Taapsee Pannu has three films lined up this year – Ashwin Saravanan's thriller Game Over, Jagan Shakti's space film Mission Mangal and the Anurag Kashyap-produced sports drama Saand Ki Aankh. She spoke about making her peace with nepotism in the film industry, how much of what a director says shapes her performances and breaking out of the slot people had put her in. Edited excepts:
Baradwaj Rangan (BR): These tricks of the trade that people talk about, what are they like? Are these as simple as how to make a profile that suits you or things like hair and makeup? Or is it also certain tricks in like the way you act?
Taapsee Pannu (TP): I realised that this profile and hair and makeup will not do anything to you, and I stopped looking at monitors. I don't even know when I last looked at the monitor. I don't look at them deliberately, because I realised that I am not cut out for films in which you are supposed to be checking your hair and makeup in profile. There's some gorgeous, breathtaking women out there, who look wonderful, and I cannot match up to that.
BR: But you did Judwaa 2?
TP: Yeah, just to break that monotony, so people don't box me into a slot. But I knew that I'm not that diva-ish looking and I'm perfectly fine and comfortable with that. I realised that the craft is to just psych yourself out into believing that you are this person, this has happened to you – that's my process. I'm not a method actor. I'm not a person who does a lot of homework in terms of watching reference films. I remember when Anurag Kashyap asked me to watch some French film before Manmarziyaan, I slept 20 minutes in. And I was like, 'Don't ever tell me to watch any film like this, because I feel consciously or unconsciously if I like the performance, I'll start imitating it. That will be the end of my spontaneity and realness.' So my way is to psych myself out, just lose myself in front of the camera. I have no inhibitions whatsoever now – how I look, the fear of how I look, how that expression might look on your face, I just lost that. I don't know when, but that's when I found myself.
BR: So when you say you lose yourself in a character, that's a psychological space. Are there also certain physical things that one does to prepare for a character? Like: I'm gonna walk like this, I'm going to move my hand like this?
TP: That happens. See, when you're psyching your brain out, your body language will automatically get affected. So I don't do special training unless and until I'm doing a film like Soorma, where I have to be a hockey player. So if I need to be a certain way physically or if I'm playing a 65-year-old woman in Saand Ki Aankh, then I need to be a little wary of how I'm walking. All that is special, but for other films where I psych myself out mentally, my body language changes. For Game Over, I'm a depressed person or a traumatised person. So I don't walk that confidently in the film. The whole way of walking changes and it's far from me – I'm a pretty confident person. To lose that confidence in front of the camera was torturous.
BR: You've said that you're a director's actress. How much of this is saying, 'I'm gonna give the director all the responsibility of shaping my character.' How much of the performance comes from the actor?
TP: The director becomes the wind beneath the wings. So he has to help manoeuvre me in the direction I am going. I'll take the flight, I'll jump, but you have to make sure you are the wind beneath my wings. That is why I say I'm a director's actor, because once I like the script and say I'm good to go, I will jump into it. I will bring my perception into it, you have to tell me if it's too much or too little. Then I'll blindly trust you. I have this bad habit of asking questions, which Anurag Kashyap hates, and a lot of other directors might also. But I confess in the beginning itself – that I ask a lot of questions. The logic is – either convince me or get convinced – because I really want to be sure when I jump into a scene. Otherwise you'll look at my face and you'll know that I'm lying or I'm trying too hard. I'm a very transparent person, where my face is concerned. If I'm feeling anything, you'll get to know. It works in my favour sometimes as an actor. It totally goes against me in real life at times. So I have a lot of arguments with my directors. To hell with the arguments, the product, the output, is worth it.
BR: So did you have any arguments with Anurag Kashyap about the scene where Rumi, after getting mad at Abhishek, goes back to Vicky?
TP: Oh yeah, the shooting was stopped for half a day. We were arguing over how we were going to go about that scene. I had read the script, I knew this was going to happen, that's okay. But Anurag Kashyap has a bad habit of writing things on the spot, which is again okay, if you're not changing the scene 180 degrees. If you're gonna change dialogues and little movement, okay. But he wrote something totally different suddenly for that scene, which for me, as a woman, didn't go down well.
BR: What was that that you objected too?
