helped me in getting a trajectory and helped people understand what I am capable of, or what suits me, or what goes in sync with my real personality. I think it just helped me find my audience and my audience find me. That really helped me decide which way I needed to go ahead. That definitely is a milestone in my career.
How did a masala entertainer like Judwaa 2 (2017) fit into this scheme of things?
When I did Judwaa 2 it was very important for me to tell people that I am not the offbeat actress they were tagging me as, that I could do mainstream cinema if I wanted. It’s not that I am incapable of doing glamorous roles. I started my career in the south with these kinds of films so it was not something new. I wanted to break the stereotype of the offbeat cinema actress. I don’t choose my roles, I choose my films, basis what I will spend time and money on. When I go to the theatre will I spend my hard-earned money and my precious time watching this film or not?
What makes such films stand out for you?
These films stand out because these are not the stories we have seen on screen. We don’t discuss these head-on, we don’t find them mainstream enough and when they are made in a more thrilling and entertaining way, people realise this can also be something palatable to the audience. These subjects were dealt with in a lot of other films earlier but only in artsy cinema or in one sublayer of a film.
Anubhav Sinha said you are that you don’t care only about your role. That you care about the whole movie.
I feel I am a little too harsh on myself and the product I am attaching myself to. It’s my job to be honest to my work. I know Anubhav Sir so well, I know he’s probably one of the best dialogue writers we have in the industry right now so whenever I come across something I feel he can add to, I tell him that and keep pestering him till he does so. Then I accept it. I am very greedy when it comes to a good product and I keep pushing sir to give more. When it came to the last summation dialogue in Mulk (2018) for instance I knew he could do more. I didn’t know what because I am not good with that but I know he’s really good with that. I don’t care about my part alone, I don’t feel an actor is bigger than the film. The day that happens is the decline of an actor. If the film works, everything works. If the film doesn’t work even if you’ve given mindblowing performance it doesn’t really matter.
I feel I am a little too harsh on myself and the product I am attaching myself to. It’s my job to be honest to my work.
What drives you?
I didn’t want to be an actor or didn’t have any formal training. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in the beginning of my career in choosing films. So it’s not like I knew everything or was passionate about my work from day one. I have learnt on the job over a period of time, making mistakes, taking my sweet time to understand how things work. Now I can say that I genuinely love my job every single day. The day I don’t I will just walk out of here. I won’t work here for any other reason than that I am enjoying my job. I am a person who likes to stay happy per day and not do things right now so I can be happy ten years from now.
You don’t seem to be in awe of co-stars even if they’re established. Where do you get that confidence?
I wasn’t a movie buff when I was growing up so I didn’t see many movies. I started watching movies in theatres after school. I’ve not been in awe of movie stars. I’ve seen them only on television a little bit, through glimpses of their films. So that really helped me see these big superstars more like my co-actors than anything else. And I kind of realised how important my directors are because they are the ones who actually make stars, because they showcase them in such a way. So I ended up following a bucket list of my directors and from every director and co-actor, I’ve learnt something, because I’ve never had an illusion that I know it all, or rather, I know I don’t know anything. So I was learning whatever I could absorb from my director and co-actors regardless of how the film did at the box office.
People have in fact cast me for certain roles because of my hair or physicality. It has only worked in my favour and beauty was never an illusion for me and never a reason for anyone to cast me.
Have your atypical looks affected your career?
I don’t think I’ve ever come across a negative comment. I know I am not the most glamourous or diva-ish girl around. I have that much of a reality check. That’s why I never bothered to run behind those kind of roles, because there were some beautiful girls who were doing those really well and I knew I had to make my own path, which is probably not really travelled very much by anyone else. People have in fact cast me for certain roles because of my hair or physicality. It has only worked in my favour and beauty was never an illusion for me and never a reason for anyone to cast me.
How do you handle real life and virtual trolls?
Because I really don’t understand what they can do. I’m not an extremist. I never take personal digs at people. I always call out the sin and not the sinner. I’m not a person who believes in demeaning people on a public platform. I feel the biggest humiliation is when someone treats you with indifference and that is exactly what I do.
Your thoughts on being called the female Akshay Kumar and Ayushmann Khurrana?
I don’t think we should go in the direction of comparing or benchmarking me with an Akshay Kumar or an Ayushmann Khurrana. I would rather create a niche for myself. I love my job plus I am very greedy and can’t let go of a good script. I make time for a good script. I really want to enjoy every day. I want to jump out of bed and go to the sets. The films I am doing are different diverse. I’ve not said yes to the films for the director or actor. The motivation was because of the right script. People are ready now to wait for my dates or wait for me to frontline a project. I don’t want to waste this time. I want to do as much good work as possible.