We walk into Taapsee Pannu’s European shabby chic café decorated living room and can immediately see how it reflects her personality - worldly, young and candid! Dressed in a simple pale ochre dress, her feet bare, Taapsee perches on her sofa to complete the breakfast we crashed.
She smiles a lot. And with the way her career is going and the films to come, all set to consolidate her position as an actor who can efficiently straddle mainstream with the alternate, why not?
2018 has been arguably her best year. The transition – from a Tollywood actress to a bonafide Bollywood star – began with the highly-acclaimed Pink (before that she was noticed in Chashme Baddoor and Baby). Then came Judwaa 2, which saw her as the typical singing-dancing Bollywood heroine but real recognition came her way with Soorma, Mulk and now Manmarziyaan. The last film, which didn’t set the box office on fire, had critics raving about her performance as Rumi, the headstrong girl madly in love.
However, when you meet her, she gives the ‘girl-next-door’ vibe, happy to be at home with family. Taapsee shares her home with her sister Shagun and tells us proudly that while all the knick-knacks have been picked up in Spain, the essential interior decoration has been done by Shagun. Her only grouse is that she rarely gets to spend more than three to four days a month enjoying the beautiful home she has created for herself…
Success took some time to knock on your door but when it did, it zoomed off, didn’t it?
Actually, I don’t think it took too long to come because I started in 2013, Baby came out in 2014 and then Pink in 2016. So it was slow and steady. I knew that even if it took time, I would see that it was so strong that there would be no relapse.
When I started my career in the South, it was an overnight success. Both, my Tamil film (Aadukalam) and my Telugu one (Jhummandi Naadam), which released with just a gap of four to five months had so much buzz about them that I already had three films in hand before they released. I had seen this overnight fame and since I had no idea about this profession, I ended up doing whatever everyone told me to do.
So what changed in Bollywood?
I knew I was not going to commit the same mistakes here so I kept at it slow, trying to study and analyse how things worked. During Baby people at least started noticing that I existed. Then Pink happened and with that everything changed. People realized I could do more than just 10 minutes as I had in Baby. Baby had done its own magic but it was Pink that put me on the map as a leading lady. That led to some brilliant roles with great performing opportunities.
What has changed with success?
I’m not being asked to give auditions now! Auditions were very awkward for me because I’m not a trained actor so I ended up failing in all my auditions. My approach to acting is not to rehearse till I know every last word. I go on a set and on the basis of my co-actors energy and my director’s instructions, I go with the moment. So I’m horrible at auditions with one camera, one spotlight and one person cueing me with counter dialogue. Just trying to mouth dialogue is very intimidating for me because I have no idea where this is fitting in the film. But if you put me out there on a set with actors and a director, then I live the role. Luckily it no longer happens but even now if I was asked to audition I’d probably fail.
Have the quality and quantity of phone calls changed?
Both have increased but the quantity is sometimes a problem. Anyone, even people I don’t know at all, who has an idea in his head, gets my number and texts me with the synopsis or details of the project. I usually pass the details on to my manager but then I have to hear nasty stuff like “you could have given us a chance at least”. And then they say that I have become too big for my boots.
On the other hand, there have been some wonderful phone calls or interactions after my films. At a screening, I remember meeting Rajkumar Hirani. I went up to him and introduced myself and his reaction was “Don’t embarrass me, of course, I know who you are.” Shabana ma’am called after Manmariyaan and we had a long conversation. I guess in the beginning people are just trying to gauge your performance and then after more films, they feel more comfortable getting in touch.
I’m not exactly an introvert but I am very hesitant to go for social gatherings and talk to people because I’m very scared I might be perceived as a social climber. But I have no qualms about messaging a director I really want to work with. I don’t have an industry boyfriend who will use his contacts for me. There’s just me so I might as well make that call!
Did you expect that Pink would be your breakthrough film?
I knew that the film would be received very well but not the magnitude of it. It was the elephant in the room and had to be addressed.
I listen to scripts as an audience. Is it exciting and new or run-of-the-mill? It has to excite me as an audience, and so my decision is based that too.
Did you always want to be an actor?
Acting was never my ambition, it became so only after my first film released. I stumbled upon the career and thought “let’s try”. And slowly as I understood it and kept my radar open, I started enjoying it and today I do it because I enjoy it. So even if I am occasionally disheartened and think of quitting, I also know I’m just saying it because the day I decide I really want to, nothing will stop me. Nobody can force me to act.
At 31, you’re a bit older than the Jhanvis, Saras and Alias and way younger than Kareena, Katrina and Priyanka. Where do you fit in?
In the industry, you are only as old as your screen age. I started out later in the film industry here compared to all these younger girls. For example, I started a year after Alia. Thus, people have seen lesser of me than they have of her. So she is, in a way, screen-wise, senior to me. Right now I’m in a very interesting stage where I get to do the 25-year-old roles as well as the 35-year-old characters.
Who is your competition with?
When you are running a race then your starting point and your trajectory are the same. That is how you know if you are leading or trailing. In my case neither my starting point nor my trajectory is similar to anyone around me, be it in terms of my background or the kind of films I have done. So I don’t know how to compare my path with anyone else’s. All I know is I am treading a path I haven’t seen many follow before. I have no background in films and no multi-film deal with a studio. I’m just going to keep performing till it outweighs my last name. I have no grudge against people who have it easy. I’m also not going to be an actor who does only hard-hitting films back to back or who is just the diva in her films. Mine is going to be the midway path and therefore, unique.
