Just like the name suggests, Thappad, Bollywood’s last big release, hits hard. It hits hard on claustrophobic stereotypes and constricting attitudes and it hits hard on the unpalatable truths about a tradition of entitlement that men are known to enjoy. An eloquent portrayal of a society that is often misogynistic and mostly treats men as first among equals, the film exposes the ugliness of the society’s patriarchal underbelly in a manner that is uncomfortable, to say the least, for both men and women.

But it is not the film we are here to talk about; it is Taapsee Pannu, the 32-year-old actress who breathes life into her onscreen character Amrita, with her effortless girl-next-door appeal.

Taapsee, who made her debut in the film industry in K. Raghavendra Rao’s 2010 Telugu romantic musical Jhummandi Naadam, has, in just a decade, shined through, centrestage, in recent success Thappad, with only her face on the poster. Later in the year, she’ll be seen headlining director Vinil Mathew’s mystery thriller, Haseen Dillruba. She will be also seen in the titular role in Rashmi Rocket, about a sprinter from Gujarat, and she’s playing Indian cricketer Mithali Raj in the biopic Shabaash Mithu, slated for release next year. The actress will also be part of the Hindi remake of cult classic German thriller Run Lola Run, set to hit theatres early 2021. “It is a new-age genre. I’ll be doing comedy for the first time,” says the actress who is clearly on a roll, in an exclusive telephone interview with Friday.

With so many films in her kitty, Taapsee has had little time to celebrate Thappad’s success. “On the day of Thappad’s release I was in Haridwar to shoot for Haseen Dillruba. I was only celebrating from the calls and messages. Every morning we’d wake up to long, beautiful notes. I think people will remember us for a very long time for doing this film. There might be many Rs200 and Rs300 crore [2 billion to 3 billion Indian-rupee] films, but we forget them after a few weeks. But Thappad will be one of those films of my filmography that people will remember for years to come. As Javed saab [filmmaker Javed Akhtar] said, this film will be a milestone,” says the model-turned-actress.

Back in Mumbai as the shoot had to be stopped due to the spread of coronavirus, and although homebound, Taapsee sounds as cheerful and spirited as she always is. “I’ve made a time-table for myself from 7am to 10pm and divided my time doing workouts, cooking, cleaning, reading, replying to work emails, learning something new, watching one movie every day… There’s lot to do if you really want to make good use of the time,” she says.

Taapsee has been making good use of her time since she came under the spotlights, finding success first in the south of India, in Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam commercial cinema. Her breakout role in Bollywood was the 2016 release Pink. While Amitabh Bachchan may have been the star of the intense courtroom drama, Taapsee, as Minal, the victim of a molestation, grabbed the attention of audiences across the country.

“She has a certain fire in her mind and body,” says Pink’s director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, attempting to analyse the star’s USP. “When an intelligent actor chooses the right script and is also good and hardworking, then success cannot elude them. She is not afraid of failure, which is the most important thing for any creative endeavour. If you’re afraid then it is over.”

Taapsee held her own in Badlaa, where she shared screen space with Amitabh Bachchan
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For Taapsee, that was only the beginning. Unafraid to pick challenging roles, she has gone on to firmly establish herself as an intelligent actor who infuses spontaneity and depth into her performances. Choosing to collaborate with directors such as Aniruddha, Anubhav Sinha and Anurag Kashyap who are known to be brave, outspoken, willing to push the boundaries of cinema, she proved time and again that she is not one to succumb to stereotypes, even while ensuring she gets to play meaty parts – think the determined lawyer in Mulk, the tempestuous lover in Manmarziyaan, the docile housewife in Thappad...

“Taapsee is so much more interested in what the film is trying to do than where her character is headed,” says her Thappad director, Anubhav Sinha. “That is something many actors don’t understand in their entire career.

“She tries to be as transparent as possible as an actor. There’s a choice to be made between being the character or the actor that’s playing that character. She chooses the former...”

