Taapsee Pannu has her hands full this year.
Pannu switched to films after a modelling stint in 2010. She made her debut in the Telugu film Jhummandi Naadam, but rose to fame for playing the soft-spoken Anglo-Indian Irene in Vetrimaaran’s Tamil movie Aadukalam (2011). She has earned praise for a series of hard-hitting performances in Baby (2015), Pink (2016) and Naam Shabana (2017).
The 30-year-old actress has three Hindi releases in the next few months: she plays a lawyer defending a small-town family in Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk, a hockey player in Shaad Ali’s biopic Soorma, and one peg of a love triangle in Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan. There is also her Telugu film Neevevaroo, alongside Aadhi Pinisetty and Ritika Singh.
Not that Pannu is complaining. “It has been a busy six to seven months for me and I am not at all complaining because all these films have been very carefully picked by me,” she said over the phone from Scotland, where she is shooting for Sujoy Ghosh’s Badla alongside Amitabh Bachchan.
You have three films in Hindi and one in Telugu lined up for the year. How are you juggling all of them?
From last October to May this year, I was working nonstop with probably only 15 days off in total. That is how I completed four films back to back. I have had a month off in May, where I had my other commitments and travelled for basic rejuvenation in life. I then joined Badla in June.
It has been a busy six to seven months for me, and I am not at all complaining because all these films have been very carefully picked by me. Even now when I look back, I have such wonderful memories with each film, which is probably why I am not complaining that I did not have many offs.
The roles you have lined up for the year are completely different from one another. In ‘Soorma’ you are a hockey player.
I consider myself a huge sports enthusiast, but it was really sad that I did not know about this particular story. That was probably a very big reason for me to do the film because it is embarrassing that you did not know about the things that an ex-hockey captain went through.
I decided that in my way, I would make sure that nobody missed this story. I trained in hockey for that. I really enjoy playing any kind of sport. But when I get to do that professionally, I do not have to take up extra time to learn the sport. What better than that?
I got to learn hockey from Sandeep [Singh, former Indian Hockey team captain] himself. That was a very good feeling to learn the sport from literally a legend.
‘Mulk’ sees you back in the courtroom after the legal drama ‘Pink’, but this time, you are on the other side.
When I was performing for Mulk, what was intimidating was that there were five cameras rolling at the same time and you have people like Rajat Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor, Neena Gupta and Ashutosh Rana standing next to you. I have seen all of their work growing up. They are powerful performers. I always say that I am not intimidated by big stars, but I am intimidated by really good actors. You have to be at par, otherwise you are going to stand out like a sore thumb.
When all of them were in the same frame, there was a lot of pressure. I remember Ashutosh Rana was standing in front me for a sequence and I told him I was extremely intimidated and that I have seen him in terrifying roles in Sangharsh and Dushman. He just laughed. But I am looking forward to the audience reaction, particularly for this film.
It is a different thing when you are the leading lady in a film, and completely different when you are performing with many actors and your role is appreciated. It is a test of sorts.
And ‘Manmarziyan’ is in a different space with an unusual cast.
Yes, definitely. Anurag is a director I haven’t worked with before, but he is someone I would like to work with again and again. When I met him, I became a fan of the person he is, which is beyond the work he does. The energy around him is totally different. Kashyap’s films are usually thought to be dark films. I remember during the shooting, I kept joking around saying, “Light lagao [Turn on the lights]”. We were pulling his leg about that.
It is a very intense love story. For the longest time I have waited for a good love story to happen in my career. I have a feeling this is going to be a memorable one. My character in the film is synonymous to open, wild fire. If you are with her, you will have a difficult ride. But if you are not with her, you will crave to be with her.
How do you pick a role?
When I get an offer, the first thing I look out for is the director. I am a very director-dependent actor. Even a great script can be bad in the hands of the wrong person. I trust my director a lot. I need to see that person’s work before, for me to know what their sensibilities are like.
How new and refreshing the character I am playing is another criterion. As an audience, will I pay my hard-earned money to watch the film in the theatre? That is how I choose my script.
Your film journey began in the South. Could you relive the moment when you were approached for Vetrimaaran’s ‘Aadukalam’?
At that time, I was not even contemplating about getting into acting. I took up the film for fun. It was like an adventure ride kind of decision. But it turned out to be a life-changing experience for me, where I decided that I would do this for life.
Thank god it was a beautiful experience in all possible ways, in terms of the outcome as well. Because had it not been like that, to be very honest, I wouldn’t have been here today. I had no plans of pursuing acting. Had Aadukalam not worked, I wouldn’t have pursued it further.
What kinds of films were you offered after ‘Aadukalam’?
Tamil people, till date, find it difficult to see me in a girl-next-door role. Probably Aadukalam has left that impression, where I played an Anglo-Indian. I get to play someone is regular, but not very local. Maybe that is why people cannot think of casting me in regular roles. So these were the kinds of films that were offered.
You have spoken about being objectified by a Telugu actor and director. What was the blowback to your honesty?
When I talked about certain things, it was not to say that I was objectified, but to say that I was clueless about understanding why it was happening. It was taken as something I said against the industry, which it honestly wasn’t.
Everyone started calling me an unlucky girl and an unlucky charm because a couple of my films in Telugu did not work. Honestly, I would not say that I thought a lot about these films before signing these films, because I had no clue at the time.
I was signing films based on the credible names, which clearly did not work in my favour. Since I do not come a from a film background, I learned from my mistakes. What was a setback, according to me, was that I was blamed for a film not working, where all I had to do was three songs or five scenes. But I often used to think, why me? It was not so much that it bogged me down, but it made me take the control in my hands in terms of choosing what I wanted to do, rather than listening to everybody else.
You featured in two Telugu films including ‘The Ghazi Attack’ last year. In 2018, you have one Telugu release.
Every year I have at least one film releasing in the South. Neevevaroo is releasing in August and it is a wonderful script, where I play a kickass character. I have now signed a Tamil-Telugu bilingual for next year. So I am maintaining at least one South film a year.
You are one of the few outsiders among actresses to have become a success. What do you feel about the presence of so many star kids?
I am an outsider in all possible ways. Not just because I had no relatives or friends in the industry when I started out, but also because I did not plan to become an actor. Even now I do not have a studio backing me up, where people keep giving me films even if they do not work.
But this has truly been the backbone of my career. I keep saying this line, jiska koi nahi hota, uski janata hoti hai: A person who has nobody has audience support. That has truly worked in my favour.
It is a big plus point that I am an outsider because then I can play a character that an outsider can relate to because the janata is an outsider. Yes, there are negatives also. But I was always aware of them when I entered the film industry. So it is okay.
This happens in any profession. But our audiences are getting extremely smart now. You can get a few chances, but someone who does not have talent will not last.