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Smriti Kiran: We are talking about life beyond cinema with actor and entrepreneur Taapsee Pannu. She is not talking about Vipassana or a Himalayan retreat but about creating interest beyond life in the movies that can both nourish artistic pursuits and provide a safety net that helps avoid desperate choices.

I know that we did not time the session around these milestones, but it is a wonderful coincidence that we are recording on 2nd August, a day after Taapsee’s 33rd birthday. A day before was the second year anniversary of a wonderful film that she was a part of, Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk, and a month back, on the 1st of July, her first film, Jhummandi Nadam, released a decade ago. What a fantastic run she’s had in the movies! She completes ten years this year.

Taapsee, I wanted to dive in by saying that your life is about seizing opportunities. You’ve never let one go. You are an engineer by education, a trained Kathak and Bharatnatyam dancer; entering the Get Gorgeous contest on Channel V was a chance that you took. What are your first memories of the contest?

Taapsee Pannu: There is the good and the bad side of it. A good side because you really don’t see yourself at that point doing all this in the long run. You see it as one odd opportunity or something that you want to experiment with. You go with no insecurity or fear of losing. That makes you really confident because you don’t care. That actually adds up to your confidence.

“I feel that life is too short to get attached to one particular thing so badly that you feel that there is no life beyond it.”

So, I went in with that attitude. But the bad side of it is that you see that you are such a mismatch amongst everyone who’s standing around. You feel like that person deep in the big city to the odd one out in the room. I felt all of that because everyone was so well-groomed and polished, and I had just given my engineering sessional exams. I finished those and changed clothes quickly back home. I had rushed through the Channel V Get Gorgeous audition venue where all these tall, model-looking, gorgeous women were there, and I, like a nerd, was sitting with my boots and horrible dressing sense. The only asset I had to flaunt, at that point, was my confidence.

I remember the person in the jury sitting there, looked at me, and saying, ‘Can you get rid of the belt and those boots?’ I wanted to dig a grave and samao in it for good. I was not taking it too hard because I was not thinking of it as a long term thing. That gave me confidence. ‘It’s just an experience; learn from it and move ahead. I tried’.

Modelling

Smriti Kiran: You were a finalist in Get Gorgeous and you started modelling because of that. You got opportunities but you insisted on finishing your degree despite a thriving stint in modelling and an acting offer on the table. What gave you the foresight to complete your education?

Taapsee Pannu: I don’t think that only one profession or only one career option can be the be-all-and-end-all of your life. I don’t know if it comes from the fact that I’ve always been a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ kind of a person. I feel that life is too short to get attached to one particular thing so badly that you feel that there is no life beyond it

While I was doing my engineering, I realised in my second year that maybe this is not something that may excite me enough, but I’m not going to keep dragging along just because I’ve gotten into it. I’ll finish it in a respectful way, but I’ll do something else so that I don’t crib for the rest of my life that I made one wrong decision and then I had to stick with it. That’s why I started modelling, which worked out really well. I was shooting almost twice a week while doing my engineering. It was quite a big surprise for everyone around at that point because I was not really trying too hard.

“Money didn’t make me do desperate decision-making because of the fact that I had a degree, and I knew that I could do something else.”

By my final year, I started getting movie offers, and I was telling them, ‘I don’t know how to act. I genuinely don’t. Yes, I’m a trained dancer, but I don’t know how to mouth lines. So, I’m just owning it up right there so that later on you don’t tell me that I claimed otherwise’. All of them still seemed excited to have me on board. I agreed. But then, I had to finish my engineering because I am a nerd. I liked studying. I really enjoyed my frontbencher position. I was a teacher’s pet for the longest time, and I really enjoyed my math, so I wanted to finish it. ‘I have worked really hard to get into a reputed engineering college. So, I will finish it properly’. Then it did become my backbone because I knew that once you’ve scored a decent score in your engineering, and you’ve got that solid degree in hand, you always have the strong backbone, that come what may will not go anywhere. You can always fall back on it. It’s going to have your back, and it’s going to stay there. It’ll be like a proof for yourself, and for everyone else around, of the credibility you have. I was very clear that I will do that.

Plus, I have my typical middle-class family who was petrified and scared about isko famous hone ka keeda kaat gaya hai. Ye pata nahi kya karegi. My dad was facing sleepless nights. I used to sleep; and he’d be stressed sitting on the bed, not knowing what to talk to me about. All I said was to give me one year out of my life, and if it doesn’t work out, I’m going to come back and do my MBA. I was preparing for my CAT (Common Admission Test).

