After five years in the Hindi film industry, Taapsee Pannu has become an actress to reckon with. With Mulk, Soorma and Manmarziyaan adding to her reputation as a powerhouse performer, she is well on her way up the ladder. Here she is in conversation with Team Box Office India
Many actors who came to Bollywood from the South film industries have never returned to that industry after achieving success here. You have simultaneously been a part of both industries. Was this a strategy?
There are multiple reasons for this. I am very grateful because I began my career there. It’s my way of showing gratitude… not forgetting them just because Hindi films have started working for me. I have never looked at the industry as a stepping stone. It was all very organic with no plan. I am just making use of the opportunities I got.
In addition, I have no reason to uproot myself from that industry because they still like me and watch my films. It is always good to stay in touch with people who already like you because that helps you and your films. My Hindi films end up getting a good release in the South. Eventually, it helps everyone.
You have not been consistent with the spacing of your film releases. In some years, you have had just one release and this year, you had so many.
It has been growing and that’s what matters. It was not really planned. Of course, when I began, I didn’t really have any options or choices. I just chose from whatever was available to me. That’s why there were few films and now that I have better options to choose from, when I get such variety to choose from, I end up choosing more and more films. Next year too, I hope to have three to four releases. If you look at my films in 2018, you will see why I could not turn down any of them. I don’t want to let go of good opportunities.
After doing a couple of content-driven roles, what made you choose an out-and-out commercial film like Judwaa 2?
I wanted to tell people to watch the other films that I do. Our masses love films like Judwaa 2 and that’s why those films end up making `100 crore. I keep saying in all my interviews that if you make my other films earn `100 crore, I wouldn’t do films like Judwaa 2. I wouldn’t have to. I need to attract the audience who probably don’t watch my other films, to give those films a chance. That’s why I need to keep changing gears and attracting different types of audiences.
During the trailer launch of Soorma, you said that kabhie toh yaar heroine ban ne do mujhe. Do you want to explore the larger-than-life, quintessential Bollywood heroine in a subsequent phase?
(Laughs) That was another reason to do Judwaa 2. After working so hard to pull off all those intense characters, I really wanted to just enjoy myself by being the diva that you are supposed to be in Bollywood. When you are a Bollywood actor or an actress, you always feel like you should be having those fancy moments on screen. I don’t get that very often.
In 2018, my heroine moment was through Soorma because that was my only heroine-ish kind of role. In that film too, people were asking me why I was not playing Sandeep Singh. Of course, I can’t play Sandeep Singh (Laughs). They asked, ‘Did you feel awkward?’ I was, like, you people are getting way too used to seeing me in central roles. It’s okay if someone else takes centre stage sometimes.
As you said, you are associated with a particular kind of role. As an actor, is there any fear of getting typecast?
That was, again, another reason to do Judwaa 2… so that people don’t typecast me. This is why, in the same year, I had Soorma, Mulk and Manmarziyaan, all different genres and characters. Even now, when I am getting offers, the only way I am typecast is that all my roles have a strong spine. That’s the only typecasting that I am okay with. All the films I am doing belong to different genres and I have different roles to play. The only common thing is that I play really strong female characters.
How far are you willing to go for your films and your character in terms of physical appearance?
I don’t mind doing anything as long as I am comfortable with it. There is a film I have been offered where they want me to wear my hair in a crew cut. The first question I was asked, even before the narration, was would I be okay with that? I was, like, that’s a weird question. Why wouldn’t I be okay with it if I love your script? If the script really attracts me, I will do anything that is required of me. The only restriction I have is doing a sex comedy. I don’t watch such films so I don’t think I can do justice to them.
We have seen you in so many films with very diverse characters. Have you ever stopped to pat yourself on the back for doing so well?
Not yet. (Laughs). This morning itself I tweeted, ‘It’s okay if it’s not perfect, at least you know you need to work on something’. I am okay with things not being perfect. At least I have something to work on rather than sitting idle. Otherwise, you would feel that this is perfect, so now what next?
Since you simultaneously work in Bollywood and the South industry, what differences do you see between these industries?
I have always said that apart from the language differences, I have never felt a huge difference between both industries. Of course, since I am a North Indian girl, I am more comfortable with Hindi. No matter how much I learn Telugu or Tamil, I can never sound like a local girl from there. I can’t really help that. That might restrict my options or the variety of roles I will be offered there but that is a personal restriction. Otherwise, as an industry, I haven’t really seen much of a difference because they make movies on a comparable equal scale, their collections are as big as that of Hindi films, the production values are equally good and they have some brilliant ideas as well.
