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Friday, September 22, 2023

Taapsee Pannu: In Conversation with Indian Cinema’s Path-Breaking Actor

Taapsee Pannu debuted in Bollywood with a comedy 6-years-ago, but since then she has pushed every boundary as an actor.

The word ‘status quo’ has never really existed in her dictionary and so we’ve always seen her essay formidable roles in movies like Pink, Baby and Naam Shabana.

Last year was a huge testament to her diversity as an actor as she played characters of various calibres such as a lawyer in Mulk, a hockey player in Soorma and a love-struck woman of today in Manmarziyaan.

This year, she has set the bar higher with two back-to-back successful thrillers: Badla and Game Over in which she takes centre stage as an antagonist and as a layered character, respectively.

In a detailed interview, Taapsee reflects on how her latest films have paved a new path in her career and she even discloses life beyond cinema.

Congratulations on the successes of Badla and Game Over. Has the reception lived up to your expectations?

Both Badla and Game Over were not conventional films so I was experimenting to an extent on both the films.

I was ready to take any kind of response. If it works then it will be a true test of my choices and validation.

When the results came out for Badla it was so overwhelming we actually thought we’d end up collecting only half of what the final collections were.

We never thought it would go to the extent that it did.

As for Game Over, I never thought that such a niche film, which is so tricky to understand, will be received well equally by audiences of the three languages.

It becomes difficult for a film to crossover unless it’s a big-budget one like Baahubali or a big-starrer.

All the love and beautiful message of ‘pushing the boundaries in Indian cinema’ has given me a lot of confidence in knowing that my audience is open for change and something new.

In addition to yourself, Kriti Sanon and Parineeti Chopra are also doing thrillers. What is your view on this trend and how can this contribute to the ‘feminism’ wave in Bollywood?

I think of ‘thriller’ as the best genre because such films are good at grabbing attention and keeping viewers at the edge of the seat.

Well-written thrillers can easily achieve that objective. However, if it becomes predictable, then the fun gets spoilt.

For India, it’s probably new because not many have been made with female protagonists headlining them.

When I started Badla, I did not really think about the whole ‘thrillers with female protagonists’ subject and do it because of that.

I just thought of it as a very engrossing story which could have a female perspective and that’s why I did it.

How does doing such layered/dark characters impact your psyche and mental health?

It does take a toll.

In fact, I say in a funny way but actually, somewhere down the line, I am becoming a crazy woman with every film which is a price you pay when becoming an actor.

I can’t run away from it if I have to choose parts which are dark and layered. If it’s done well then the results are beautiful.

However, the repercussions come naturally with being an actor.

From doing Pink to Game Over, the roles take over my real personality for a while. 

At times they overpower me but eventually when that impact is no longer at large, it does not abandon me. If 90% goes, 10% still remains. 

That change the character has made on me is permanent. I won’t be able to put a finger on what exactly has changed, but I feel the difference with every film I’ve done where I play an intense character.

Female characters have frequently been portrayed as righteous, but your roles break that stereotype. Why do you feel this has been an on-going practice in Indian cinema?

I think it’s because nobody delves into the layers of a female character.

Now there’s a change that has come up in the last two years which is very welcomed and people look forward to it but for the longest time, nobody really bothered to write about the layers of female characters.

If you see in Indian culture, the responsibility of being ‘right’ usually rests on the shoulders of women.

A man can do wrong and then redeem himself within the time-span of a film, but there’s no way a woman can do wrong and escape it… People cannot buy that.

However, slowly it is changing. For example, I played Rumi in Manmarziyaan which is not really ‘righteous’ but was the protagonist of the film.

It was her story and when the film released, a lot of people were not okay with however the character was because she was the main lead and an unconventional girl.

In my very next movie Badla, I am the antagonist. I’m doing wrong, perhaps the same things (and much worse) than what Rumi did in Manmarziyaan, but in a different set-up.

So in Badla, I end up getting punished for doing wrong… Which people were okay with because of the fact that it was a negative character.

It’s problematic if a female protagonist is a grey character.

However, when it comes to men, they can go wrong in a film and have the liberty to redeem themselves which the audience will end up accepting and even celebrating.

I feel there are those double-standards which are prevalent in society.

But people have still loved and accepted you for it…

Even though I’ve played an antagonist, people are still loving and accepting me.

I can at least make peace with the fact that they’re not labelling me as someone who will only do villain characters now after pulling off Badla. 