I had received a distinction after my final year. In my third year, Infosys came in for campus placement and I secured a position – not because I was very clear of joining my job but to show that if I want I can get this. It gave me confidence as well, that if at any point I feel that I don’t have a way ahead, I can always come back here. Securing all these fall back options is when I moved ahead into my experimentation with the world of cinema.

Smriti Kiran: Today you’re successful and sought-after. There is a potent decade-long journey that has brought you to this place, and if it has been rewarding, I’m sure it must have been very hard as well in parts. What were the biggest challenges, and how did you overcome them?

Taapsee Pannu: The biggest challenge was to accept that you went wrong at different stages, be it in the beginning, if things don’t work out. For me, the beginning was really good. I think that is where things started messing up with my head because my beginnings were really good. I thought, ‘Without much of an effort, the beginning seems to be nice. It will be convenient and comfortable to stay here.’ That’s what messed it up for me. After my good beginning, things started going downhill because obviously I was not prepared for it, and I got it too easy, to begin with. That messed up things a little bit and made me feel the struggle real close. That is the part I had a tough time dealing with, where I had to accept that I went wrong.

I had the wrong expectations. I had to accept my flaws and mistakes, then think about the future. My basic fundamental has always been: what will happen if my next five movies don’t work? Will my life end if my next five movies don’t work? No. I’m better than this. Let’s go ahead and dive into it. Come what may, I will sail through. I will float if not swim. I’ll dive in the deep end and I’ll float.

Smriti Kiran: How did you become aware of the fact that you’re slipping?

Taapsee Pannu: How did I become aware of it? This industry helps you grow up. This industry makes you a matured person faster than a lot of other professions. I feel so because of the number of people you meet day in, day out, because of the trust factor that gets broken and made every day. Being in this industry, you do mature faster, but the point is, are you ready to learn from it or are you going to have this delusional wall in front of you?

So, the one factor that really helped me was that I never was attached to this one side of my profession. I used to see it very objectively that if this doesn’t work out, I have to move beyond it. I’m not going to get personally attached to it and spoil the rest of my life. That objectivity came from the detachment aspect. One of my colleagues, Kirti Kulhari, was quite quick to reply in one of the interviews with me, when asked what, according to her, is the one good or bad quality about Taapsee, and I don’t know if she felt it was good or bad, that I can detach myself very easily.

That really helped me to see things objectively at a very early stage. I did get carried away in the beginning due to the ease with which things were coming to me. I had signed three films before my first film was released in the South. I was getting things pretty easily. But those three films that I signed or whatever I took up in the first two-three years of my career was on the basis of the impression, the illusion of people who told me that this is how it’s supposed to be. This is how you’re supposed to go through your career if you want to become a big actor, a big heroine here. I did not use my brain, nor did I know any better because I never planned this career for me. I went with the flow of everyone else’s opinion on how I should go about without using my own brain. I’m not saying they are to be blamed, it’s me who’s to be blamed because I didn’t prepare myself well for it. I was blindly following some other actresses’ graph. So and so actress did this, and see, she now eventually is here. You have to also get through all this and then eventually you’ll be here as well.

“I saw myself as replaceable at that moment when I did Chashme Baddoor. Anybody could have done this. What’s so special?”

But the same formula did not work out well for me. The fact that I was not getting aggressive about keeping on doing it, or harboured any ambition to become the next Amitabh Bachchan or Shah Rukh Khan, who will keep trying and keep going on for years and years in spite of the failure in a particular direction, helped me. I was very clear that there was only one Shah Rukh Khan when there were thousands and thousands of other people who took the train back home. I can’t keep pinning my hope on being that one Shah Rukh Khan or one Amitabh Bachchan or, for that matter, one Priyanka Chopra. I needed to be very aware. I have to be very objective and clear and make my own path. That objectivity was because of the detachment that I have with the things that I do.

Smriti Kiran: We spoke about your experience with Chashme Baddoor, where you said that such a reputed director directed that film, it was a commercial success, you felt incredible doing a Hindi film because the language barrier was not there, and you could suddenly get the sense of how amazing an experience it would be if you didn’t have that barrier and you could do what you did there. But, unfortunately, the film did nothing for you. It didn’t create a dent for you or a place for you as an artist in the Hindi film industry. Was that the time when you decided to become proactive and take things in your hands?

