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Taapsee Pannu: “Your So-called Imperfections Make You Stand Out in a Crowd”

Cosmo Editor Nandini Bhalla in conversation with actor and producer Taapsee Pannu about unrealistic beauty standards and why is it important to honour your own unique self. 

A masked face pops up on my Zoom screen and two eyes peer at me from a chin-up angle . “Hi,” says Taapsee Pannu, who seems to be walking quickly through a crowded lobby, one eye on the room, the other on the phone. “I’m on my way to a shoot, so just give me a minute until I am in my car.” 60 seconds later, Taapsee is in the backseat of what looks like an SUV, which begins moving immediately, navigating traffic on an undisclosed street. Taapsee removes her mask and holds the phone up to her face. “Hi again,” she smiles, “I am ready.”   

Settled in a car seat, her curly hair in a bun, Taapsee has a girl-next-door quality to her. The kind of girl-next-door who also happens to be blessed with a cool, calm confidence and eyes that hold undeniable intelligence. If she’s wearing any make-up, I can’t tell, because the actor has a natural, bare-faced beauty to her that tends to come from expensive dermatologist appointments or a deep, inner satisfaction (also expensive, I feel the need to philosophise). As we begin chatting, the one facet that stands out for me throughout is how ‘real’ Taapsee Pannu is.

If you didn’t already think Ms Pannu was something else, I have a feeling this candid interview will change your mind...

taapsee Pannu

Credits: Bustier, Sameer Madan; jacket and tights, both Rocky Star; necklace, Misho; handcuff, Valliyan by Nitya Arora; boots, Christian Louboutin

Nandini Bhalla: Growing up, what was your definition of beauty?

Taapsee Pannu: ‘‘It was the opposite of everything I was. I didn’t have those big ‘doe eyes’; I didn’t have an elegant, small nose...I had this large, ‘royal nose’, as people call it. I did not have luscious lips or straight, silky hair—you know, the kind that actresses flipped around. I had curly hair, and I remember noticing that none of the actresses on television had hair that looked like mine. And so, while I was still in school, I visited a salon to get my hair chemically straightened. I was sneaky about it, and did not tell my parents, and got my hair straightened—twice—using those terrible chemical treatments that were available at the time. And that completely ruined my hair! At first, I was so frustrated to have limp ends with curly bits growing on the top, and then I was horrified when my hair began falling. 

So yes, I did not fit the conventional parameters of beauty. And for many years, I tried to change myself, and failed miserably at it. Until finally I realised that I need to live with—and love—what I have. It took age and time to get to this point, but today, I understand how beautiful it is when you truly love the way you are.’’

NB: I have tried those chemical straightening treatments too, and I feel your pain! Isn’t it  interesting how we often equate beautiful hair with straight hair...

TP: ‘‘Yes, for my first film I was made to straighten my hair, because it was an ultra-glam look and that could only mean straight hair. And then for the second film I landed, I left my hair curly and I was named Maggie because my hair became my best asset for the character I was playing. And that really worked for me! 

In the past, I would stand in front of the mirror and apply natural ingredients like yoghurt and egg to somehow smoothen my hair. But each one of these experiments failed miserably. I hated my curly hair, I never took care of it, and I did not know how to manage it. And the more I hated my curls, the more they hated me and refused to be handled. So it was a mutual hate-hate relationship...’’


Credits: Pantsuit, Rocky Star; cape, Falguni Shane Peacock; sunglasses, Vogue Eyewear; jewellery, Misho and Flower Child; shoes, Lyn

NB: How did you finally learn to love yourself?

TP: ‘‘I owe one part of it to certain people around me, who made me realise that being different is a good thing. And I owe the rest to my own failed attempts at trying to fit into conventional beauty standards. 

My friends reminded me that my features worked for me, and my curly hair suited me. And that there are so many girls who want a perm, but I already have this head of natural curls. So I realised that the grass is always greener on the other side...and that it is good to accept what you have, and to learn how to make it work. Once you embrace all your bits is when you can really work with them.’’ 