You mentioned your background. What is it?
I’m a regular middle-class family person. My parents still live in the apartment in Delhi they did when I was studying. They have no idea about films, they are still surprised when they come on my set and see my van. My family is that which doesn’t even watch films in theatres. They watch television while having lunch and dinner! They have only started going to theatres now to watch my films and that too rarely on the first weekend.
How come you aren’t dating anyone from the industry?
It’s not a planned thing and I don’t want to say never but whenever I am asked this, I say there can only be one star at home and that’s me. Basically, I want to be able to come back to a normal life at the end of the working day.
How do you disconnect?
I just pack up. I can easily disconnect from the world and the people on a set but I take more time to do so from the character that I play especially when shooting for 35 or 40 days. I keep telling everyone I’m becoming a psycho woman because I leave a piece of my brain with every film I do.
You have made brave career choices like Pink and Mulk. Are you courageous in real life too?
I would like to believe so. What could I possibly lose? My career? Why will a good film make me lose my career? When I heard Mulk, I knew we were going to be putting truths out there without hurting anybody from any community. Also, I didn’t have easier options. My career has been built on these brave choices, which I am also now expected to make. And so, what if there’s a question mark on my career? Will that be the end of my life? I am an engineer and I chose this as a career because it came my way and I have worked hard to be here. I’m not a fluke. I make sure I live a life beyond films so the fear of losing my career is just not there.
What are the causes that make sense to you?
The first cause that made sense to me was that there was a difference, and not in a good way, between being a man and a woman. The rules of life are different, expectations are different and there are certain opportunities that are taken away from you because you are a female. And though this is not an observation I made at home because we are only two sisters, I would hear that I should be home at a certain time or I should not play too much even if it was right below my building. Neighbouring aunties grumbled that I played a lot with boys and it wasn’t a good thing. As you grow up you see bigger differences.
Another thing that comes to mind is that as Indians we are very patriotic when we go outside our country but when we are in India we abuse and hate our country and things that are happening here. We are ashamed of our own mother tongue and of speaking in the language. That sort of double standard troubles me. These are the causes which will reflect in the films I do.
How are you mixing up your films?
It has to do with the offers that I get, with the opportunities directors give me. Thank God I’m travelling a path where people notice that I’m not only doing hard-hitting films or calling me an indie actor or saying that I’m going to do big budget commercial films only. The most interesting thing I heard after Manmarziyaan was that I was the most unconventional mainstream actress. And this makes me happy.
Rumi from Manmarziyaan was a very apt representation of a today’s girl. Did it not do well because the story was set in small-town India which is still very traditional? Should the setting have been a big city?
You will be surprised how valid Rumi is even in a smaller town than Amritsar! The logic is that the tighter you hold sand in your hand, the faster it slips out. The small town girl and the life she lives there will put any big city girl to shame because the adventures there are far more because the restrictions there are far more. Everyone has a phone and everyone has internet. The stories from small towns are far more radical and crazy than that from cities, honestly.
But yes, it is very difficult for people to understand Rumi because we in India live very double standard lives. What we preach is not what we practice. We may have all thought of wanting to live a life like hers but we don’t dare to propagate it for the fear that other people will judge us.
In our society, the woman always has the onus of taking the right decisions because she is the ghar ki izzat. A man can be a pied piper, he can do all sorts of stuff but if he comes back and says sorry, it’s all ok. But the woman has to be Sitamata or a vamp.
A still from Manmarziyaan
Did you have to think twice before saying yes to Judwaa2?
I was actually excited to do it because I was at a point where people were just waiting to stamp me with this hard-hitting woman-centric label. I was raring to go and do a Judwaa2 to prove them wrong. And now I think it’s high time I did another one.
What are your views on the #MeToo movement sweeping the world and lately in India?
Better late than never. I’m a person who sees a half glass full, so my view is that if it’s happening now, let it happen now. Talking about the Tanushree Dutta – Nana Patekar incident I’m hoping it will gain momentum because I hope this will encourage other girls to speak up. It shouldn’t be sabotaged and put down.
People keep saying girls do it for publicity but I don’t think any girl would put herself out there and talk about such a traumatic experience for publicity. I haven’t gone through such an incident so I have little to say except that I hope that others who have had such experiences should get the courage to speak up.
Everyone has food cheat days but do you ever have a clothes and make-up cheat day?
All my cheat days with clothes and make-up happen when I’m not working. I like to dress up but when I’m done with my day, I get home and rush to change into my night pyjamas. I love to dress up but I don’t really do make-up because I’m no good at it. And I don’t have time to learn it because when I need it there’s someone else to do it.
How would you like to spend a sudden free day?
I’d meet my friends, go watch a movie with my sister, play squash or sleep at home. I’d do random stuff and make full use of it.
Are you a romantic? Do you have any romantic memory associated with a film?
I went on a first date with one of my boyfriends to see The Proposal and I remember we didn’t see any part of the film because we were yapping so much. Thank God the theatre was not full. Actually, remembering it makes me smile.
Any recent role you wish you could have got your teeth into? Both, male or female?
The only role I believe I should get is in a X-Men adventure. I want to be an X-Man and I keep thinking about what power I might have. I like Jean and I might just have her mind power.
And what’s happening with your personal life?
I don’t speak about my personal life because even when I speak remotely about my relationship, that ends up becoming the headline of the article. The day I get married I’ll be ok talking about it. Otherwis,e everyone in my life, my family and my friends, know about my personal life. It’s not hidden.