Taapsee Pannu: Roughly around the same time. Chashme Baddoor came in 2013, which was my third year in the film industry. I was still trying to figure out which direction is really working for me. Obviously, when you’re still trying to find your ground and suddenly get an offer for a David Dhawan film, a director on whose name people went and bought tickets, me being one of them, why wouldn’t I take it? So, I jumped on the opportunity and took it. Till date, I don’t regret doing it because if I didn’t get that mainstream start, I probably wouldn’t have been this midway ground between the mainstream and unconventional films and roles. All thanks to that kind of a start.

Taapsee Pannu in Chashme Baddoor

I did start there, but soon what I realised was that this pond is full of fishes who are sailing in the same direction and doing the same kind of stuff. You are replaceable, and there are many who are doing it better than you. Let’s be honest. I’ve always said that I’m not the most drop-dead gorgeous looking woman in the industry. There are so many beautiful divas out there doing this kind of commercial heroine stuff much better than me.

Again, I saw myself as replaceable at that moment when I did Chashme Baddoor. Anybody could have done this. What’s so special? Why should people reach out to you and not the 50 other names that are already there before you? That made me rethink my path. I needed to create a niche for myself, where people believe that I and, to a certain extent, only I can do a role. Everybody will eventually be replaced, let’s be very honest, but to a certain extent, they should feel that only I will do justice to a certain role. That’s why they should come to me, wait for me. I shouldn’t be replaced because of date issues; I shouldn’t be replaced because a hero doesn’t want me to be there. I need to be a certain irreplaceable name in the industry for me to have longevity. That is where it clicked. That’s why I took Baby’s seven minutes role, then Pink, so on and so forth.

Taapsee Pannu in Baby

Smriti Kiran: You have broken a lot of age-old conventions in the industry. You didn’t study acting and got into this profession. The other thing that everybody talks about is a single-minded focus. You don’t follow that at all; you have the opposite belief. You have a wedding planning company, The Wedding Factory, that you started in 2015 with your sister Shagun and friend Farah, you bought a badminton team Pune 7 Aces in 2018. You’re deeply involved with both. How do you make it work with a thriving acting career?

Taapsee Pannu: Honestly, time management is an art. I feel that if that is an art, I’m a decent artist in that respect. I honestly feel that everyone should learn that art regardless of whichever profession you are in because that really helps you keep your mind sane and at the right place at the right time. It was when I started my entrepreneurial career that my objectivity towards life became better and different.

When I started The Wedding Factory, I went to all the events. Sometimes I’d be pitching to a certain venue, trying to get a deal, and they would always want to get pictures with me. It’s very difficult to get money out of them. It’s always, ‘Will you attend the wedding?’ Only then would they give me the job of the decor planner.

Shagun Pannu, Taapsee Pannu and Farah Parvaresh

I’ve had some really bizarre experiences which have helped me grow so much as a person and to know the psyche of people, where they come from, what strata, what expectations. Being Indians, weddings are such a big affair in our lives, and that’s one business I know is never going to face recession. Trust me, even in this lockdown, people are getting married. As a company, we had to take a call saying, ‘I don’t think we should do this at this point’. It’s not like we are not getting queries to do it. We were like, our labour has gone away. They have gone to their villages. But it’s not like people have stopped coming and getting married. This is one business that even the lockdown couldn’t stop. That much I knew.

“Time management is an art. I feel that if that is an art, I’m a decent artist in that respect.”

On the other hand, when I started this badminton thing, it was always a loss-making proposition, from day one. It was purely passion-driven. My father handles my accounts. I was a science student. I know zero about taxing and investments. He is the one who gives me this disgusted look every time this topic of the badminton team comes up. It’s because he doesn’t understand this on paper. It’s a loss-making proposition for years before you start making profit eventually if it clicks.

Pune 7 Aces

There was something in me that is really helping me channelise my competitive spirit, the sportsmanship. I have been into different sports since I was a kid. I love that whole spirit, the sportsman spirit, the fact that you play a sport, a game. I’ve always looked at sports stars as the real stars. I watch Asian Games, Commonwealth Games glued to the television. Not just the main famous mainstream games, but I even watch archery, for that matter. I sit and watch it intently. I like seeing all the sports. So, I got this opportunity, where I said, ‘Now that I can’t be a sports star, let’s own a sports team instead. Let’s try that’.

Again, that was a different world. When I went out to my investors with presentations, and I tried telling them to invest in this because this is going to grow, that badminton is going to grow in India, for the first five-ten minutes they are just ogled at me because it’s so awkward to see a person whom you’ve seen on screen after paying money suddenly ask for money from you. It’s a very awkward scene to be in.

