In the upcoming horror comedy Annabelle Sethupathi, Taapsee Pannu plays a queen from colonial times who returns, as a ghost in present day, to haunt the palace her husband had built for her. Ahead of its release on DisneyPlus Hotstar, the actress talks about what her takeaway from shooting with Vijay Sethupathi was, why she named her production house Outsider Films and how she approached director Mani Ratnam for a role.
Sneha Menon Desai (SMD): Taapsee, I want to take you back to a conversation we had in 2017. You told me that one of the biggest risks you had taken was to start saying no to Tamil films where you felt like you were being used as a prop. Now, obviously that risk has paid off and how. Back then, how sure were you that it would?
Taapsee Pannu (TP): Actually, not just Tamil films, even Telugu ones. That was a big risk because I had the choice to either do the 'prop' kinds of roles that I was getting, just to be visible in the market alongside big heroes, or to choose smaller films with more substantial roles. I realised that doing those big hero films, in which I was more or less like a prop or arm candy, was not really making me happy. I was not happy to wake up and go to work every day and hence I decided to prioritise my happiness over anything else. That risk paid off because whatever I did after that came straight from the heart. I enjoyed every day at work. The motivation to go to work was not to become the top actress or to have the biggest paycheck, it was to have fun at work, to enjoy my work. That happiness began reflecting in my work and there was a whole shift. When you put all your heart and mind into something, the results show. That's what my journey has taught me.
SMD: Talk to me a little bit about working with Vijay Sethupathi. He seems very unlike your Bollywood hero.
TP: I've worked with Bollywood heroes who are very unlike Bollywood heroes. I don't think all of them fall into the conventional category of heroes. I've worked with heroes from Amitabh Bachchan to Vikrant Massey, neither of them are currently conventional heroes. Neither is Vijay. He's done a lot of different kinds of cinema in Tamil itself, he has a fairly wide range of work, so when I found out that he'd agreed to do the film, it was a pleasant surprise because the film was named after Annabelle's character. The director, Deepak Sundarrajan, had approached me with the script and was very hellbent on casting me. He was like, 'I won't make the film if you don't play this part.' That was very heartwarming, it was something that I had yearned to hear for years, especially in the South, because there I was easily replaced. Most of the South actresses are treated as easily replaceable, if they lack dates or demand a higher salary. Deepak not only said that to me, he actually waited for more than a year for me to come on board. And then I found out that Vijay said yes to doing a part, which was strange, because you don't really come across heroes who are ready to do parts in a film which is titled after the woman's character. So I was very impressed even with before meeting him.
On set, he was a really good actor, he just doesn't believe in doing his job and then leaving, it's more than that for him. He will work on every scene till he feels like it works for him. That kind of an interest shows that he is not just there to make money. That was my takeaway from working with him.
SMD: You launched your production house, which is called 'Outsider Films'. How long you think it's going to be before you feel like an insider?
TP: I don't feel the need to be called an insider. I don't understand why that should be an aspirational, why being an outsider is an uncomfortable word. I keep telling people that these are just terms you give people based on their background.
SMD: I read it as a sense of belonging. Do you feel like you belong?
TP: I felt like I belonged here was the moment I started getting roles and my films started working. I didn't feel the need to be called an insider. I'm an outsider who belongs, which is a brilliant place to be. I've never seen being an outsider as less than being an insider. Success depends on the audience, not n being an insider or an outside. My films have worked because of the audience, not because so-called insiders have validated them. They didn't and they still don't. I don't even expect them to. My audience went and bought tickets and made my movies a hit. I named my production house 'Outsider Films' because I want people to start seeing this term in a positive light. For the longest time, it's been seen as a step down. I'd never seen it like that. That's why I want to proudly own this space of being an outsider.
SMD: Tell me something about being a producer that you just didn't anticipate.
TP: It's difficult for me right now to make people understand that I've entered the world of being a producer not just for profit sharing. If I really wanted that, I would have done that as an actor just by adding one clause to my contract. I've done that before with (the Telugu film) Anando Brahma (2017). I've become a producer to be able to take certain calls without being called an intrusive actor. If you're just an actor and you're calling certain shots, you're called an intrusive actor. So it's better to take on the role of a producer who asks for what they want and what they don't want. Being a producer is about handling everything on the ground when the film is getting made, putting it together from scratch, yeah. There are certain obstacles I will face and I'm okay going that extra mile.
SMD: When you posted about Anabelle Sethupathi on your Instagram page, you captioned it, 'Because sometimes one lifetime isn't enough to see it all.' But that doesn't seem to be the case with you. What's next on your bucket list? Do you still harbour the dream you had in 2015, of giving it all up and going abroad?
TP: I always thought that I would survive in this industry for a maximum of four to five years. That was what was told to me and the way my films were doing, it's what I believed. I was not really having fun at work and I was not really enjoying what I was doing. Now, I don't want to give it up for anything. With the number of films I am doing in a year, I enjoy each day of going to set, otherwise I wouldn't have spent this much time at work. I don't know how long this is going to last. I can't put an exact date on the calendar today. I'll be here till my films work. After that, I want to have a graceful exit. I won't push myself into the audience's face. I've never wanted to do that. I'll work as much as I can and let the audience decide whether they want to see me. If they don't, I'll change my path.
SMD: In 2017, I asked you whether you feel like a star. You said, 'I will feel like a star the day I go to a director, tell him I want to work with him and have him write something for me.' All these years later, have you been able to go up to Mani Ratnam or not? I know how much you want to work with him.
TP: To let you in on a small secret, I have spoken to Mani sir and bluntly told him that I want to work with him. He's been very graceful and offered me something, but that didn't materialise. He was very kind to say that we'd work together in the future whenever there is something that we both agree on. I'm hopeful of this, I'm manifesting it.