NB: When you joined the film industry, were you expected to look a certain way? And did you face moments of insecurity?

TP: ‘‘In the beginning, I was told that the only way to become a star was to work in big-ticket films, alongside big heroes, and that is what took you to the top. And that pretty much meant you had to look ultra-glam, be the diva...look a certain way, and be a certain way. And as I told you, I clearly did not fit in. So in the beginning, I tried really hard to change myself, and to seem more glamorous and a little dumb...because, apparently, looking good equals not having a brain. So I took up certain roles, because that was the norm. And I realised, very quickly, that those films were just not working for me. And that when I did something out of the box, unconventional, not-so ‘heroine-like’, it did work for me. I realised that being relatable worked better for me, than seeming aspirational. I learnt this lesson while working on films in the South, so when I switched to Bollywood, I knew that I would not repeat my mistakes. 

In the beginning, in Bollywood, I tried to work on big-ticket films because that seemed like an ideal scenario. But none of those big-ticket films were even considering me because there was a slew of drop-dead gorgeous women who were better suited for the role. I simply never fit those requirements. It was this failure that gave me a new route, a new direction, and I decided to create my own niche that would not depend so heavily on conventional parameters of glamour and beauty. And the moment I accepted this, things began looking up. Because once you acknowledge your so-called shortcomings, you understand yourself better and that leads to growth. When I was forcing myself to be in someone else’s shoes, I was uncomfortable...but acceptance brought me joy and a chance to love my job.’’

NB: We spoke about how you viewed beauty, while growing up. What does beauty mean to you today? 

TP: ‘‘Today, beauty simply means acceptance. I see the women and men around me, and they look so diverse, so beautiful. Because I failed miserably at meeting beauty standards, my barricades of judgement broke down fairly early. So when I look at someone’s face, I find beauty in it. There is a reason each one of us has been made to look the way we do. God gave you what you have, and when you try to change it, you are actually fighting nature. And that’s a battle you can never win.’’

taapsee Pannu

Credits: Dress, Pink Porcupine; jacket, Falguni Shane Peacock; sunglasses, Vogue Eyewear; jewellery, all Outhouse; heels, Christian Louboutin

NB: When you look in the mirror now, Taapsee, what do you like most about yourself? 

TP: ‘‘For many years, I believed I did not have beautiful eyes. But now I notice a certain happiness in my eyes, which I really enjoy watching when I look at myself in the mirror.’’

NB: What would you tell a young woman who is struggling to love herself?

TP: ‘‘Honestly, I don’t think there is a formula for self-love... All I would like to tell young women is to never hate themselves. Because you have to live with yourself for the rest of your life. You might like some things about yourself, you might not like some things, but always remember that your so-called imperfections might just be what makes you stand out in a crowd. It is those things that could become your identity. I think the most memorable women in the world, like Meryl Streep or Jennifer Lawrence, are not exactly ‘perfect’. But there is something about them, including the way they carry themselves, that makes them so beautiful. It is because they have accepted themselves, and they use even their imperfections to their advantage.’’

NB: What are your views on beauty filters? 

TP: ‘‘I might sound incredibly old-school, but I don’t believe in using filters. I do not even know much about them. And I find it amusing because my sisters and cousins love using them, and I am like, ‘Can you please stop? I can hardly recognise you in that photo!’.

A lot of people refuse to post photos without a filter, and I am just like, ‘How can you be so unsure of yourself? You’ve always looked the way you do, and now suddenly you have doubts?’. Looking at yourself through a filtered camera lens can make you dependent on it.’’


Photographs: Tarun Vishwa;
Styled By: Zunaili Malik and Who Wore What When
Hair: Gabriel Georgiou at Anima Creative; Make-Up: Guia at Anima Creative; Production: P. Productions; Fashion Assistants: Yashima Babbar, Shubham Jawanjal, Swanand Joshi, and Jaishree Chhabra; Artist Media Consultant Agency: Universal Communication