It is so funny, when I am here, people keep telling me that the South has brilliant ideas and concepts. And when I am doing a film in the South and I tell them about the films I have done here, they say, ‘They are coming up with such interesting ideas, Hindi is really pushing it…’ I hear the same comments from both sides (Laughs).
Your fans and audiences identify you as the girl-next-door. Why is that?
Because I AM the girl-next door. I keep insisting that I am a very average, Indian girl. There is probably nothing diva-ish about me. The only aspirational factor that I have is the fact that I am normal and it’s okay to be normal. It is okay to be average. In today’s day and age, we have all experienced that it is difficult to accept being average. Everyone wants to be a little different, have an edge over others or want to be out-of-the-box. Normalcy is underrated. For me, believing I am very normal and the regular, girl-next-door helps me to build an image for the roles I do. Hence, my audience also relates to me. I am happy with my image among my viewers.
Even on social media, the Instagram pictures you post…
Yes, it’s okay to not look perfect. My photo shoots and magazines will make sure I look perfect. My Instagram feed is about how I am in real life. Whatever imperfections are there are the ones that make me unique. I love to own my imperfections.
You are one of those very few actors who have stood up for your film Manmarziyaan. Were you apprehensive of the consequences, of a social media backlash?
No, I was not apprehensive but very confident of using social media. I got an opportunity to voice my opinion through social media and am happy to have got that opportunity. I don’t know how else I would have conveyed what I really felt. The only thing is I should not hurt someone in the wrong way. That’s the only precautionary measure I take before I write or say something publicly. Other than that, if I am not saying or doing anything wrong, I am not afraid. I am answerable only to my conscience.
You appear to be the kind of person who comes to work and, after the release of the film, goes back. You have a life beyond your films. How do you manage to stay detached?
Honestly, it’s a task because then you lose out on being in the buzz. You lose out on making friends who you can pick up and call and say, ‘Hey I want to do that film. Can you please make that happen for me?’ But, thankfully, that’s why I end up doing four-five films a year so that my work keeps me in the buzz. That’s a means to make up for it.
I choose to stay detached because it helps me stay normal and away from any kind of illusion. I have a life beyond films, which helps me grow as a human being. Also, eventually you are going to portray those real characters on screen. If I am not real in real life, how will I portray those characters? I like to live a normal life so I can feel like a normal person. I keep myself busy beyond films. I have a wedding planning company, I have now bought a badminton team in the Premier Badminton League. I do all these things which interest me personally and to grow as a human being.
Movies are my job. So, yes as you said, I go, do my work and come back, just like having a job. I love my job and am ready to work 24 hours for it, because this is what I love. But it does not mean that I have to be breathing films, day in and day out, till my last breath. The day I stop enjoying it, my films will not work, because if you are not enjoying it, your audience is not going to enjoy watching you. That’s when I would need to gracefully step aside.
You mentioned buying a team for the Premier Badminton League. How did that come together?
I have been a huge sports fan for years, ever since I can remember. While I was growing up, I played every street game there was and then I went on to play sports like basketball, volleyball and badminton. I also took part in athletic meets for my school. I was a jack of all trades and a master of none. Even today, I play squash on a regular basis, for fitness. I am huge fan of raquet sports in particular. I follow them on television, I actually follow all these international tournaments… tennis, squash and badminton. A couple of months ago, before these back-to-back films happened to me, I could tell you the names of the top 10 badminton players off the top of my head.
Since I follow it so closely, I thought last year, what if I bought a team? I could do a lot with it and it’s not like I am just the face of the brand. A lot of people come up to me and say, ‘these actors just become the face of the sports or brand ambassadors, they just come in, put in an appearance, and go’. But it’s not like that for me because I have invested my hard-earned money into buying this team and I am not just there to show my face. I love this sport and I follow it eagerly. Badminton players in India know this because I have known them personally for the last 4-5 years. I am very happy that I could take this love for sports to the next level by buying this team. Now I am only hoping they perform well this season.
Speaking of being a brand ambassador, this year, a lot of brands have zeroed in on you. How do you look at this change in your professional journey?
That is actually validation, a big one, for me. Usually, brands are about which face to choose to reach out to the maximum number of people. Since I have not done many conventional or massy films, it is very interesting that they come to me. When they come to me, it is not about mass appeal, but they are looking at someone who people will probably listen to or would want to know more about. Then they come to me with a whole presentation about why they want me.
