How Taapsee Pannu Has Successfully Reinvented the Mould of A Hindi Film Heroine
I still distinctly remember noticing Taapsee Pannu for the first time on TV in 2013. I was flipping through channels and finally settled on MTV which of course had already become a rusty parody of its quirky former self but I didn’t have anything better to do. The song playing from an upcoming movie called ‘Chashme Baddoor’ starring Ali Zafar, Siddharth, Divyendu and Taapsee Pannu. After starring in a string of successful Tamil and Telugu films, Chashme Baddoor marked Pannu’s debut in the Hindi film industry. I have completely forgotten the song that played but still remember the visuals of a curly haired girl jumping around trees with a twinkle in her bright eyes. It seemed that she didn’t belong in that song and dance sequence – looked more like a square peg in a round hole but was nevertheless having fun. How will Bollywood accommodate this unconventional looking woman in their standard heroine mould? I had wondered.
Seven years later, Bollywood still doesn’t know how to fit Taapsee Pannu in its narrative but Pannu has no time to wait for Bollywood to catch up with her. After starring in a successful comedy like Chashme Baddoor, it wasn’t until Pink, a hugely important film around consent (also problematic in its depiction of the male saviour complex but still relevant nevertheless for initiating the conversation around consent) that both audience and the industry took notice of Taapsee Pannu. Between Chashme Baddoor and Pink, she starred in a brief role in Akshay Kumar starrer Baby along with multiple Tamil and Telugu films.
Ever since Pink released in 2016, Taapsee Pannu has acted in at least 4-5 to five films a year, most being either social commentaries or biopics. Pannu’s choice of films is what separates her from her successful contemporaries who tend to experiment with author backed roles and issues based cinema only after establishing themselves as bankable commercial stars. None of Pannu’s films treats her as just another pretty face who exists only as an embellishment for the male hero’s ego (Disclaimer: I haven’t seen Judwaa 2). What is more intriguing is the fact that her films have been produced by big production houses whose support often determines how far an ‘outsider’ makes it in Bollywood.
I had gone to see Mulk with my parents in a theatre in Delhi a few days after it was released in August 2018. We sat in silence as the credits rolled and people around us began to leave the theatre – the film which was about growing islamophobia in the country left us with an uneasy feeling. This uneasy feeling that makes you squirm in your seat was not something new, in fact it is something that I have come to associate with some of Taapsee’s Pannu’s best films till date. Thappad which released in February this year was the last film I watched in a theatre before the pandemic forced all the theatres to shut operations. Women centric films or issue-based films tend to get preachy and loud in order to get the point across – subtlety is not something that is easy to find in most Hindi films. Amrita, played by Taapsee Pannu was able to achieve exactly that, a subtle, strong and empowering performance that gets under your skin and stays with you for a long time.
Taapsee Pannu films in Bollywood reflect her fearless choices, and how she is reinventing the concept of a Hindi film ‘heroine’
Taapsee Pannu also relies heavily on the performance and presence of her co-actors, who often end up elevating and complimenting her on screen. She seems comfortable in letting her co-stars shine above her – as a result we get beautifully crafted stories whose ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.
Issues like Islamophobia, domestic violence or sexual harassment are not easy topics to even initiate a conversation around in the present polarised and intolerant climate. Actors and filmmakers by the virtue of being in the public eye are often easy targets for both on and offline hate campaigns. That is why Taapsee Pannu needs to be applauded for not just crusading with her bold and brave choices on screen but also stand up for the wronged and the marginalised in real life, something which often makes her the target of the troll army. She has constantly spoken up against attacks of students in universities, nepotism in the film industry and most recently strongly objected to the media trial and witch-hunt of a fellow actor Rhea Chakraborty. It must not be easy being Taapsee Pannu but she remains calm, unfazed and witty through every controversy forced upon her.
I find it rather exciting to witness the rise of a middle class Sikh girl from Delhi who is rising to the top ranks of a rather ruthless and nepotistic film industry all on her own terms.
Bhawna Jaimini is an architect and a writer.