Taapsee Pannu in 'Rashmi Rocket'
Taapsee Pannu in 'Rashmi Rocket' Image Credit: twitter.com/taapsee

Bollywood actress Taapsee Pannu, whose latest film ‘Rashmi Rocket’ examines the process of gender testing among female athletes and its validity, claims she channelled all her indignation over the issue into her role as a sprinter.

“All that rage that you see in this film comes from my love and admiration for sports. I have always thought that sports is the fairest field on earth where only your talent counts... But the practice of gender testing is just unfair and tells you that it’s not good enough to be just good on the field,” said Pannu in a Zoom interview with Gulf News.

Pannu plays the titular role of a star sprinter who undergoes a gender verification test and is found to have higher testosterone levels than an average woman.

Whether she takes on the system over this controversial hormone test or quits sports forever forms the core of this film, now streaming on Zee5. Gender testing is reportedly based on arbitrary definitions of femininity and is notorious for fuelling gender stereotyping.

Ace sprinter Dutee Chand was famously disqualified in 2014 by India’s sports bodies after a gender test revealed that her body produced unnatural levels of testosterone (male hormones) above the permissible range. Chand appealed against the ban and achieved the feat of returning to competitive sports again.

TAB Dutee Chand  FILES-1634553207615
Dutee Chand who made India proud after her sporting victory Image Credit: Xinhua

But the movie is not based on any particular person or incident, clarifies Pannu.

“‘Rashmi Rocket’ explores a topical issue that’s usually never spoken about ... This is more about the identification issue that we were fighting and sports became the right vehicle to actually get into the psyche of the audience ... Who decides how much of a woman should you be to be called a woman?” Pannu asked.


Excerpts from our interview with Pannu as we talk about her latest role and why ‘Rashmi Rocket’ is a significant story that needs to be told ...

Your film ‘Rashmi Rocket’ propelled me to find out more about gender testing among female athletes, but it was a topic that I didn't know much about ... When this role came your way, were you aware of this ethically questionable practice?

We were in similar boats. I was shocked at hearing the storyline even though I am such a sports lover and enthusiast. I follow a lot of sports. So, it was shocking for me to know this kind of a test exists. I was aware of doping tests, but this test happens only to females. I began to do my research after I heard the script. And I was shocked and I wondered how could such a test limited to female athletes still exist in the manner it does? This gender testing also became a human right identification issue because someone else is now telling you how much of a woman should you be to be a woman and the onus is on you to prove that you are woman enough. So these things become a larger issue about your identity and I felt that this is an issue that needs to get a larger attention. And I knew this issue should be addressed in mainstream cinema because many people still don’t know about it and this issue also points towards our tendency to stereotyping on what a female or a male is like. There are very strict boundaries and you are always asked to stay in them and not go outside of it. If you step out of it, then a finger is raised on your gender in specific.

What do you want the audience to take away from this film, which dwells on a female sprinter undergoing a humiliating ordeal of gender testing and how her dignity is compromised?

This film deals with an identity crisis issue and I want the audience to take away the fact that at no given point anyone should question you for being who you are and you should be the only one you who should decide who you are, not anyone else. Nobody else should give anyone that validation. Your talent should ideally speak and it shouldn’t be about someone else’s validation. Shouldn’t the person in question decide who he or she is in real life? Own your own identity is what I want as the chief take away from this film.

What angers me more is that gender testing is only reserved for female athletes. Did that irk you as well?

Yes, strangely there’s no such range specifications for men. In reality, there are actually male athletes who have lesser testosterone than your average male athletes but they are allowed in and they are not even tested. The solution offered to women who fail the gender test is to either run with the men or they are asked to take steroids to lower their testosterone levels or they are asked to undergo surgery to work on their levels of testosterone. These are the kind of solutions that are being given to them. They are asked to tamper with their bodies which they have worked on for years to be athletes. And remember, it’s not something which they have induced and it’s genetic. It’s not in their control. Some genetic pluses are looked upon as privileges, but in this case a girl is banned from competing. It’s so unfair to our gender because it’s not in our control.

Taapsee Pannu underwent intense physical training and mastered the technical elements of being a professional runner in 'Rashmi Rocket' Image Credit: Zee5

As a part of the film’s legwork, did you speak to real-life female athletes in India and beyond who failed their gender tests?

A: I didn’t speak to anyone, but I did read a lot about it. I read material about how they reacted and the kind of circumstances around them. I also read up cases about how the people around them reacted. I read about some athletes who tried to commit suicide or committed suicide. I didn’t follow an individual’s particular story, because we were making a fictional story on multiple events. My research was done without getting in touch with anyone in particular. I based my performance on what has happened with female athletes around the globe. There was enough material to read online. I didn’t get in touch with any one particular athlete.

Taapsee Pannu in 'Rashmi Rocket' Image Credit: Zee5

Did any female athlete who failed the gender test reach out to you after watching the trailer of ‘Rashmi Rocket’?

It’s strange. Even when we wanted to reach out after the film was ready, it was very difficult to convince those women who failed the gender test to come out and speak about it. They don’t want to. Even reaching out to find out if they are ready to do some activity with us to raise awareness about this was difficult. But nobody wanted to come out or speak about it. It’s that big a taboo still.

Taapsee Pannu plays a sprinter in 'Rashmi Rocket'

Does the film tackle the shame that’s attached to this topic … We live in an era where there’s now a dialogue on shifting to a non-binary world?

There’s a lot of shame that seems to be attached among athletes who failed the gender tests. The issue of what pronoun to address a person is a much bigger battle. We are still so far away from finding a good solution [to the gender binary debate]. In this movie, our battle is as basic as here is a girl who wants to be addressed a girl but she gets penalised or something that’s not within her control. Her hormone levels are forcing her to go through the ordeal of being a man.

From what I have observed and read, any girl from a sporting background who eventually became sporting stars have faced something similar in their lives. If a woman plays football and her hair is short, she’s even asked questions about that and even asked why she’s standing in the wrong queue for female footballers.

Sometimes, on the field they are asked why they are running like a stereotypical girl … I was talking to Hima [sprinter Hima Das] and she was telling me how she loved football as a kid and had to played with the boys from her neighbourhood. Everybody wondered why was this girl playing with the boys and that’s how she began running because it was a solo sport and you don’t need a team.

Hima Das
Hima Das

People find it awkward to find a girl running with the boys as they play football … Even when I was a kid everyone called me a tomboy because I used to play sports with the boys. It irked me that they used to call me a boy and several aunties in my area didn’t let their girls play with me because I was a tomboy …. Nobody has an answer to who made this rule that a woman should have only so much muscle or that a 12-inch bicep on a woman makes you a man. These stereotypes and weird categorisations are faced by women in sports at some point or the other in their lives. It’s not very healthy.

Rashmi Rocket
Taapsee Pannu in 'Rashmi Rocket'

Don’t miss it!

‘Rashmi Rocket’ is streaming on Zee5 now.