Tapsee Pannu’s rise to fame is nothing short of phenomenal. Starting from Telugu cinema (with the 2010 release Jhummandi Nadam), her Bollywood entry was with David Dhawan’s Chashme Buddoor, the remake of Sai Pranjpaye’s classic comedy. But the industry is cruel and not many thought she could make it to the top despite her undeniable talent and screen presence. Perhaps Taapsee herself would not have been able to guess the spectacular growth in her career.
This year, 2019, has added a whole new dimension to her. She carried on her good form of Pink with Badla, one of the biggest hits of the year with none other than Amitabh Bachchan. Author-backed roles in Game Over and Mission Mangal followed. What added to her persona was her frank and candid personality, a rarity in today’s PR manufactured world. Whether taking on a fellow-actress’ cheap jibes or speaking about nepotism and the disparity in Bollywood, Taapsee doesn’t mince words.
A slew of hits, social media popularity and a brand new home in suburban Mumbai that she shares with her sister…what more does Tapsee want?
You’ve come a long way from Chasme Buddoor when my wife was the only one in the universe who predicted you will be a force to reckon with...
(laughs) Oh, there were a handful of those who believed in me. But I agree a majority had no expectations from me. And that worked to my advantage. Being an underdog has its advantages. No one had his or her eyes glued on as I moved forward.
Suddenly your career has gone on an extraordinary upswing? Does it feel any different?
Yes, I must say it feels different. In terms of the way producers and others from the film industry come to meet me! I’d say their behaviour towards me has changed, somewhat, as compared with the attitude of the audience, because now, they say, I am one of the few female actors who can fearlessly lead a project. Like it or not, the scripts that are pitched to me are all led by the girl’s characters. And they’re not those shoestring-budgeted small films any more. The films I am offered are not huge-budgeted but they are in the medium-budgeted category.
I hope the budget upscaling reflects on your salary!
It should and it does. They’re no longer bargaining with me about my remuneration. They don’t need to tell me anymore that their films’ budget is so meagre, and they can only pay me this much. Producers know I am identified with a certain kind of cinema. And there is only a certain kind of roles and cinema I do.
So have you accepted the fact that you are not cut out to be the run-of-the-mill decorative doll like Judwaa 2?
(laughs) I want to do something like that, so the audience doesn’t slot me as a serious actress who only does socially relevant author-backed roles. I want to do light-hearted glamorous roles, if for no other reason then to show the audience that I am capable of it. Over here in this industry, they typecast an actress in no time at all. I want to be known as a serious actress but one who can pull off the conventional roles as well.
The audience knows me through my performances. I don’t want them to end up thinking this (the serious image) is the only way I can be. I want to break out of the stereotyping trap. I’ve seen so many actresses fall into that trap. Today I get those commercial roles where I get to dress and look glamorous. But they are parts where I get to perform as well. I don’t have to reduce myself to a prop to just be part of a commercial set-up. They come to me with roles where I get to be glamorous and have something more to do than just sing songs and look pretty.
Why is it so important for you to look glamorous?
Because that’s part of my personality. In real life, I like to dress up, put on makeup and look my best. That’s also a part of my personality which I want to explore. I am glad there is a bunch us actresses now who can lead a film without depending on a big male star to draw in the audience.
But you had to do that recently in Mission Mangal?
No I didn’t do Mission Mangal because Akshay Kumar was in the film. I did it because I knew it was going to be a one-of-its-kind film. When I heard the script, I knew it was going to travel wide. That’s why I didn’t mind playing a part smaller than Akshay Kumar and Vidya Balan. I just wanted to be part of the film. And I knew I was coming from Badlaa, a film where I was the central character and going into another film Saandh Ki Aankh where I play a protagonist. So there was no insecurity about doing a smaller part in Mission Mangal. It was a beautiful ensemble cast and every character was important. Sometimes you just need to do a film because you believe in it.
But yours was the most sketchily written role among the girls?