After a couple of minutes, when I’m presenting these figures and how this is going to come back, they want to have a cup of tea with me. Then, they say that they’ll get back to me. Then, they say no. It was like, ‘Taapsee, you created this whole so-called stardom for yourself. It’s bloody not working.’ Who the hell says that stars get it easy! I’ve had some really horrible meetings where I’ve given it all I have with full aggression of investment and it has fallen flat. When you’re standing there, you see the whole star drama just vanish from your eyes and you see life as it is. Real.

Now, I use all of these experiences, and probably, this is like my learning that I gain, and put it all out in front of the camera when I become an actor. Hence, keep it real.

Smriti Kiran: Taapsee, for a person who did not train in acting, who came in and started learning on the job, and has created such a significant position for herself, do these not take away the focus?

Taapsee Pannu: No, it doesn’t. Actually, it sharpens my focus more because when you are in that moment, when say I’m at work as an actor, I am there fully as an actor. As I told you, I probably have been blessed with the art to disconnect. When I want to disconnect, I will disconnect. When I’m on the ground as a badminton team owner, I’m standing there biting my nails and getting stressed, I’m not thinking about how beautiful I’m looking on the camera or stressed if my team is winning or not because there I’m a team owner who is totally invested in this. There I don’t get that baggage of being a so-called star or an actor there, because I’m a team owner there.

I remember I was shooting Haseen Dilruba, and my team was playing and I couldn’t make it to the match because I was shooting. I had a very critical scene to do that day. It’s such a psychologically difficult thing to say, ‘Okay, my team is playing a crucial match today, but I’m not gonna watch it’. I had to keep telling myself, ‘Taapsee, if you’re going to watch, it’s not going to change the result. Don’t divert it to something that you can’t change.‘ When you’re acting, you have at least that under your control. You don’t have that badminton match under your control right now. So, I had to deliberately disconnect and perform there. When the scene got over is when I checked the score.

So, somewhere that art of disconnecting, detaching myself really helps me come with a stronger focus, whenever I want to do all these things. I’ve never felt like I have digressed or diverted my focus when I’m at one thing to the other. I never felt like that. I hope I don’t in the future as well.

Smriti Kiran: Were there points in your ten-year-long career where you felt very strongly about things and yet made a desperate choice?

Taapsee Pannu: It has actually happened, but not for monetary purposes. I always felt that I’m not gonna let money decide my future course. If I’m happy doing something, I will make money out of it. Somehow, I’ll find a way. I was very sure about that. Money didn’t make me do desperate decision-making because of the fact I had a degree, and I knew that I could do something else and not this. The only thing that forced me to make desperate decisions was the term ‘keep rolling in the market’. This was told a billion times to me: ‘Even if you’re not really sure about this one, just do it because it’s just good to be visible.‘ Your film is going to be coming out after a couple of months. So, people are watching you, and out of sight is out of mind. All that kind of stuff I kept hearing for the longest time. That forced me to make a couple of decisions which I was not really sure of until it went all over the place and shit had hit the fan. Then I was like, Now this is becoming like damage control – this being in sight and off sight.’

“There’s one rule in life that I follow: never repeat your mistakes. Make new ones, if at all you have to, but don’t repeat your mistakes.”

That time I thought, no, it can’t be like this. Let’s concentrate on quality over quantity. Let’s not make those desperate decisions because some time down in life, this will all get over for me. I don’t know when, but it will eventually, and I’m very realistic about it. When I look back, I should be proud of that journey, and look at the filmography, or whatever I’ve done, and feel, okay, I did whatever I could best, in whatever I could do with my life. I did not take certain embarrassing, desperate decisions. So, I need to be wary of that. When I look at my life objectively a couple of years down the line, I shouldn’t feel embarrassed about it.

That’s when I was like if money is not an issue… we are a regular middle-class family, but it’s never going to be like you’ll have to work to earn your bread desperately. If it’s not working out for you, please come back. I was alone in Hyderabad when I started my career. So, my dad was telling me this regularly, that you don’t have to feel that money is going to be a driving force for you. I also had this at the back of my head that if I have a degree, the fact that I have given my CAT and scored an 80 percentile, I’m not useless. Let’s make the most out of this life for the sake of passion, and for the sake of this ‘How can I call it quits? How can I give up?’ attitude.

If you’re not accepting the reality that life is showing you, it’s not like you’re a loser. Life is actually giving you a hint to move in a different direction. If you’re not accepting that hint, then you are a loser. You need to take these hints of life very seriously, and not get too attached.