When I started off in films, people warned me not to take up any negative/grey roles, because that would be the end of my career.

Slowly, when I learnt about my profession and acting, I understood how difficult to find different character if I don’t touch upon the grey layers of a human being.

For how long could I have been the righteous character? It started getting really boring after exploring the most all-knowing/heroic characters, which were so superficial and unrealistic.

At that point, I had no other option but to experiment but thankfully I’m in a better position now that films and society are changing.

You’re set to play Shooter Dadi in Saand Ki Aankh. Besides the age/prosthetic aspect, what was your biggest challenge in essaying the role?

The prosthetics were probably the least of the concerns compared to the other things that we were really worried about.

Prosthetics were not in my control, there were professional people for that.

I’ve not played this role before – nor do I know a human being like this (in my life) that I could relate to.

Even my mother has not been born and brought up in the kind of milieu as the Shooter Dadis.

With all my characters, I usually establish a common thread between my personality and that character… Then I build on that.

But in the case of Saand Ki Aankh, I was totally disconnected. I had nothing to build upon.

Everything was out of my comfort zone. But when I heard the script, it was so endearing and inspiring that I wanted to do it.

I can openly confess that it is the most challenging role of my career.

It’s about portraying the age and undertaking different village-style chores so the body language is completely different.

Be it milking the cow, making the food… These are the style of works which we don’t see in our daily lives in the city.

So I had to learn the dialect/accent of those women, then I had to get used to seeing people who are elder than me and view them as my sons or daughters.

I also had grandchildren in the film. It’s kind of awkward to look into the mirror every day when you’re starting work and you see someone thrice your age staring back at you.

Regardless of the film’s outcome, I’m sure (at least) my audience will appreciate the effort.

Either way, it’s a win-win situation.

You began in South-Indian cinema, before entering Bollywood. What were the initial challenges you overcame?

Initially, I had no idea about acting. I had no professional training or experience, I didn’t even do drama in school or college.

Forget about the language, I had not even heard about Tamil or Telugu in my life.

I was all alone and clueless about everything. But the good thing is that I was prepared to learn everything from scratch.

I’ve always been very experimental because I think it is adventurous so I landed myself in the most challenging one yet.

I slowly built up the language, skills and was absorbing everything around me.

Thankfully, I got the opportunity to work with the best filmmakers and actors in the industry during the early stage of my career.

I also learnt a lot from them, not just about being in front of the camera, but behind as well.

The downs I had were terrible and heart-breaking but it made me strong for the future, as it’s unpredictable.

In fact, it made me so strong that if tomorrow things didn’t work out for me, I knew it wasn’t the ‘be-all’ of my life because I had so much more to do.

This confidence I got because of the fact that I’m an engineer and was doing acting out of passion.

I owe a lot to the South-Indian film industry for getting me into the work I am in today.

Listen to our candid interview with Taapsee Pannu here:


You also have a life beyond films and invested in a PBL team. How has your affinity in sports helped you develop as a person?

I’ve always been inclined towards sports especially since school days. I used to be an athlete and raced.

Actually, I’ve been a jack-of-all-trades and master of none as I used to do sports, represent my school in public speaking and a professionally trained dancer in Indian classical.

Because of the fact that I’ve been a Jack of all trades, master of none I have always been in touch with the sports side within me.

I aspired to be a sports personality at some point because I didn’t turn into one, I ended up admiring the establish sports stars.

I consider them to be or real heroes as they represent our country on big international competitions and put in years of hard work for this one tournament and that too all do it in one take.

When I reached a stage in my life where I could at least be attached to sports in some way, is when I brought the team.

Badminton is a sport that I think all Indians have played at least once in their life. It all started in Pune, which is why we all have a liking towards this sport in particular. 

Going forward, is there a particular role that you hope or wish to do?

There’s been this one role that I’ve always wanted to do and that is to be an Avenger and be a part of that superhero series.

I want to be an Indian superhero in The Avengers. I don’t know how if it’s possible or not, but there is no harm in dreaming because I’m a huge fan of the franchise. 

I cried watching Endgame and it’s a series that I dream to become a part of one day.

With exciting projects like Tadka, Mission Mangal and Saand Ki Aankh in the pipeline, we are certain that it is going to get bigger and better for Taapsee.

Her sincerity, passion for acting and straightforward attitude is truly endearing and it is such a personality that can really help a person to achieve success.

Filme Shilmy wishes Taapsee all the best!

Anuj Radia
Journalist and film enthusiast.

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