Taapsee Pannu (one-time use only)
Taapsee Pannu Image Credit: Rahul Jhangiani

Indian actress Taapsee Pannu rightfully earned her vacation this New Year’s Eve in Dubai. This past 2021 was a significant year in her career, which saw a major upswing thanks to two compelling and contrasting Bollywood releases ‘Haseen Dillruba’ and ‘Rashmi Rocket’.

The latter was a riveting sports drama that saw her play a female athlete who has to prove her gender, while ‘Haseen Dillruba’ showed her play a wicked and wacky femme fatale who goes to great lengths for love and passion. “I couldn’t have asked for a better result for the year,” said Pannu in an exclusive interview with Gulf News.

The self-made star was in the UAE last week to usher in 2022 with her sister and friends and was enjoying her downtime.

“As an actor, these two films were diametrically opposite to each other and my characters were at different ends of the spectrum. One was this feminine seductress, while the other was about playing an androgynous athlete … Both were loved by so many people … Personally, as an actor it has been so gratifying,” said Pannu.

Taapsee Pannu was in the UAE to usher in 2022 and believes that she has earned her downtime

The actress, who excels in films with strong women arcs such as ‘Pink’ and ‘Thappad’, is unafraid to take risks and has always gravitated towards roles that aren’t merely ornamental. But she did it all on her own terms. She’s one of those rare stars whose airport looks or gym looks are rarely scrutinised, but her work is dissected with great relish.

“I don’t have an immaculate fashion sense. So, I am not going to walk around gyms and airports trying to show off my fashion sense. I know my weaknesses as much as I know my strengths … I want to be known for the kind of films and the kind of issues I have raised … Being seen at certain places or being known for my dating life is not my idea of stardom,” pointed out Pannu.

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Taapsee Pannu plays tourist in Dubai

She also happens to be the warmest and most accessible talents in Bollywood right now (more on that later). Excerpts from our edited conversation where we talk movies, budgets, and tackling fame on her own terms …

Taapsee, you are one of those rare celebrities that actually respond to WhatsApp messages and don’t have an army of minders around you …

I get to hear that a lot and I don’t know how to feel about it. I am happy that you feel like that, but I feel weird that my peers have set that kind of opinion about them.

You are accessible. But let’s talk shop. I was just compiling a list of top 10 Bollywood films of 2021 and it has been slim pickings because I was struggling to come up with 10 picks … Incidentally, both your films ‘Haseen Dillruba’ and ‘Rashmi Rocket’ have made our cut …

I am glad that my movies are making it to your list and a few others’ that I have been reading lately. It’s evident that these films have resonated with the audiences going by the number of viewings that these films have got. Personally, it has been a very gratifying year. But as a member of this film industry, I feel sad that these films didn’t play on the big screens and it’s a missed opportunity … But the only way forward is to push further. Choices are getting narrowed down as to what I can do bigger and better.

Rashmi Rocket
Taapsee Pannu in 'Rashmi Rocket'

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What’s the kind of moment that we are having right now as a female actor in Bollywood?

As a female actor in Bollywood, our big scale was not that big anyway. As a species, we were sometimes looked down upon with many saying that so much money cannot be invested in us as returns are not guaranteed. Suddenly, that bane has become our boon because no matter how big a budget/scale is given to a female actor, it doesn’t get that big where I can’t meet the demands of returns. An OTT [over-the-top, streaming] release driven by a woman will now guarantee a good profit irrespective of its scale.

During this pandemic, more female driven films have found an audience on OTTs. It has become a level playing field for us and our budgets are such that we will never go into a loss now and our films have become profitmaking venture for the producers now. Female-driven films are now in a safe zone. It’s the other biggies where the budgets are exorbitant which is now being questioned. Personally, I will push every boundary as an actor. The numbers we do are very less compared to big-hero film, but I am happy that my films’ returns are increasing every year. Now a producer can bank a certain amount on me as I guarantee returns. But the content and the director matters. Fortunately or unfortunately, budgets of a film are allocated based on the protagonist or the actor. It’s a sad rule. None of us like it, but we have to play by the rules.