Smriti Kiran: But there are things that could have made it easier for somebody like you, who did not have any background in the movies. Now, when you look back, what do you think would have made your time easier here?

Taapsee Pannu: I actually don’t know because even during the times when I felt I was misguided or I made those wrong decisions, the fact that I did not have any family members to come back home to when I was in Hyderabad. Today, if I look back at them, I feel those mistakes were the ones who made me a wiser person. If I wouldn’t have made those mistakes, I would have probably committed them later on. Then it would have caused bigger damage. Thank God that those mistakes were done in the beginning and I got done with them.

There’s one rule in life that I follow: never repeat your mistakes. Make new ones, if at all you have to, but don’t repeat your mistakes. I’m glad I made those mistakes. I’m never going to crib about or regret the fact that I did not have a godfather, or I did not have a guiding force in the industry. Today, if I can take the credit of wherever I am myself and not share that credit with anyone or hold someone else responsible for my achievements is because I have gone through it by myself, making my mistakes, learning from it. That makes me feel nice and happy when I look back at it right now. But at that point, I would have been probably saved if I had the right guiding force telling me something about what happens in the industry.

I had nobody. My family doesn’t even watch films. They are that oblivious of this world. My father, if we’re eating food, will sit and watch whatever’s coming on television. Even till today. I don’t think he has even seen all of my films. He is that oblivious of this world. Coming from that kind of family, it would have been easier if I would have known that this stays for posterity.

Smriti Kiran: In terms of the conversation that’s been going on in the industry, if we were to look at it constructively as opposed to the vitriolic and misguided discourse that’s going on, do you feel that systemically there can be improvements that might make it easier for somebody to navigate this place?

Taapsee Pannu: Well, on one side, I do believe we should all make our mistakes and learn from them. But on the other side, I feel, let’s not be harsher or make things more difficult than it already is for people who are entering the film industry and are trying to make it on their own. Let’s be mindful of the fact that we’re coming with a clean slate, with no support system in place. This can be better and kinder. There’s always a scope for improvement, especially when it comes to not just handholding, but also at least acknowledging, or giving a chance of fair play more often than what it is right now. Obviously, I can’t have everyone having such a solid mindset saying, ‘I don’t care how many times you are unfair to me, I will still come back and give it all’. Not everybody has that. I also have my good or bad days – the bad days where I think I’m just going to leave it all, it’s not worth my time or attention. It varies for everyone. It would certainly be better if we have a fair play platform, or if we have kinder people to deal with.

For example, when Chashme Baddoor happened, it didn’t work for me. Thank God for a career in the South! I really am thankful that I did not destroy my confidence after that film because people were not really responding very well to me as an actor. I had a very accomplished casting director sitting across the table after Chashme Baddoor telling me on my face that I loved the film, everything else worked for me in the film except you. Imagine a one-film-old actor who hears this and is heartbroken and is like, this is it. If such a big casting director is coming and telling me that I was the only one who stood out like a sore thumb in the film, I’m not worth going ahead. So, thank God for my South career. Why? Because I knew I have done a dozen films there. It’s not like this person’s statement is the be-all and end-all of my career. I have made it somewhere in some industry, so I’m not that bad. Imagine a girl who wouldn’t have done all of that, this is the first one, and this is the reaction you get from a big casting director. It can really break a lot of hearts.

“It would certainly be better if we have a fair play platform, or if we have kinder people to deal with.”

You need to be slightly kinder to people, especially to those who are coming from no background, who haven’t tasted this uncertainty. Forget about all the opportunity edge that people from the industry have, I feel that the strongest edge that they have is that they’ve seen through their families how to handle these pitfalls, how to handle failures, who can say that this too shall pass and not take it too hard. We, as outsiders, haven’t learned that. We take our failures too much to our heart. It really hurts us. We keep holding on to the grudge for a very long time. There should be someone not so harsh on us in the beginning. It might make things better for a lot of us.

Smriti Kiran: What you’re trying to say is that don’t hold back your opinion, but there’s a lehza in which that opinion can be expressed so that it doesn’t kill your spirit.

Taapsee Pannu: Yes, obviously. You could have told me that, ‘You know, I saw the film; it was great, but I couldn’t really connect with you as an actor’ or, ’You were the only thing that didn’t work in the film’ was slightly harsh for a casting director to put across. Not everybody would have been 12 films old like me at that point to survive that kind of a comment.