One thing they say is that you are the face of the average Indian woman today and that is why we want you to represent our brand. That is so heartening and nice to see because it is exactly how I am selecting my films. That really is getting through. So all these big brands, some really big names, have come to me and I have seven endorsements right now. It just validates the fact that people are noticing my choices and that matters. It is not always about doing massy films but about how many people are taking you back home when they walk out of the theatre. This helps me validate my choices.
In the 4-5 years since you started being a part of the Hindi film industry, how has your perception changed?
I have seen the change across these years. When I started, they weren’t many films that had a strong female character. There were some films that had a fleshed-out female character but not many. Now, cut to today, when all the leading ladies are doing at least one film a year which is so-called female-centric, where their characters are the central protagonists of the film. That is a huge shift that has come into play. I am not saying that it has reached a level where it is equal to men as yet. There is still some time for that moment to come but at least we have gone from 4-5 films a year to, like, one film a month! That’s a huge change in the last five years.
Do you think the industry is more accepting of you now, seeing that you come from a non-filmy background but have managed to carve your own niche here?
Yes, of course! The industry has been very warm towards me. It was very clear that people would not suddenly take notice of me. Even now, people are saying let’s see what she does next. I knew I would have to pass many tests and that I would not hit the bull’s eye with just one film. I have to hit many of them. I was in a very sorted position. But one thing is sure, that being an outsider, you have to consistently prove yourself more than most others. And if you do that, if you’re good, then they will receive you well. If you’re talented, you will get noticed. That’s for sure.
You went from being a Computer Science student to an A-list actress. How do you and the people around you look at this journey and your success?
I think my parents are a still a little clueless. They are back in Delhi, living the same life they were living a few years ago, when I was in engineering college. They are still trying to wrap their head around exactly what is happening here. My dad is the one who takes care of all my finances, so I have no idea about that. I just sign things blindly because he’s taking care of everything in that area (Laughs). My mom still saves all the magazine and newspaper articles that feature me.
That is so sweet!
Yes, it is (Smiles). But I’m, like, ‘Mom kitni raddi jama karke rakhi hai’. (Laughs) She shares all my interviews on her Facebook page even before I get a chance to do it. They are still trying to absorb it all even though it has been eight years now. My mom keeps getting calls from the housing society people and others around them, that whenever Taapsee comes please tell us. And my mom is, like, ‘They really think that when you come home, I am going to call everyone and invite them over (Laughs).’ They still don’t know how to handle this. A lot of things fascinate them even now, when I talk to them about certain things. But it’s good because, as I said, I have a life that is normal, a life that is beyond films. This is what keeps me real.
What was that one moment when you felt like you had arrived?
I still don’t think I have become a huge actress or a star. I’ll tell you the moment when I wilI feel that. I have that benchmark in my mind, it is when people walk up to the box office and buy a ticket for a film of mine, believing that if it is my film, it is worth spending that much time and money on it. When that happens, I will say, ‘I am a big thing. I am a star.’ But not before that. I don’t know when I will feel that way but I hope I do feel it some time. That’s my aim, that’s my goal in my career.
As you said, you have been an actress for eight years. Have you figured out your process as an actor yet?
No, I don’t think so. What I have figured out is, never plan anything because things usually don’t go according to plan. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been sitting here with you, talking about my films. I would have been working with some MNC, in a marketing job or something. Never plan anything but don’t ever let a good film slip through your hands. It doesn’t matter if your role is 20 minutes long or 2 hours long, what matters is how good the role is.
I remember during the trailer launch of Soorma, someone asked me if I felt weird because I was not the central character in the film. I said you are talking to a girl whose first step to fame was a 10-minute role in the film Baby. That really helped me understand that it doesn’t matter how big or small your role is, it should be impactful for people to take you back home with them.
Lastly, what are you looking forward to?
More good films. I don’t know if I will be able to keep up four to five films a year but I am hoping to do my best. Four films will come next year including a South film that I do every year. I have Badla coming up on March 8, 2019, which is International Women’s Day. Finally, I have a film on Women’s Day. I have been waiting for a film to release around that time and it is really special that Badla is releasing on this date. It is with Mr Amitabh Bachchan and it’s Sujoy Ghosh’s film, whose films have female characters to reckon with.
And I have my South film, which I am currently shooting for. It is going to be a bilingual film, in Tamil and Telugu, and again it has a female protagonist. After that, I have another Hindi film which I will start by February, people will hear the announcement soon. Then there is one more film which I am about to sign, and that will also release
next year. So, there is a lot of stuff there, all of them will be of different genres, different roles but, yes, the one thing in common is that I will play strong woman characters with a spine.