Interview | Taapsee Pannu: ‘Staying Silent Will Not Guarantee Anything’

Taapsee Pannu calls me on her way to Pune where she is scheduled to begin the shoot of Dobaaraa, her second collaboration with filmmaker Anurag Kashyap. This is the first time I am interviewing a public personality of her stature so I’m a little nervous, but she instantly puts me at ease. It seemed like she’s the kind of person who would ask me to remove my shoes and get comfortable on a sofa had we been in the same room.

We start by talking about her current work engagements which have kept her glued to film sets ever since the restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic were eased. She has already finished two films – Rashmi Rocket and Loop Lapeta. “I am trying to make up for the five months that I sat at home doing nothing,” she says.

Pannu has been part of the film industry for several years. She established herself as a bankable southern movie star before entering the Hindi film industry – an industry which until very recently went out of its way to ignore her. I remember an interview where Anupama Chopra had asked Pannu about her struggles as an outsider and she had replied, “It took me five years to sit across a table with you to give this interview.”

I don’t want to bore her with the same question, but I am genuinely interested to understand how Pannu has managed to build a rather envious filmography full of meaty author backer roles without the backing of any big production houses – she has notably never done a single film with Yash Raj Films or Dharma Productions.

“I didn’t consciously work on building this filmography, but in hindsight I see two things that shaped my journey. One was that I had already done a lot of big budget south Indian films where I didn’t have much to do as an actor. I wasn’t a very ambitious actor because I never wanted to be one, but that changed when I came to Bollywood. I didn’t want to repeat what I had already done. And the other fact is that I was never offered those kinds of films,” she says.

I can’t tell if she is lamenting or is glad about not being part of films where she could have been replaced with an inanimate object, but she is definitely not bitter about her struggles.

Thappad, one of the more mainstream feminist films to release in recent years, was Pannu’s last film to hit the theatres before lockdown forced us all to migrate to OTT platforms. It was incidentally my last memory of inside a movie theatre where I felt the world closing in on me as I watched Amrita (Pannu’s character) fight to take up space and dignity in a world made to work against women.

I ask Pannu about her experience of portraying these complex characters with lived traumas. “A lot of characters I play go through pain, abuse and trauma that I necessarily haven’t gone through in my life but it’s difficult for the brain to make that distinction. Initially, it used to impact me a lot emotionally but I have learned how to find the balance.”

Just like Thappad, most of the films Pannu has been part of are about challenging the status quo in our society and deal with themes like from consent, Islamophobia, domestic violence and sexual assault trauma. “Do you look for certain issues to represent while choosing films?” I ask.

Also read: Thappad Review: When the Lights Come Back on

“I ask myself three questions before signing a film. Will I invest my money as a member of the audience to watch it? Will I enjoy working with a team for 40-60 days? Will I be able to show this film to my children?” she says.

Pannu was 21 when she decided to act in a Telugu film and ended up working in the southern film industry for three years. Most of the southern cinema Pannu was part of is nothing like what she is doing today. “Do you regret doing any film?”

She thinks for a brief second before answering the question, an anomaly in our interaction. “I would say no. There are films I did which I don’t like but I won’t call it regret because it was all a learning experience. I was so young! It was like going through a graduation degree in films,” she laughs.

“Can we leave your acting aside for some time and talk about activism?” I am eager to talk about her continued defiance and support for people who have found themselves at loggerheads with an increasingly ruthless government at the Centre that moves to crush dissent fast. Pannu has publicly supported the farmers’ protests, attended a protest in support of the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University who were brutally attacked on campus in January 2020, and lent her voice to a poem on stranded migrant workers during the lockdown.

“In an industry where silence (if not unconditional support to the government) is the accepted norm, do you ever get scared that speaking up might land you in trouble?” I ask.

“There are a lot of factors that give me the confidence to keep saying things I believe in.” She pauses for a moment. “I came from nowhere. I don’t have the baggage of protecting a wealthy lineage. I painstakingly built my career over years and years of hard work and I am not insecure that it will be taken away. And even if it is, I will rebuild my career from scratch like I did in the first place. I don’t have skeletons hidden in my closet.”

But is there any method to the madness unleashed by the government where anyone can be made into a scapegoat or a distraction if it suits the propaganda machinery? We discuss unhinged mania around the death of Sushant Singh Rajput. “Rhea Chakraborty wasn’t necessarily the most vocal person out there when it came to talking about issues. Still she was brutally vilified. So I don’t think staying silent will guarantee anything.”

“But do you feel compelled to speak about issues as a public figure, or do the things happening around actually affect you as a human being?” I ask this at the cost of sounding condescending.

“Of course it affects me. I have gone through experiences where I have felt marginalised and oppressed despite my success. I don’t find it hard to relate or empathise with people who are being targeted. Students, farmers, environmentalists – everyone is under the radar. Anyone could be next.”

It is rather interesting to see that Pannu has carefully chosen to not speak against the oppressor but speak in support of the oppressed. “I believe in calling out the sin and not the sinner,” she explains. I personally think she may have made a decision to speak this way about such issues because of the non-stop vitriolic trolling she is subjected to.

The strongest reactions to Pannu’s position on a lot of issues have come from her contemporary Kangana Ranaut, who in recent months has been on a spree to denigrate anyone and everyone who dares to question and criticise the policies of the BJP government. “How do you feel about constantly getting targeted by someone like Ranaut?”

Also read: A Letter to Kangana Ranaut On Caste and Reservation

“I have gone through a range of emotions – from disappointment to confusion to now just plain amusement. I was disappointed because we all looked up to her when she finally addressed the elephant in the room by talking about nepotism and sexism in the industry. I was confused as to why I was being called such names when I never used foul or crass language against anyone ever. And now I am amused because the world can see the difference in the conduct of a copy and the so-called ‘original’. I also feel sad to see the level of crassness she has stooped to. It’s like she is riding a tiger and doesn’t know how to get off.”

We move on to talk about her future plans outside of the film industry. She has invested in a sustainable sanitary napkin start-up. I can’t help but wonder out aloud why Hindi films don’t ever depict menstruating women on screen. Pannu too has no idea but I hope she takes the idea to one of her films soon. I ask her if she gets period cramps too.

“Terrible ones! They used to be worse but they have improved now. Painful, but manageable.”

“Do you have the option of taking period leave?”

‘Sadly, no. Production will lose a lot of money if I randomly skip shooting for a day.”

It has been more than an hour since we began talking. Though Pannu has shown no signs of fatigue, I don’t want to jeopardise my prospects by stretching things too far. Knowing that she too gets period cramps like the rest of us feels like a good place to end this interview.

Bhawna Jaimini is an architect, writer and activist in making. She works closely with the residents of some of the most marginalised neighbourhoods to improve their built environment.

Featured image credit: Instagram/@taapsee