Taapsee Pannu, the actor whose rise to stardom as an outsider is unusual in the closed Hindi film industry, would rather be in the news for her work. But for two years now, even as her films have won acclaim, Pannu has been the target of scorn from fellow actor Kangana Ranaut and her sister Rangoli Chandel. Ranaut believes she does not get enough credit for paving the way for other successful outsiders. Pannu to her is just a sasti (cheap) copy.
Taapsee – who has a degree in engineering – has responded on social media with a mix of facts and sarcasm, garnering support from several actors and directors. She handles her social media savvily, whether to react to criticism or to use handwritten calculations to call out her electricity company for confusing billing.
Taapsee debuted in Telugu with Jhummandi Naadam (2010) before achieving overnight stardom in Tamil with director Vetrimaaran’s Aadukalam (2011). She later did a few ordinary Telugu films, followed by a Hindi debut in David Dhawan’s Chashme Baddoor (2013).
Early on, Taapsee was mostly a pretty face on screen, but over the last few years, she has transformed herself into a confident performer who showcases vulnerability and strength easily on screen; not an easy task for someone who says “you can see my state of mind on my face.”
In interviews, Taapsee has said she’s like the schoolkid who is first to answer questions, a classic Tamil mundhiri kottai. “I’ve never heard this reference before, but it explains who I am. I was enthusiastic about taking the regular route and I failed. Five years ago, I had to reassess, and figure what makes me happy. I realise failing was not all that bad after all.”
Normalcy and a certain middle-class ethos are recurring themes as Taapsee tries to deconstruct her life. She says, “Paying that electricity bill would not have made me poor, but it was policy. Growing up, if our monthly bill went up, it would be a panic situation at home. I still handle grocery shopping. I can get someone to do this, but I would like to retain control over my life. That makes me feel normal.”
So after an hour long meeting, crazy amount of numbers n calculations floating around, realised the “approximate” reading wasn’t really THAT approximate. Infact far from it. pic.twitter.com/rSjb36JKaA
— taapsee pannu (@taapsee) July 2, 2020
Taapsee hated math in school until she realised “there’s no escape.” She says, “Once I am pushed to the wall, I deal with it. I forced myself to fall in love with it. I scored 96 in Class 12 CBSE math.”
Ranaut questioning her integrity pushed her to the wall again. “I was heartbroken that it came from this person. When you enter the industry, there are certain people you admire. When this [criticism] comes from the same people, you wonder why you put someone on a pedestal so soon.” She initially “wrote off all that negativity”, but, “Now, I’m older, smarter and not as gullible. I am more careful before cementing a person’s position in my mind and heart.”
What the controversy did was remove her fear of confrontation. “You remember the line from Mary Kom?”, she asks, “ ‘Kabhi kisi ko itna bhi mat darrao ki darr hi khatam ho jaye’ (Don’t scare someone so much that they stop fearing fear). That’s what happened to me.”
“Under usual circumstances,” she continues, “I give a person the chance to correct a mistake. I am genuinely worried as to how many parents will not want their children to enter the industry because of what’s being projected. We cannot scare newcomers; everyone is not so bitter.”
Taapsee has a good working relationship with directors like Anubhav Sinha, who directed her in Mulk and Thappad. She explains that this is partly because “people with similar thinking come together for projects” but also because of his faith in her ability to understand the core of the story. Sinha believes Taapsee is an “obvious choice” for the kind of films he makes, because “her conviction in the voice of the film comes through. She also prefers the characters to be seen more (than her). That’s a rare quality I truly admire”.
The contrast between Taapsee’s outgoing personality and her role in Ashwin Saravanan’s Game Over is stark. Vinodhini Vaidynathan, who played Taapsee’s companion in the film, calls her a “class actor”. “I usually don’t expect much from co-actors in terms of craft. For the scene where she’s supposed to be talking to her parents about the incident that led to her trauma, she didn’t talk much at all during the entire time it was shot. She just went into the zone and told the director that she’d like to get it right within the first one or two takes. And, she did. I could see that the process literally exhausted her.”
This growth did not come easy for Taapsee, who was not a trained actor. Says Vetri Maaran, “The Taapsee who shot for Aadukalam was trying to find her steps in the dark. Now the choices she’s made, in terms of script, and the way she speaks her mind are commendable. The commitment she puts into every film is admirable.”
Aadukalam is also special for the bonds she struck. They shot in interior Tamil Nadu and Taapsee stayed in one of the houses in the area. “I am still in touch with the family of the lady who played the grandmother in the movie. She passed away recently, but her daughter is in touch.”