I also remembered it not because I have a grudge against that casting director. I honestly don’t believe in keeping grudges. That’s what I’ve learned from the star kids. You need to move on and you need to forget about all of that. Otherwise, you’re going to keep holding onto it and it’s going to hamper your journey ahead. I don’t want to do that. But I remember it only because I want to be mindful. I’m not a casting director, but, in any capacity, I should not be this hurtful to a person who’s starting off, in any way. So, that I think will be a nice place to begin.

Smriti Kiran: There were also incidents where there were things that were altered, and you were the leading lady, but nobody felt that they needed to tell you.

Taapsee Pannu: That happened in the South during a film which I had signed, for a role which wasn’t a full-fledged two-hour role. It was a supporting character or a second lead, as they call it. My introduction scene was changed without my knowledge. I got to know while we were filming it. They told me this is what you have to do. I’m like, ‘Oh, okay, but this is not what I was narrated.’ And they’re like, ‘Oh, we changed it because we had a discussion with the hero, and he felt that we should change it.’ I was like, ‘Okay, but why didn’t you tell me? Forget about asking me. Why didn’t you tell me this before?’ I was given an answer saying that I didn’t know I had to tell you.

That made me feel so insignificant at that point that I felt like I’m just a mere pawn, and a very insignificant one, too, who is not even supposed to be told what to do and just do it however we say it. A couple of times my cheques have bounced because they don’t have the budgets anymore after finalising a certain amount, or because the hero’s previous film hasn’t worked, or the producers’ previous film hasn’t worked. So, the budgets have changed, and I am the one, being the female actor, who has to compromise with my salary, not the hero. All these things. If you’re not available on a certain date, you are changed. But a hero’s dates can’t be changed. Even a comedian’s dates can’t be changed. A comedian has committed to certain dates, we will be using that person’s dates but the heroine will be the last person to be cast. Whoever fits into those dates, just cast.

I’ve seen all of that, gone through all of that, which doesn’t make me feel disappointed anymore at any of this nonsense that happens nowadays.

Smriti Kiran: I’ve keenly followed this narrative that a man is a perfectionist and a woman is difficult in our industry for the same reasons. Why is a female actor a pain for asking questions despite what she brings to the table after those questions are answered?

Taapsee Pannu: It’s simple. For decades, we’ve had this prototype of a female actor who will come with her mother on set, who will take care of her juice and food, dress up in the best possible clothes and makeup, show up and perform as told. No questions asked. No requirements whatsoever. This has been a prototype for decades. Now, to suddenly expect it to change overnight is unfair to humanity. That’s why it’s taking time. A lot of us are relentless in that respect.

I used to be the most short-tempered person in my family, being a Leo and a numerological number 1. My parents thought that there is no point even messing with this one because she is born to fight. They gave up on me on that. Although I am like that, I have developed this insane amount of patience in this industry. I have now cracked the knack of how I’m going to question and point out the problems without offending people. I think I have cracked it. Because the last couple of years, I’ve questioned a lot of things and I’ve had these very intense discussions with films that I have done or doing, or the ones that I have said no to, also. I’ve had those discussions both ways. Very rarely I’ve had very weird reactions. It was only once that I had a very weird reaction from a director. I said that I want to know why this character is doing this, I’m not able to understand the logic. I got a reaction saying, ‘Oh, I’m not going to change anything if you want it this way or that way.’ I was like, ‘I’m not asking you to change anything, I’m just asking you why is it like that?’ So, very rarely do I get this reaction, not very often.

Smriti Kiran: I’m fascinated because I keep thinking that if you are getting results, if the performances are fantastic, then no matter how many questions an artist asks, it doesn’t matter. Isn’t this why we appreciate a lot of people whom we call perfectionists?

Taapsee Pannu: I’ve also seen that when they see the result, they don’t have a problem after that. To get to that result, there still needs to be some amount of question answering that is going to happen. That probably raises eyebrows. When they see the result, at least in my experience, it has been good. Once they see the result, they don’t question the art of asking questions.

Smriti Kiran: You’re a star in the Hindi film industry, you are super successful, but even after building this extremely strong position in the Hindi film industry, you’ve continued to work in the South. Have the roles, the films that have been put on the table in the South changed with the kind of success that you got in the North?

Taapsee Pannu: Drastically. They almost find it difficult to believe that this is the same girl who did all those films that I did in South. There was a sudden shift in the kind of respect that everyone started giving me for putting my foot down for certain types of films or picking up certain kinds of roles. They see me as one of those rare female actors jiski filmein remake ho rahi hai south mein. I had Pink getting remade, Badla got remade. It was a very beautiful space to be in, but it hadn’t happened before that often for them to understand how it happened.