TP: The dialogues that he wrote. I said, 'You're putting me off as a woman. If I'm watching as a woman – myself or any other woman onscreen – I need to be connected to this character because she's the protagonist. The moment you disconnect from this character, you're done. There's no way you can save yourself after this. Even if she makes a mistake, you, as the audience, wants to root for her. If I say all these things you've written, I don't think I'll root for her.' So I was thinking as the female audience at that point. I was telling him and (writer) Kanika (Dhillon) was on my side to an extent. She was like, 'Let's shoot it, maybe we can match it, change it in the edit.' I was like, 'No, I can't perform it, I'm not feeling that, I need to be sure.' So we had a half-day argument over it. I remember everyone standing there, including Vicky (Kaushal), and calming me down and someone's calming Anurag down. So it's not like we were going at each other, it's about having a discussion. Both of us are strong-minded enough to stand on our points. So then I had to slowly take him to the corner,, make him understand: 'Anurag, listen I am a female. I know how it is when a woman behaves like this, so give me that liberty of being the gender I am performing and understand that if I do it like this, it will be better. This way, it will be not so pleasant to look at.' He understood, we found a midpoint and that's how the scene is.
BR: There's a series of films that recently happened for you, starting from Pink right up to Badla, you've had Soorma, you've had Naam Shabana. You have this very unique niche of the diva-ish star, but also a Shabana Smita kind of thing. Did you consciously go after this? Or did these series of films just happen?
TP: No, I consciously went after it, because it also resonated with me as an audience (member) and as a person. I don't watch indie films, and the other extreme – which don't entertain you or make you laugh for two hours and makes you question the logic behind it – I will not do that also. Either you make me laugh for two hours, I don't realise that there are logical loopholes there, or you cannot even make me use my brain, or you're so slow that I am sleeping in between. I can bring my brain to the theatre, but I need to be entertained. You need to have my attention for two hours. So when I choose my films, I choose like that. It can be any genre, but you have to make sense and hold my attention for two hours.
BR: When you say choose, are they all, 'Oh I have this midway film, I'm gonna go to Taapsee Pannu'? Or are you going after those films?
TP: Now, if a film has got commercial appeal, but not the conventional old-school commercial appeal, if it still has a brain, they know I will do that. So I think now it's happening that way, but in the beginning, I was going for these films. Then that was the reason for me to do Judwaa 2, because before, people slotted me saying that I could not be that glamorous diva. I started my career doing that in Telugu films. So you can't slot me. I just wanted to give them a glimpse of how I could do this as well, but I choose to do things which are midway.
BR: Nepotism is talked about in a big way in the Bollywood industry but it exists equally in the Tamil film industry. Now how much of this is different from the way a lawyer passes on his practice to his son, or a doctor passes on his practice to a doctor? In any profession, isn't it expected that somebody coming from the outside is going to have a slightly tougher time than somebody who was born out of the profession?
TP: I agree and I'm perfectly fine with the fact that it's going to be like that. I've accepted it long ago. Yes, it is a problem, but it is not just this industry's problem. It is every industry's problem. It will exist come what may, it is a rule of book. You better accept it as a rule than as a problem. I did that. I knew this was going to happen when I entered the film industry. I had manoeuvred through despite this. So I don't complain about it at all. It feels bad when it happens to you, but it's not like you didn't know that this was going to happen.
BR: You've had films taken away from you?
TP: Yes, yes. And you're human, it hits you like a slap on your face, but then you think that you knew that this was going to happen sooner or later. It'll happen to me again, no matter where I reach in life. I think being an outsider is my biggest USP, it's my strength. Today, a regular audience roots for me as an underdog, because they associate themselves with me. I've come from where they are and I can relate to them much more than a lot of star kids. That's what gives me an edge over others and I'm very proud of that.
BR: Don't you think a lot of this blame rests with the audience as well? Because let's take Taimur Ali Khan – it's not just a photographers clicking these pictures, there's a large viewing population out there that's consuming them. So aren't they also saying that if you give me Mahesh Bhatt's daughter versus Taapsee Pannu, so I'm gonna watch Mahesh Bhatt's daughter simply because I have a connect to that person, whereas I don't know who this is?
TP: Yes, it's a vicious circle. And we all are a part of it, including the media, we cannot deny that. Everybody thinks that maybe the other side will try to change, whereas nobody is changing really. But yes, it rests equally between the audience and the media. There are magazine covers, there are certain media events, there are certain "awards" where I'm not even acknowledged, because of everything other than credibility. I'm extremely proud of the fact that I have some some of the highest rated films in the last two years of my career, but still I am not anywhere close. When I'm sitting or when there's an interview going on with me vis-à-vis a star kid, the latter gets more media people attending it. There are still a lot of media friends who are pretty nice to me, and they are very supportive of my journey, but this difference still exists. I've made peace with it. Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger and that's how I've been taking it in last two years since Pink. I'm noticing it since Pink because that year, a girl's heart broke because she thought she deserved much more. Then onwards, this girl said she'd make sure every year she'd give such a film that you could not snub her anymore.
BR: What is that film this year?
TP: There are so many. I have Game Over. I have a huge-budget film like Mission Mangal but you should look out for Saand Ki Aankh.