Taapsee Pannu and Vikrant Massey in 'Haseen Dillruba'
Taapsee Pannu and Vikrant Massey in 'Haseen Dillruba' Image Credit: Netflix

Bollywood love stories are notorious for being cloyingly saccharine with perfect lead players at its centre.

But director Vinil Mathew’s new psychological thriller with a heavy layer of romance and passion ‘Haseen Dillruba’, starring the talented trio Taapsee Pannu, Vikrant Massey and Harshvardhan Rane, can’t be accused of playing it safe or sane. There’s absolutely no glossing over imperfect lovers who commit unholy misdeeds in the name of love and desire in ‘Haseen Dillruba’ which translates to ‘Beautiful Lover’.

Written by Kanika Dhillon, this film — a seamless blend of romance, mystery and thrills — shines the spotlight on the vivacious and self-centred Rani (a pitch-perfect Pannu) who marries a dowdy and unassuming young man Rishi (an on-point Massey). Sparks don’t fly right away between this fire-and-ice couple but there’s enough friction and passion between the two to have them glued to each other.

In a Zoom interview with Gulf News, Pannu dubbed her latest movie as ‘Manmarziyaan with a murky murder thrown in’.

She was referring to her hit 2018 film directed by Anurag Kashyap, in which she played an impulsive woman who gets married to a mature groom to spite her commitment-phobic boyfriend.

A still from 'Manmarziyaan' Image Credit: Supplied

Pannu’s character in the much-celebrated ‘Manmarziyaan’ was borderline self-destructive, but her turn in ‘Haseen Dillruba’ is far more wicked and diabolical.

“We are all twisty in our own ways... Rani is very eccentric... [she] believes that she’s the ultimate thing in her own head… she reacts like there’s no bigger alpha than her in any room. I had to learn how to be that biggest alpha ever at all points,” said Pannu.

Her character Rani is the portrait of a femme fatale who believes that her smouldering sexuality is irresistible to the opposite sex.

Taapsee Pannu in 'Haseen Dillruba'
Taapsee Pannu in 'Haseen Dillruba' Image Credit: Netflix

“She’s not conventionally me, but it is always fun to play someone who’s not you … Trust me, I am not that sensuous in real life and the things that Rani pulls off and behaves is a far-fetched concept for me as person … She’s so dramatic and over-the-top,” said Pannu.

The National Award-winning actress has impressed audiences in strong female-led films such as ‘Thappad’, a searing tale of domestic violence, and ‘Pink’, which spoke on the importance of consent. Talking about the brazenness of her character, Pannu gave an example of how Rani arrogantly declares that an average-looking guy like Rishi had snapped up a desirable beauty like her.

“These are some of the lines that I will never get to mouth otherwise and I made sure that I enjoyed it thoroughly,” said Pannu.

Massey, who plays the seemingly diffident and caring Rishi with impeccable finesse, was equally excited to play a complex character that oscillates between playing nice and evil.

“In the last seven or eight years, we have seen the advent of Indian small-town stories but this one stood out … As an actor, I have never had the opportunity to play character who tightrope walk between black and white zone. Rishi belongs somewhere in the grey area, so it was an opportunity for me to explore the unexplored,” said Massey.

Vikrant Massey and Taapsee Pannu in 'Haseen Dillruba'
Vikrant Massey and Taapsee Pannu in 'Haseen Dillruba' Image Credit: Netflix

A few scenes even reveal how emasculated Rishi feels when he’s constantly put down by his domineering wife.

“Come on, she’s so intimidating — how on earth could anyone perform under such pressure? You can’t even think straight. And did you hear her laundry list of what she wants in her man!” said Massey with a laugh.

Rani is so self-centred that she happily rattles off a list of qualities that she sought in her ideal man, prompting Rishi to ask if she expected all those qualities in one person. In her eyes, Rishi never measured up. Enter the man of her dreams with a well-sculpted torso, played effectively by Harshvardhan Rane.

“Yaar, he’s our resident Pamela Anderson!,” chimes in Pannu, referring to the actress from the hit TV show ‘Baywatch’.

Rane, who comes into Rani’s life as a token macho male, was given a succinct brief.

Harshvardhan Rane and Taapsee Pannu in 'Haseen Dillruba'
Harshvardhan Rane and Taapsee Pannu in 'Haseen Dillruba' Image Credit: Netflix

“This is how they explained my role to me in one line: ‘Beta, tumne ‘Baywatch’ dekhi hai … Beta, woh joh bhaag ke aati hai red swimsuit mein, wohi ho tum [Son, have you seen ‘Baywatch’? … Son, you are that girl who runs on the beach with that red swimsuit!] … I didn’t have to get into the skin of my character, I had to just show some skin,” said Rane with a laugh. While his co-stars made fun of him about being a glorified eye-candy in the film, the director was particular that his role wasn’t reductive or one-dimensional.

“The actor in me had to completely trust my director … When I first heard about my role, I wondered if my character would come across as detestable, but there’s a humane side to him that’s revealed towards the end and I am happy about that,” said Rane.

This is precisely what director Mathew was intent on building; he wanted to create a world filled with humane and flawed characters. For instance, Rishi may look like a harmless guy-next-door, but there’s a petty part to him defined by his latent male ego, points out Mathew. It’s a nod to the average Indian male who sometimes lets his ego dictate his life and conduct. The movie also explores the idea of how there’s a wicked beast in every human.

Taapsee Pannu and Vikrant Massey in 'Haseen Dillruba'
Taapsee Pannu and Vikrant Massey in 'Haseen Dillruba' Image Credit: Netflix

“Every character in my film have their own set of vulnerabilities too … I wanted to show real people who aren’t judged as pure black and white. I wanted to invert tropes seen in Bollywood films where you expect the character to toe certain lines … ‘Haseen Dillruba’ is so much more than a small-town romantic comedy. It may come across as frivolous, fun romcom, but there’s a gruesome twist too. You don’t know who to trust in this film,” said Mathew.

The director also points out that real-life love stories are often more dysfunctional and terrifying than the ones shown on the big screen.

A still from 'Haseen Dillruba'
A still from 'Haseen Dillruba' Image Credit: Netflix

“You know that Maria Susairaj case [Kannada actress and her naval officer boyfriend was jailed for murdering TV executive Neeraj Grover in 2008] or that case in Chennai where one lover and his wife killed the husband, and they poured acid over her lover so that he could pretend to be her dead husband,” he said. “There are so many of these real-life crimes … Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction.”

Don’t miss it!

‘Haseen Dillruba’ releases on Netflix on July 2.

“Whenever writer Kanika Dhillon comes to me with a film, I know it has to be something that isn’t straight-up conventional or happy-go-lucky woman in it … I was not expecting to play that nice character in ‘Haseen Dillruba’ … I think I have become a pro at playing characters who are slightly off …” said Taapsee Pannu on excelling in grey, complex roles.

- Taapsee Pannu on excelling in grey roles