You have already played a sportsman on screen. How was it different trying out the character of Mithali Raj in Shabaash Mithu?
Taapsee Pannu: I had never played cricket in my life although I played other sports. Like most Indians, I used to watch cricket obsessively, especially when men played the game. This obsession faded after the match-fixing controversy (1999-2000). In India, everyone has an opinion about cricket and how to play it. As a viewer, I was no different. But when I picked up a bat, I realized how wrong it was to pass judgement. Although I’ve played sports all my life, cricket technique isn’t something you can pick up in a few weeks. Each player has a particular technique. Learning Mithali’s way of playing was another challenge. Other than that, Mithali as a person is not like me at all. I’m impulsive and outgoing while she’s more of an observant and tight-lipped person. I had to limit my range of expressions to represent Mithali, while finding ways to show her emotions, whether with or without a bat. Putting yourself in his shoes has been the most difficult role of my career.
What makes this role more challenging than so many other serious characters you’ve tried on screen?
Taapsee Pannu: When you play a fiction character, you have the freedom to play as you see fit. In the case of a biopic of a legend, you have to deal with certain constraints. I had my heart in my mouth when the trailer came out. In this cricket-obsessed country, people find flaws in even the most professional players. I knew that I was exposing myself to intense scrutiny.
You have worked in films of various genres. How do you choose your next project?
Taapsee Pannu: When considering a project, I think like an audience – whether the film will be worth two or three hours of my life and the ticket money. But I don’t think too much. If I hear or read a script, it must above all hold my attention. Suppose I get bored in between, then I know it won’t work. I don’t think about how much love or attention a certain project will get me. Filmmaking is like a team sport. If a movie works, everything works. Performance alone cannot save him. I also wonder if I will take advantage of these 40-50 days on set during filming, if I am involved in the character and if I like working with the people who are part of it. In the past, I made big budget films with big stars from the south (India). It was difficult for me to drag myself out of bed and go to work. Those aside, I want to have some type of filmography that I’ll be proud of when I look back.
What is the motivation behind choosing a project like Thappad (2020)?
Taapsee Pannu: While promoting Mulk, Anubhav Sinha and I were talking about how we should talk about some basic things that often get swept under the rug. From these discussions, the idea for Thappad emerged and became a feature film. It was a well-considered choice.
In your social media post, you talked about the hustle and bustle of Mithali Raj. Don’t you think that’s something most successful women have to go through?
Taapsee Pannu: We live in a patriarchal society and just getting eyeballs is a hustle. The acknowledgment and validation come next. I’m guilty that I didn’t know about Mithali and the (women’s cricket) team until I heard her react to a sexist question (when asked to name her player favorite male cricketer, Raj responded by asking if they would ask the same of male players about female cricketers). It was as if they didn’t exist. Today, if you ask people what your favorite actor is, out of five names, four will be men. It’s not like we spend less time on our movies but getting that visibility and attention is big fuss here. Our benchmarks are always men because we don’t celebrate female heroines enough. Mithali is nicknamed the “Sachin Tendulkar Woman” as we had no successful women in cricket to compare her with. She started playing international cricket in 1999 but we don’t have any footage of her playing until 2006 when the Women’s Cricket Association of India came under the authority of the Board of Control for Cricket in India .
You’ve headlined several female-centric films. What changed?
Taapsee Pannu: The frequency of these films has changed. Previously, these films were referred to as “parallel cinema”. Now they are getting theatrical releases and media attention. The frequency of their release has increased. Before, we only had two or three films a year that revolved around a female protagonist. Now we have almost two-three in a month. That’s a big change in itself. When I entered the industry 10 years ago, I was told that an actress had a lifespan of five to six years. I never imagined that I would be the headliner of a movie like Shabaash Mithu today.
What made you move forward?
Taapsee Pannu: I found my motivation when I saw Vidya Balan in Kahaani (2012) and The Dirty Picture (2011). It made me realize that I can look forward to a long and fulfilling career. It inspired me to try to create my own path. I thought if things didn’t work out in the movies, I will do something else. The fact that I had the courage to try helped me to constantly do something different.
With director Rajkumar Hirani’s Dunki, scheduled for release in 2023, you will be working with Shah Rukh Khan for the first time.
Taapsee Pannu: You can never compete with the kind of love the audience has for him, the reach he enjoys. Working with him means a lot to an actress who wants an audience for herself. Male actors have a larger audience than their female counterparts. Other than that, I was his fan. His victories and failures have always been personal. He’s a very likeable star. The role I had dunky is much bigger than what you’ve seen an actress play in a Rajkumar Hirani movie.
What was the motivation to become a producer?
Taapsee Pannu: It’s business and I don’t go into business on impulse. I only do that in the case of movies. I have a partner (Pranjal Khandhdiya) who has a long experience in production. I wanted to get creatively involved. As a producer, I thought about dealing with the problems I encountered in the early years of my career. I didn’t have the power or the voice as an actor at the time. It will be my contribution to how a film would be made and how people should be treated behind the camera.
How did you become the producer of Dhak Dhak, directed by Tarun Dudeja, a film about four female bikers driving up the highest motorable pass in the world?
Taapsee Pannu: Any type of collaboration to do women’s stories visible in the mainstream is welcome. When the story came to me, I knew it was going to be a challenge on different levels. It features four female protagonists and requires a certain budget. The struggle was whether we should chase after big names or find actors who would do it well. I knew this story needed to be told and I wanted my name attached to it. It’s about sisterhood and the lives of women beyond being partners or mothers. We don’t celebrate sisterhood in the mainstream as much as we do bromance.
Tell us about acquiring a badminton franchise.
Taapsee Pannu: I love watching sports and find badminton captivating. Badminton is our recreational sport. It faced the hurdle of being taken seriously unlike cricket. The way our players behave today. I saw an opportunity there because no actor was attached to it and there was an opening to take on a franchise.
Your recent tweet congratulating Indian badminton team on their Thomas Cup win and coach Mathias Boe got a lot of attention.
Taapsee Pannu: It was a long standing victory for our team. Individually we were doing well but the doubles needed a boost. With the arrival of Mathias as coach, it was settled. He worked with the Indian team very closely for a long time but not professionally. He spent a lot of time in India when he visited me. When Mattias was an active player, on his visits he used to play with Chirag (Shetty) for practice. Since then, I remember him telling me that Chirag was really brilliant. We had this badminton team and Chirag had been part of it for two years. Satwik (Satwiksairaj Rankireddy) and Chirag (Thomas Cup winners) are like his boys. At the Olympics, seeing Mathias crying for them over their unfortunate loss made me realize how attached he is to them. It was very natural for him to train them.