Journalist and film critic Rajeev Masand seconds that. “Taapsee has become the go-to girl for filmmakers who are a bit fearless and who are also looking for [an actor] who is fearless. She’s making choices that are quite bold, brave, and because she made those choices fairly early in her career, they are now yielding solid results.

“She is getting solo heroine projects and is able to green-light a film just by her being in it. It is one thing to be a very fine actress and another to be able to generate money and have box-office clout. You can mount a film on her shoulders. Hers is a self-made career and she has a lot of pride in that.”

Taapsee knows the importance of the commerce element in a film. “I’m aware of the box office because at the end of the day [film is a] business. I’ve to make my producers earn money for them to have the confidence that I can lead a film which earns money. Every actor who wants to become a star will have that pressure,” she admits.

But it’s a pressure the actress enjoys, just as she does tags such as ‘perfect muse for a courageous story-teller’, ‘torch-bearer of strong women-driven cinema’, among others.

“Most of the tags that are given to me are good and I don’t shy away from any of them,” says the actress, who has won more than 20 awards.

“I want these tags because actors struggle for years [to develop an image] in the film industry. I don’t feel burdened or pressured by these tags because I really worked hard for them. I want people to have certain expectations of me; if they don’t, it’d mean I haven’t had any good impact on them.”

Taapsee is also not averse to pushing boundaries when it comes to work.

“Directors come to me with characters which they think yeh koi aur nahi karega, yeh yahi karegi (no other actress will play this part, only Taapsee will). If I have to push myself physically, if I have to portray certain grey characters, it’s fine.”

And she has. In Haseen Dillruba, for instance, a love story/murder mystery where although she was “not the first, second or even the third choice”, the actress grabbed the role.

“It is not the regular girl-next-door, or happy-go-lucky heroine role who is made to feel like a diva on screen. My character has shades which you might like or dislike. I don’t mind people hating me,” she says.

If in Badla she played an antagonist, in Manmarziyaan she portrays the role of a woman who is extremely strong and opinionated. “I was thrilled with the kind of love I got for that film,” she says.

The actress credits the confidence she earned from Pink for helping her choose the roles that have made her a household name now.

“If I had not gotten the success from Pink probably I wouldn’t have got the confidence of doing Naam Shabana. If that wouldn’t have worked, I wouldn’t have got the confidence to push further and try doing films like Mulk, Manmarziyaan and eventually Thappad. Every year I have been trying to push the envelope a little and that is because of the confidence [I gathered] in the previous years,” she says.

“Why did I take that leap of faith with all these films? Because I feel I have nothing to lose. That has been my way of judging everything in life, not just films. Whenever I have to try to do a new thing, learn a new sport, or new art form, or even if I have to take a big step of taking loan to buy a house, I always think ‘What’s the worst that can happen? What is the biggest fear?’ It won’t kill you. You will get through and make something happen.

“I then go ahead and take the plunge. If I want to get up happy every day, working hard for 12 to 14 hours, it has to be now. I don’t live in the future.”

Film critic Masand credits that facet of her personality to her ability to care for herself.

“Taapsee comes across as someone who will take care of herself but she is also someone who is extremely fragile and vulnerable. That ability – to be both strong and vulnerable – is her strength and sometimes [that figures] in films. As a result of that she gets opportunities like Thappad, Manmarziyaan...”

Taapsee, a Punjabi computer science graduate who once worked as a software engineer, believes her ‘nothing to lose’ attitude is because “I don’t have a lineage to protect a surname.

“Nobody really knows where I come from and nobody is even bothered what my parents are doing and what they will say. So my decision, good or bad, is [my responsibility]. That is also a big confidence an outsider can draw from. There is nothing to protect or to get scared of,” she says.

However, there was a time when Taapsee’s confidence did suffer a dent – when she signed up for the slapstick action-comedy Judwaa 2. But, she says, “at that point it was very important for me to do the film because I was coming from Pink and Naam Shabana,” she says. “People were still warming up to midway cinema, which is neither conventional nor unconventional. I was at a stage when people were about to [pigeon hole me] in that off-beat heroine category. Judwaa 2 came as a shock to everyone. I did it purely to prove that if I wanted, I could [do glam roles].