“I’ve never used the South as a stepping stone. For me, that was also an experience in cinema.”

I remember when I did the films that I did these last couple of years – I do one film a year in the South – they are very curious every time I go there about why I do these films now? I’m like, are you looking down upon your industry, or are you not sure of my intention? I’m not able to understand why. I never gave up on the South. For them, the prototype has been: either you work in South, you’ve got your stepping stone, you go to Hindi, you make it there, great, you’re never coming back; or you work in South, you make it, then you go to Hindi, it doesn’t work out there, and you come back to South. They don’t have a third prototype to actually understand where I’m coming from. My idea was never to become the biggest Hindi film heroine. There was no planning of such sort. That’s why I’ve never used the South as a stepping stone. For me, that was also an experience in cinema and so is this.

Taapsee Pannu and Dhanush in Aadukalam

I keep asking them ‘why do you think I should stop working in the South?’ Because I belong to a Hindi speaking belt, that’s why? I’ve given some six-seven odd precious years to the South cinema before I made it big in Hindi. So, why would I just write those years off when I’ve worked hard to learn the craft there, learn the cultural understanding of the South, and learn the language also to a certain extent? Why will I just give up on that? It’s not like people hate me there. They have liked my films, and they are still liking that one odd film I do in a year; they still receive it nicely. Why should I give up? Just because the Hindi speaking audience is widespread than South? I don’t find that logical enough. Also, I don’t want to forget and be ungrateful to the place I started at. That’s also a reason behind going back, a more moral reason than artistic, so to speak. But it’s a very strong reason which is there because I really owe a lot to them for having me make those mistakes or helping me know the basics. I don’t forget my roots that easily.

Q&A with Dial M For Films Participants and Viewers Watching Live on Facebook

Jash Bhatia: What is the responsibility of an actor towards society? Does it affect the roles you choose? And do your politics come into play while choosing a character?

Taapsee Pannu: Yes, to an extent, I’m very clear about the fact that I’m a Hindi film or Indian film industry actor, and I’m not a Hollywood actor. There’s a difference. When you’re doing a certain role in Hollywood, people have a very clear disconnect between the onscreen character and off-screen character. Over there, the people see you, a normal audience sees you like a character on screen that you portray. They don’t see the actor – the person being like that.

Here what happens is that, whether you like it or not, people see a part of the real person in the characters that you portray, which makes you have a certain sense of responsibility towards the kind of stuff that you’re choosing. I’m not saying you don’t have to portray grey characters or negative characters. I’ve done that in Badla; I’ve done that in Manmarziyan; I am going to do that in Haseen Dilruba. I’m going to continue doing grey shades because that’s what is real. But at no point, the eventual outcome of the film should make you feel like celebrating those characters. That is where I draw the line.

Taapsee Pannu in Badla

The film industry is very influential in our country. When Salman Khan goes for a Tere Naam haircut, you walk on the road and see everyone having the same haircut. With this kind of influence that you cast on people as an actor, you should really be responsible. When Shah Rukh says, ‘Pyaar dosti hai’, bloody, the whole childhood went into saying ‘pyaar dosti hai’. That’s the kind of influence an actor can have on the Indian film audience.

It’s nice to be a little wary of that when you select roles.

Basundhara Ghosh: I can relate with your experience of switching careers because I just completed my PhD in Physics, and now I feel interested in filmmaking. How does one stay motivated to learn from scratch when you have already invested a lot of time in another career?

Taapsee Pannu: The fact that you have a PhD degree is something you should pat yourself on the back about and say that you are good. You can make it big if you really want to. You have already done it once in one field, and you can do it again in another field. That is a good way to begin, that confidence booster.

The next thing you have to understand is that learning is never going to end. Don’t think that once you’ve done something, your learning age is over, and you have to now implement things. Even at the last breath of your life, you will be learning something new. This is a very cliché saying but it’s probably understood better as and when you go about doing things. The day you start believing that now you know whatever it is I was supposed to know in this life, that’s it, now you have to start implementing it, you will stop growing as a human being. You are stunting your growth by thinking that you have done enough learning and you need to continue in this direction. You have to believe that there is no age of learning. There is no limit to learning. It’s okay to start from scratch. You just have to accept yourself.