(laughs) You know, I’ve created my own monster. I am expected to do only the roles that are lengthy and layered. If I don’t give variety, if I don’t surprise the audience and myself, then what’s the point?
But surprise us in a good way, not by doing a two-scene role in a big film...
Mission Mangal crossed Rs 200 crores at the box-office. To me that finishes of all debate on whether I should’ve done it or not. I never knew it would be so big. But I knew it would be big.
Does the audience’s expectation about you scare you at times?
No, it challenges me to do better and better. I want them to come to the theatre with expectations of something special, something substantial. Now there are expectations not only from my films but from the characters I play. And that’s fine. I’ve made it clear that I am open to smaller parts such as Soorma and Mission Mangal as long as I’ve something to contribute to the plot. I have to be relevant. But I can’t do small roles where the audience goes home with me making no impression. That would backfire. There was a Telugu film I did two years ago where I was there in the first-half then I vanished in the second-half and then I returned in the last twenty minutes. I could feel the audiences’ waiting for my return in the plot. That kind of expectation is both scary and exciting. I feel if I do an inconsequential role, audiences will feel cheated. And that’s a bitter-sweet feeling.
Does that give you a sense of responsibility towards your audience?
Oh, absolutely. They should never feel let down by my films. I don’t want them coming out of the theatre muttering, ‘Yeh kya bakwas dikha diya?’
Isn’t that how they reacted to Judwa 2?
I have to correct you. They didn’t go to see me in Judwaa 2. They went to see Varun Dhawan. If they went to that film to see heavy-duty acting, then I am sorry they got their fundas wrong. Every film generates its own expectations.
In Anubhav Sinha’s Thappad does the audience get to see you the way it wants to?
(laughs) Yes, I guess. If you have seen Anubhav’s Mulk and Article 15, you would know his films have a beautiful arc and a graph for every character. Even Kumud Mishra and Manoj Pahwa were fabulously written into Article 15. In Thappad, you will see other beautifully written female characters which Anubhav will reveal eventually. My story is at the centre of Thappad, the way Rishi Kapoor was in Mulk and Ayushmann Khurrana in Article 15. But there are other characters who will make you equally excited.
Would you say the turning point for you was Annirudh Roy Chowdhury’s Pink?
Oh yes, I give the maximum credit to Pink. I never thought it would become such an important film. When I heard script I knew it was a significant step ahead for women’s empowerment in our films. I am a Delhi girl and since it was the story of Delhi girls I was sure I wanted to be part of it. Because of the people involved, I knew Pink would be special. But I never knew it would be so revolutionary. At that time I didn’t even know Mr Bachchan was going to be part of Pink.
Now of course the two of you are best friends...
(laughs) Yeah we have a major bonding going on. We’ve done two films together. I hope for a hattrick soon.
Now Boney Kapoor has made Pink into Tamil . Did you see it?
No I haven’t seen it. But according to me a film like this being remade in the South with an iconic Tamil star (Ajith) is a big thing in itself.
In the South when you started, they considered you unlucky, called you iron leg. Did that break your morale?
I think I used that iron leg to give one big kick to all my detractors. I used to wonder, why me?
How can they talk like this about women?
Oh it’s done in every entertainment industry. Men who talk like this about women don’t realize how crushing these derogatory terms can be to women. They do it as they think are entitled to speak about women like that. When a male actor is considered he is seen in his professional capacity as a hero, comedian, character actor, etc, whereas women are labelled by physical attributes….iron leg, golden leg, milky beauty etc. It is the male mindset that entitles them to objectify women.
Are things changing in the South?
Yes, I can see it happening, though not as major a change as we’ve seen happening in Hindi cinema. There are couple of South actresses like Samantha and Nayanthara who have brought in a little bit of change in the South. I was too raw to make any change happen in the South. I was just trying to fit in. When I came to Hindi cinema I was more equipped to make a change.
Where do you go from here?
Thappad ki goonj and then who knows?