Taapsee Pannu On Learning Mithali Raj’s Cricket

Ahead of the release of Shabaash Mithu, the actress discusses the hard work that went into portraying the legendary cricketer
Taapsee Pannu On Learning Mithali Raj’s Cricket

Taapsee Pannu chats about taking up multiple sports films, starring in Dunki and being considered an A-list actor.

As I was watching the trailer for Shabaash Mithu, I felt like you've become Hindi cinema's go-to actor as an athlete. You have a shooter in Saand Ki Aankh, a hockey player in Soorma, the track and field athlete in Rashmi Rocket, and now this. Of course, these are all different women with very different narratives, but the overarching theme is the triumph of women. Do these characters bleed into each other for you in any way, and as an actor how do you make sure you differentiate?

These characters don't, but I bleed a little bit in all of them. Because there is always a personal connection I really desire to have with these characters so that I can put a little bit of myself in it because I think that is what will give it a real touch. I don't try to mimic characters. If I'm playing someone who's there around for me as a reference, I would still not want to mimic the character. I would want to make it my own somewhere so I need to find that small connection where I have to bleed into the character. So that's a part of me that goes into the character. So that will be common. They won't overlap as much, apart from their profession of being a sports person, more than that they don't overlap. For me, they don't overlap.

So you never think, "Okay, I did this in that film and therefore, my expression should be different here?"

No, I don't think of it like that because I'm thinking of each character independently. See, it's the same face, I have those same two eyes, one nose, one mouth and two ears, and this is what my face looks like. So, when I smile, there can only be so many variations in a smile or in a frown or in a sad expression, but the moment I choose to do that differentiates me as a character, and to what degree it goes. But the limitation is that this is my face — this is going to look sad the same way it's going to look sad every time, but at what moments, and how much sadness is shown, that changes with characters.

But while you were signing, let's say, the most recent ones, did you ever stop to think, "Am I doing too many sports (films)?"

I think when I did Rashmi Rocket, I thought, "Okay, I need to take a break." But who could have said no to an opportunity to play Mithali Raj? So when it came my way, I was like "Okay, fine, I'll push it one last time because it's just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a legend like her whose achievements, which are probably very difficult to even comprehend — that how could she do this — the longest lasting career in ODI. Even where men are concerned, she's surpassed that as well. Youngest captain, and in the world, across genders, she's had the longest ODI career. If I have to actually start spelling out all those milestones of her career achievement, I'll have to make a web series and not a film. So I just didn't have the heart to say no to this opportunity, even though I knew it was going to push me further to the wall. Even more than what I had to do for Rashmi Rocket, because at least for track and field, I've been running since I was a kid, but I've never played cricket in my life. I'll have to pick up the bat for the first time and learn everything from scratch for this film. But it was worth it because it was Mithali's story. So, I was like, "Okay, one last time."

But yeah, after this, I don't want to because I'm forgetting I'm an actor. I'm becoming more of an athlete, so I need to come back to feeling like an actress, and not like an athlete. So, that's why I'm taking a pause after this — the moment  I started reading a script or a synopsis now, and the first line says 'so and so character, she is a dash or some player or a swimmer or a cyclist', I shut it right there. Sorry, I will not do it. I did the same after, I think, Pink and Game Over. It was a different language of playing a molested victim or a rape victim and I'd stop taking that up. I did not want to play another agent after Naam Shabana. People asked me, "When are you going to do the next action film?" I said, "I'll only do it when I get a script which is going to up the previous one". So, even with sports films, I have only said yes because I felt this one ups the previous one. From the time I did Soorma to Saand Ki Aankh to Rashmi Rocket, to Shabbash Mithu, all have kind of upped the game, so to say. So that's why I ended up doing this. But after this, I think I'll take a little break from this. Maybe it's time to go back to the agent thing; I am definitely on the lookout for a good action film for which I have been getting scripts for a few years, but nothing that is going to up the game of Shabana. So, yeah, but that's something that is definitely on my to-do list.

You said that you hadn't even held a bat before this film. So, how difficult was it to just get to that point where you can convincingly be a world-class player, because obviously, you can't learn cricket in that kind of a limited time.

We were very sure of our syllabus, of what exactly I needed to do in the film. I'm gonna just stick to that and not take on more than I can chew; let's not go overboard thinking I'll be able to learn the entire game in a matter of a few months, it doesn't happen like that. So, my introduction to this game was Mithali's game — in the sense of how she pads up, which side she pads up first, how she walks and what all she picks up in her hands and walks, and what is the speed of her walk from the time she leaves her chair to the pitch, what exactly she does between two deliveries, how exactly does she react after a particular kind of shot, what is her bat holding stance, how has it changed over the years —because every batter's stance, their position and the way they deal with the ball changes with years. Because I'm portraying her from the time she was 16-17 years old, till 36. So her confidence level when she walks onto the pitch — because she's not your inherently badass woman — she's a very demure personality that way. She's a Bharatnatyam dancer turned athlete, so her grace and the poise in her stance are very different from what you would imagine your regular sportswoman to be, who will be very, for the lack of a better word, boyish. So, I had to learn the game exactly like how she plays it and not just game independently. We knew what kind of shots I need to hit, and I only learned those, so that when deliveries will be thrown at me, I'll be told beforehand what kind of shots I need to hit. The camera is placed according to the shots: for a cover drive or a straight drive, or an off or on drive, or a six. So we worked it out backwards because a non-cricketer was gonna play the game.

When the Dunki announcement came, you posted on Twitter about how hard it is, and especially how hard it is when you're alone in the industry. You said "Dus saal lage but finally, all is well". So, do you feel that this film is, in a sense, a vindication of your choices, your career, and an announcement that you are A-list?

This film definitely is the effect of all the choices that I've made before. When these people came to me, it was not like they knew eventually I'm gonna get a Rajkumar Hirani-Shah Rukh Khan film. They came to me at a stage where there was no script, only the rights and the research material were there and I knew at that point it's probably gonna be, scale-wise, my biggest film as a protagonist. Things just kept getting better with the fact that I got Dunki later on. Definitely, the graph is going in the right direction, but the stakes are also getting higher. Thankfully, it is going in the direction that I had envisioned or wanted it to. It is not a scenario where I have to be like, "Okay, whichever direction this is going, I'm going to figure it out," which was happening at the beginning of my career — I didn't know which direction I'm going to take. It just happened and then I was like, "Okay, this is the direction, I'll walk it." But now, it's more in control; I know this is the direction that I want to go and so far, it is going in that direction.
Validation or vindication — I think Fridays change all of that. It is after two years that I'll have a film release in theatres, so, all those answers we'll get on a Friday. But the fact that I'm being considered for films like these itself means I must be doing something right.

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