For me, there were many times when I had to learn from scratch. Not only after graduating from engineering college and learning how to act but also when I had made a decent enough name in the South and had to shift to Hindi. That was yet again a starting from the scratch moment, where nobody really paid any attention to me. They treated me like a newcomer in spite of having a filmography. They didn’t see anything of it. That was a learning experience. I had to start learning how things happened in the Hindi film industry in particular, and accepting that I don’t know anything about it. You should be self-aware that you don’t know anything about it but you’re open to learning something new, and you’re okay to give it the time it deserves to learn.

A lot of people are now watching films with subtitles on OTT, much more than what it was before. When I came in, OTT was not really popular so people didn’t really see my films. Now a lot of people have watched my films very easily because of the television channels that show South films and the availability of films on OTT. It’s much better now. We need to understand that we are not just the Hindi film industry, we are the Indian film industry. We will have to open our horizons and our bandwidth to see that we’re not the only one here. That requires you to take a few steps back. Although taking a few steps back and seeing the broader perspective is not everybody’s cup of tea, it is definitely the need of the hour.

Trust me, your confidence is already there because you have proven yourself in a particular field. That should be a very big confidence booster for you to know that you have already made it. Now whatever you get is a bonus. Start seeing it from that point of view, and move ahead.

Shrey Bhandari: Since you’ve been in the industry for a decade now, is there anything that you don’t like about the industry which you’d like to change?

Taapsee Pannu: Of course. It’s impossible to like everything about a person or an industry. It’s not real. You can’t be saying that you love everything about your job. Even for a person, you can’t say that you will be loved by everyone. Let’s accept that.

In the industry, and this is slightly unfair, which I also don’t have a solution for, honestly, is the absence of a level playing ground for everyone. The luck factor is there, the access factor is there, I’m not considering that. The problem is also not just within the film industry. It’s within every industry, more or less. This is more of an inside industry issue that I’m telling you, but I’ll tell you what I don’t like about my job from a larger perspective, including the audience.

There’s a very thin line between being a public figure and being a public property. Most of the time people start believing that we are public property, and not a public figure, which I don’t really like. I sometimes have to actually say it out to people that we are normal human beings as all of you. Yes, we signed up to be public figures but that doesn’t make us a public property.

That’s one part of my job that I sometimes get difficulty coming to terms with – be it giving a selfie at 2:00 am at the airport, or people shoving cameras in my face without asking for permission. There are some really bizarre things that happen. You have to take it with a chill pill. I keep requesting people to try to understand and be a little more human. We also have our good and bad days. Yes, we are entertainers, but we are not on our job 24×7. We also have bad moments and good moments. So, that thin line between a public figure and public property is something that we need to respect. I hope people understand that better.

Harsh Kharabe: Being a Delhi girl, how has Mumbai treated you? What is your favourite memory of Mumbai? Also, what is your go-to chill place in Mumbai?

Taapsee Pannu: Being a Delhi girl, I always had this notion, or rather, I was very stubborn in thinking that I will not like Mumbai due to this whole Mumbai vs. Delhi thing that keeps happening all the time. I had this notion that I’ll be there, I’ll work, be disconnected, and I will never like this city. But I was proven wrong very soon. It accepted me and made me feel at home so quickly.

I feel that Mumbai is like a sponge. It absorbs everyone very seamlessly, and you feel like you’re a part of it. My parents just left today. They were with me for the last month. When they were going, they were like, come to Delhi because as it is there is no work happening anytime soon. I was like, no, I feel better here in Mumbai right now. If I have to be under lockdown, in extreme conditions, I would rather be in Mumbai. Also because I don’t have any friends in Delhi; they are all scattered over the world. So, I would be in Mumbai because this place has made me feel at home, at peace, at comfort in these last couple of years, and accepted me so warmly. It just makes you feel like it’s your own very soon, which all cities do not have the ability to do. I am quite enjoying my time in Mumbai.

I’m a beach-loving person. In the beginning, I was just too fascinated looking at water, especially because I come from Delhi, which is landlocked. We are very much obsessed with looking at the beach, the horizon and sunset. Till date, I do enjoy that. I don’t get to go to beachy places very often. I’m also not that rich to afford a fancy penthouse looking over the beach. But I do go to these beaches in Mumbai time and again to watch the sunset and the water.

To watch the full video of the Dial M For Films session with Taapsee Pannu in conversation with Smriti Kiran click here.

For more information about the Dial M For Films series click here.

P.S: The Mumbai Academy of Moving Image (MAMI) conducts Dial M For Films, an online knowledge series, free of cost because we believe in fair and equal access to the insight and experience of talent from the world of cinema for all. If you find these sessions of value and would like to quote from them or distribute them further as study material, we request that you give MAMI and Dial M For Films credit while doing so.

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