Despite being part of successful movies – writer Kanika Dhillon points out that Taapsee’s last five films made Rs 352 crore at the box office – co-stars say Taapsee continues to be self-deprecating and polite. Taapsee says, “If you forget your roots, you won’t grow. Being grateful and gracious must not get lost with success.” It upset her when her friendliness was ridiculed as chaploosi (sycophancy). “I am friendly, and it is very difficult to change that, even if that is ridiculed. It is not a bad thing to be nice.”
She welcomes criticism on Twitter, because she is not doing the “most serious thing on this planet. I take my work very seriously, but not myself.” But, she says, “Don’t ridicule my work, because it discredits my journey. It’s the one thing I am proud of as an outsider.”
She enjoys people noticing little details. “In Thappad, there’s this scene where I come back to get my things, and touch a table to see if there’s dust. It was not part of the script, but I had to do something to convey that things have changed in the house in one gesture when the camera is not on my face.”
On acting, she says, “Most of the time, my directors tell me what is needed, and allow me to do my thing. You are responsible as an actor to process and convey emotion.”
She is accessible on the sets, because otherwise, “you don’t get to be a part of the magic on set.” She asks, “If I do not strike a rapport with a co-actor, how will it reflect on screen?” And so, during Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyan she bombarded Vicky Kaushal with messages and insisted he eat every meal with her, because the film needed them to already be in love.
But Taapsee is also hesitant to be self-indulgent – “I am afraid of getting carried away. I’ve stopped watching my work. I do not want to give my brain the opportunity to fly,” she laughs.
Taapsee’s initial flops have given her the equanimity to deal with success. “I used to be very harsh on myself,” she says, “It’s not that I brush off failure now. I deal with it better.”
In her own assessment, the “mix of strength and vulnerability” is her biggest plus. She adds, “In fact, Anubhav Sir tells me that he likes that I show both in the same frame. I am willing to look ugly while crying on screen.” But surprisingly, though her action sequence in Baby stood out, she says, “I don’t do (action) that well. I don’t enjoy physical aggression; I’m scared of it. I force myself to do that.”
Taapsee, a trained dancer, says “I really liked the dance bit in Thappad. I want to do more Kathak in the future on screen, and hope someone will write me one such role.”
Taapsee “literally stumbled into the Aadukalam audition”. She says, “I knew that someone else had been cast but was not doing the film. I did not know the craft or the language, but I knew I would be working with people who loved their craft and so I would not be wasting time.”
But picking films based on big names did not work for long. “Jhummandi Naadam fell into my lap. Lakshmi Manchu, the producer, went out of her way to make me comfortable. In Hindi, my debut was backed by Viacom and directed by David Dhawan.”
But the path of a mainstream heroine was not working for her. She recalls asking Nayanthara – who speaks “beautiful Hindi” – during Arrambam, about not trying to work in Bollywood. “When you’ve achieved a big position and are treated well in one industry,” she remembers Nayanthara telling her, “you don’t feel like starting from scratch”. Taapsee experienced this first-hand in Hindi, where despite having worked on 10 films in the South, she was treated “like any other newcomer.”
Baby put Taapsee on the path to success, and Pink secured her place in the industry. “The subject of Pink was so sensational, and I knew it would hit home for a lot of people.” Naam Shabana, her first title role, followed, and she did the commercial Judwaa 2, “so that no one could slot me as an offbeat actor”. She says, “These choices helped me establish myself in between mainstream and unconventional cinema.”
Taapsee has worked with established stars and found her voice amid them too. It began with the 13-page scene in Pink when her character is in the witness box and Amitabh Bachchan’s character is questioning her. She says, “It was a single shot, and I heard clapping. Mr Bachchan hugged me, and when I saw the film I knew I could hold a long shot. That helped me during Mulk where I was the advocate standing in front of amazing actors such as Ashutosh Rana, Rajat Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor and Neena Gupta.”
When Taapsee finished the scene in Mulk, a junior actor left her a note that she treasures: “You will be the number one actress in Bollywood very soon.”
Taapsee has also turned around her styling, which she faced early ridicule for. She is candid, “I wore the most awkward clothes and made a fool of myself. No one knew how to handle my curly hair. My personality was not coming through.”
Then her sister-in-law Devki Bhatt began to style her. “Things changed with what I wore for Baby’s trailer launch. Devki styled it sitting in the US, and it came together very well.” The two have evolved together, and now, “people know me as someone who dresses real, but throws in a quirk,” smiles Taapsee.
She equates stardom with earning the trust of her audience; and using her voice for the right causes. “For me,” she says, stardom is having the blind trust of your audience. They spend their time and money and attention on you and your films, and it is your duty to live up to that blind trust.”
Over the three hours she spends speaking about her life and films, Taapsee speaks carefully – a throwback to her days as a public speaker in school – and engages deeply with every question. Focussing on each question gives her a chance to “connect to certain decisions she’s made”. The questions, she says, help her understand herself and her performances better. And they help her learn words like mudhirikottai too.