“Choosing not to do such roles did not mean I can’t look hot in short dresses or swim suits. I can do all [those roles]. All these tags (brave, courageous, etc.) came to me post Judwaa 2 because people realised I can do [conventional and unconventional] roles. It is a no-brainer that Judwaa 2 would cross 100 crore. None of my other films have crossed 100 crore,” she says, with a laugh.

However, with the definition of off-beat or mainstream changing, Taapsee is finding herself in a good space. “Now, whatever holds you in your seat for two hours is mainstream. But people still give tags like commercial cinema or unconventional cinema, a little different or off-beat.”

So, what is her take on indie films?

“I am not a viewer of typical off-beat cinema,” says Taapsee. “I’ve not enjoyed them and I will not do those kinds of films. I prefer audience or commercial cinema; I want either to be entertained so much that I don’t think about the logic, or give me a story and make it entertaining enough. Unconventional stories excite me. But the approach to the story has to be a bit mainstream. [Some] people think only not-so-conventional looking girls or heroines will do this kind of cinema; that you always have to be soppy to do it, which I don’t agree. When I make a subject entertaining enough to grab your attention for two hours and not make you look at your phone, that is entertaining.”

Has her atypical looks come in the way of her career?

“When I was doing films in the South, I was [considered] the most glamorous actress there; I was only playing these good-looking glamorous parts. Slowly, I got a grip on my craft, and once I entered the Hindi movie industry I accepted the fact that I’m not the most drop-dead gorgeous woman in this industry. There are many who are doing a brilliant job in [this space] where you have to dance well and look like a million bucks in every frame. This is not my strongest card. I came to terms with it very early on in my career when I started in Bollywood.

“So I decided to use my biggest card, which is being the girl-next-door and which an average Indian woman would associate with. She can also be ugly and sad, she doesn’t wake up looking like a diva, but yes, if she dresses up then she can look good as well. So I decided to represent an average Indian girl on screen and that is what has worked in my favour.”

The biggest compliment she says she has received is when fans tell her they take her characters back home because they are “like one of us”. “Aspirational value is what probably a lot of other heroines work for but I work on the more relatable value, which has worked in my favour,” says Taapsee.

The one-time model – she was selected for Channel V’s talent show Get Gorgeous and has modelled for several brands including Docomo, Airtel and Dabur – says she still gets offers to act in totally commercial films. “I don’t have a problem doing a brainless commercial film because I know there is an audience for it, but I’ll do it when I feel [I’ll watch it].”

Her rule of thumb for choosing to act in a film is whether she would “pay money to watch it in a theatre”.

“I will not do a commercial film just because I want to be paired opposite a big hero. That’s not the motivation for me. I did Judwaa 2 not because I wanted to be cast opposite Varun. I did it to prove that, ‘Yes, I can look glamorous and perform like this also’.”

Does she feel intimidated by big stars?

Not really, she says. “In fact, I’m more awe-struck by sports stars. I feel absolutely honoured to be playing Mithali Raj,” she says, referring to her upcoming film. “That is why for me my directors are more important than my co-stars. I have realised that I have started becoming so dependent on my directors because he or she can make or break my performance. They are able to extract certain nuanced performance out of me and I wouldn’t know that skill existed in me. I am more careful about choosing my directors than my co-actors.”

So does she consider herself a star or an actor? After all, as director Aniruddha Chowdhury points out, “Her films are … entertaining, yet thoughtful and meaningful. She is delivering with conviction, has great acting and is a star in her own space. She has the star power and will grow more as a serious actor who is also [good in the] commercial [space].”

Taapsee is quick to answer: “I’d want to be a star. I’d want to be called a star who can act. For me, the definition of star is someone who has the box-office pull. When he or she features on a poster people want to watch it without waiting for word of mouth.

“Like how it is with Salman Khan or Akshay Kumar. That is true stardom for me. I definitely would want to be that person who my audience trusts blindly.”

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