When Cosmo first interviewed Taapsee Pannu, over two years ago, she had just finished working on Pink and was being touted as a ‘rising’ star (a reference that didn’t leave her thrilled). But that was then. Because 24 months later, Taapsee has her name attached to many a successful film, collected nominations each year in the ‘Best Actress’ category, and worked with some of the biggest names in Bollywood. ‘Rising’ is not even close to cutting it: she’s grown to become a legit A-lister, with more solo lead roles than many of her contemporaries, and a career conspicuous with several striking choices—Naam Shabana, Mulk, Manmarziyan, to name a few—and an admirable fan following (13.3m on Instagram, if that’s anything to go by).
At the time of this interview, Taapsee’s latest film, Saand Ki Aankh, is set to release, and she’s flitting in and out of meetings and promotions. Her manager informs me that she will be available to chat with Cosmo at 2pm, and my phone rings on the dot.
Taapsee sounds upbeat, her voice animated—she tells me she is excited about Saand Ki Aankh, and it’s almost easy to miss the wee changes in her tone that betray how tired she is.
She isn’t complaining, of course. While Taapsee might not have planned a career in Bollywood, she has established herself as one of India’s most formidable performers. “I actually wanted to get an MBA degree,” she smiles. “Films happened on a whim, to take a break from the studies.” It’s a tale Bollywood has heard before: of newcomers without Godfathers, and failure-to-fame narratives. Taapsee is no different...yet not the same. An ‘outsider’ in every sense, this Delhi-girl arrived in Mumbai when she was 23—with no film background. “I couldn’t even find a place to stay because I was a single girl working in the movies,” she recalls. “And I had no mentors in the film industry.” But all that changed quickly. Her choices paid off, and she gradually found her niche in the industry. “Honestly, none of the films were a conscious decision to be ‘different’. I just tend towards roles that haven’t been done before, that stand out from the ordinary,” she says. “It is a gamble—the fear of the unknown is always there. But so is the thrill of being the first person to take that step. I take calculated risks, and balance the choices: out-of-the-box with commercially viable. But I don’t want to stay in my comfort zone, it’s no fun. And I didn’t take up this profession to play safe. Otherwise, I would have been an engineer, and lived a comfortable, secure life,” she smiles.
It is clear to her fans—and critics—that Taapsee enjoys a good challenge. Take Saand Ki Aankh, for instance. She has teamed up with Bhumi Pednekar in this biography, to play the famous sexagenarian sharpshooters from Uttar Pradesh, Prakashi Tomar and Chandro Tomar, respectively. Even before its release, the film garnered plenty of attention, both good and bad. While the actors are being appreciated for the transformation they’ve had to go through for their roles, they’re also receiving a lot of flak for playing characters twice their age. Recently, actor Neena Gupta took to Twitter to express her displeasure at the prevalent ‘ageism’. “Yes I was just thinking about this, hamari umar ke role toe kamsekam humse kara lo [At least cast us for the characters that are our age],” she had written. Taapsee was quick with a comeback, pointing out, how Anupam Kher, then in his 20s, had played an elderly man in Saaransh, and Aamir Khan, in his 40s, was a college student in 3 Idiots.
“Cinema is all about having debates and discussions. And whenever you take a chance or step off the beaten track, you know there will be all kinds of reactions...and there will be naysayers, too” she says, simply. “I was prepared for some backlash. But it was important for me to have tried.”
Taapsee has completed nine years in the film industry and is, in the truest sense, a self-made girl. In hindsight, would a ‘mentor’ have changed anything in her journey? “Only that I would have made fewer mistakes. And I wouldn’t have taken this long to reach where I am today, ” she smiles. “I would have had a guiding force to tell me what might work and what won’t, what the consequences of some decisions might be...which I’ve had to learn all on my own, falling and getting back up a lot in the process.”
But doing it her way has had its advantages, too. “Everything I’ve achieved has been on my own. And no-one can take credit for it,” Taapsee says. “And even though the journey has been long, it is strong and stable.” It is also a course that has instilled a sense of security in Taapsee. “I have no fears now as far as my career is concerned,” she says. “What’s the worst that can happen? I started from square one, and if nothing works out, I’ll go back to it. Failing doesn’t scare me. I love it when people appreciate my work and go to watch my films, but it is just an aspect my life, not all of it.”