Haseen Dillruba
Taapsee Pannu and Vikrant Massey in 'Haseen Dillruba'

In a recent interview, you were quoted as saying that many female actors refused to be a part of ‘Haseen Dillruba’ because Vikrant Massey was the hero ...

My answer was interpreted into something else. What I said was that many female actors asked this question about who the male actor in ‘Haseen Dillruba’ was. But I did not ask that question of who will be my male counterpart because I got cast first. The male role went to Vikrant. My character in ‘Haseen Dillruba’ was the fulcrum of the film and other characters were cast on who they feel will complement the actor in that pivotal part … That’s how casting generally happens. The fulcrum part is cast first. But before me, several girls [actresses] wanted to know who was going to be the hero. Ideally, in our films that’s the first question that’s often asked. And they want to know that because budgets are set based on who’s the hero of a film.

It’s heartening to know that nowadays there are films where women are cast first …

The sad rule of the game is all about who gets in the money. But only one or two films of mine in the last three years have been such where I am cast later. Most of my films end up being around my character.

Well done! You also seem to have struck a work-life balance this pandemic with pictures of you globe-trotting in Russia, Dubai, Abu Dhabi …

I had a crazy work schedule. My shooting dates were all crunched up with no buffer due to the fear of another lockdown in India. I had to hop-skip-jump from one set to the other to meet deadlines so that my films can be delivered on time. As a result, every minute of my personal life in the last two months was spent working before the second lockdown set in. I have been struggling to find balance of any sort since then. But now I am in a good space where I have finished half of ‘Woh Ladki Hai Kahaan’ and now I am at ease. Now I thought it’s time for a travel break here … For an actor, either you are on a set or at home. You don’t have a regular life where you can rejuvenate by having a life beyond your work or your four walls … Rejuvenation is a part of my work process. If I don’t give me mind and body this time, I won’t be able to work well.

Taapsee Pannu Image Credit: IANS

You are also one of the few actresses in Bollywood who don’t hobnob at glitzy parties as a part of networking …

I have struggled with that since the beginning. I come from a background where I have never wanted to become an actor or a star. Initially, I did not understand how stardom is achieved by being seen with the right people. I did not know how my self-respect would allow me to force myself into this group of people. After my debut, I refused to attend events where I felt I was not welcomed enough. I felt I was imposing my presence there. Even before I entered Bollywood, I had done considerable films down South but I wasn’t recognised for that.

Now you see stars from South being respected, but 10 years ago I was seen as a rank newcomer. They did not even blink about my body of work from South. My first film in Tamil won six National Awards and I was launched by K Raghavendra Ro who launched Sridevi. My second film was with Prabhas who is now a big pan-India star. But after doing all that, I had to still start from scratch in Hindi films. I was seen as a struggler and a rank newcomer … So I thought I will work on my work profile in Hindi so that I am respected and loved.

So did you get there? 

Eventually I was given that space after ‘Pink’. But post that, I just became lazy and laid back as I became comfortable with my group of friends. I have a problem now opening to a new bunch. Now, I am wondering if they are making me feel welcome because of my public persona or the person I am. It’s become difficult to gauge that. I don’t want to be in that detective mode of trying to find out if they like me as a person or because I am a saleable persona. And after 10pm, my mind doesn’t work and therefore I am not seen at such starry parties.

Kriti Kulhari, Taapsee Pannu, and Andrea Tariang spearheaded 'Pink', a gripping tale on consent and sexual violation

And you don’t make much sound about your films either … We don’t see you getting papped at the airport or outside your gym …

A: I am often asked why I am not doing enough PR around my films, but I cannot force make news that isn’t true. I can’t buy spaces to make sound. I am doing so many films and if that’s not making any noise then I should pack my bags and go home. It means your films are not doing the talk enough and you should rethink the films you are doing. With the films I am doing, I am now making a stable base of audiences who feel that I deserve their trust. I am that tortoise in that famed ‘The Hare & The Tortoise’ fable because in this industry if you shoot up too fast, you also fall down too fast. I am scared of that sudden fall. I am OK with this steady rise.

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Taapsee Pannu