Taapsee Pannu: ‘I feel more like an athlete than an actor!’

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Taapsee with Vijay Raaz, who plays her coach in Shabaash Mithu. Photo: Universal Communications

She’s made her own space in the industry. Hindi, Telugu and Tamil films have been all her forte in a career of over 13 years. But for the last three years, Taapsee Pannu has been acting as well as training as she is busy doing sports-based cinema of multiple hues in Hindi—Saand Ki Aankh, Rashmi Rocket and now Shabhash Mithu.  The actress, a Sikh, made her debut in the Telugu Jhummandi Naadam (2010), did more Telugu, Tamil and even one Malayalam film before David Dhawan introduced her in Hindi cinema in Chashme Baddoor (2013).

Since then, Taapsee has focused on Hindi films while going regional occasionally. Box-office and performance taken together, the highlights of her Hindi career include Baby, Pink, The Ghazi Attack, Naam Shabana, Judwaa 2, Mulk, Mission Mangal, Saand Ki Aankh, Badla, Thappad and Rashmi Rocket. On the critical side, Manmarziyan and Game Over have also been triumphs for her.

Set to star in Shabaash Mithu this week, the actress opens up on why she wants a break from sports dramas and on other aspects of her career. Excerpts from an interview follow.

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What makes you do so many sports dramas?

I don’t know, yaar. I guess it is a mutual attraction— I love sports, and any such project in circulation does come to me—in any language! But now I want to take a break. It is very tiring, and after so many years now, I am feeling more like an athlete than an actor! I also feel that I am better as an actor than at doing all these things.

One reason also is the mental toll all this is taking of me. For over two years now, I have had literally no life beyond my films. I would wake up at 5 or 5.30 in the morning, spend two and a half hours on training, then shoot another film for 12 hours. After that, I am forced to sleep, as I cannot afford not to rest. I am used now to the idea of prepping for one film while doing another—switching on and off. All this has also triggered anxiety, and I am stopping it here and now! And I don’t mind taking help of specialists to take it out of me. Also shouldering a film alone and being, in a way, responsible for its fate is not a rosy situation!

So what is different about this sports drama?

Normally, stories of an underdog who becomes a hero are hits even outside sports, but Mithali is not an underdog—she does not come from a poor family, and has supportive parents as well. This film is more about women in cricket, not Mithali, but it is shown through her perspective. She has had the longest career of over 20 years and yet faced anonymity because of her gender, as for 10 years there is no video footage despite her breaking lots of records! Her life was thus the perfect vehicle for a quick recap of women’s struggle in cricket in India. This film is more like a team asking for due acknowledgement and love in a cricket-loving nation!

Are you personally interested in cricket?

I only played the game in my gali (lane), and was allowed only to do fielding!  I was excited to play this living legend but also paid a heavy price in a way to learn the basics of a sport that I had to show correctly on screen. It is not possible to master a sport in a few months but I have depicted the cricket shots correctly.

Taapsee with cricketer Mithali Raj (left) and director Srijit Mukherjee. Photo: Universal Communications

How much was your interaction with Mithali? On June 8 this year, Mithali announced her retirement from all formats of international cricket.

I came to know of her when, once in a TV interview, she wanted to know why the anchor asked female cricketers who was their male favorite! That’s when I came to know that a women’s cricket team existed! There was not much interaction with her than as she was professionally busy or in a bubble as the lockdown was on, and there were limitations of timeline to play this role. Most of my knowledge came from her dear friend of over 10 years, who became my window, Which was, in a way, better as other people are sometimes more objective and perceptive about you.

Between a Rashmi Rocket and this film—what was the difference in your approach?

I can take a fictional film and character like Rashmi anywhere, make her also the way I want, but when someone plays a well-known and living celebrity in sports like a Dhoni, whose walk, talk and looks are known to everyone, there is a certain limitation.

As for Mithali, I had to become her enough to make the audience understand her without getting out of line. Not much is known of Mithali except for the fans and followers, who definitely exist. I could have thus taken some liberties, but that would have been an injustice to her and to them.

What was even more challenging is that I am totally opposite to her in almost all ways!  She is quiet, laidback, doesn’t express, emote or talk much! So the challenge was in how do I show the audience my emotions in that narrow range? Mithali does not believe in showing emotions, and you can’t read her. She has herself admitted that she does not want to express what she is feeling. When my  mother watched the film, she even commented, “You don’t have much dialogues!”

How did you achieve the acting part after all this prep and such challenges?

Firstly, on screen we are showing only her milestones and highlights between the ages of 16 to 36. So there is minimum cricket, very precise in fact! Most of the film is about the drama portions, so it was an acting challenge too!

Are you nervous before this film’s release?

The day I stop being nervous is the day I should change my job! I want people to invest time and money on my film. At one time, I was skeptical about OTT, but after Haseen Dillruba, I realized it was worthwhile too. But I kind of like the idea of community viewing in a movie hall. That gives a really good feeling.

Why has it almost become a norm in the last few years that a Taapsee film does not have a big star, at least opposite her?  We have Amitabh Bachchan in Badla and Akshay Kumar in Naam Shabana and Mission Mangal, which is all!

(Grins) I had no option, I don’t get those films! Somewhere, there is this mindset that Taapsee will not do such films. So only the risky, out-of-the-box, or prep-heavy films come to me!

But now I am doing Dunki with Shah Rukh Khan. Now, he was also my producer in Badla, but I am also a fan of his since I can remember!

You also own the badminton franchise, which plays in the Premier Badminton League.

Yes, I have played badminton at the district level, and I am familiar on a one-to-one basis with most of the top players.

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