Shape Shifter

Taapsee Pannu is every bit of a post-modern woman, slipping in and out of her life choices — engineering to modelling to acting — with ease.

 

Year 2015. Film Baby. Hero breaks open the door. Much to his surprise, the bad guy is on the floor, writhing in pain, while a petite girl stands next to him, fists clenched. Year 2016. Film Pink. The girl, a sexual assault victim, stands in court as everyone cheers the verdict passed in her favour. She does not shed any tears, just heaves a sigh of relief. Year 2017. Film Naam Shabana. The female protagonist goes on about her ‘usual’ job, without any emotional indicators, letting out no hint of what’s going on in her head.

 

For an average moviegoer, these scenes would have panned out differently in their heads. The hero would have saved the damsel in distress. A sexually assaulted character would break down at the mere mention of the fateful day. A woman undercover officer would settle, in the end, for a man to rescue her. But Taapsee Pannu was like a breath of fresh air in each of these scenes. She didn’t just act, but made the audience relate to her unclichéd characters. While one can argue that meatier roles are now being written for woman actors and that there are directors and producers who are not shying away from taking risks, but how many actresses, in Bollywood, are actually willing to do roles where their best angle isn’t their primary concern? Or films where they aren’t going to be made up? Or deliver their action sequences without body doubles? And even if we find a few who are onboard, how many of them can do it convincingly? A handful perhaps? Taapsee’s name would undeniably be listed among those.

 

“Acting is so much more than looking good onscreen. It is about living the characters for those 40 or 50 days of shooting, sometimes even longer,” Taapsee says. Of all the films she has done, Meenal Arora of Pink resembled her most and, as she admits, she would have reacted the same way if she found herself in a similar situation. “On several occasions, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, our director would ask us how we would react in the face of adversity. He steered us clear of over-emoting,” she says. Taapsee watched several films and documentaries to get into the skin of a sexual assault victim. In the film, you can see it as she narrats the incident sans dramatics in a courtroom filled with piercing eyes.

 

To get the nuances of her characters right, she not only trains physically but mentally too, thanks to which she was able to create a delicate balance between strength and vulnerability in Pink. She looked torn between being a cold-blooded agent and a warm but wronged heart in Naam Shabana. Action scenes are no different. “In every action sequence, I am not only supposed to fight, but also be convincing while taking down someone twice my size,” she says. Irrespective of how real it appears on screen, Taapsee finds it difficult to charge her opponent with full impact. But, like a lot of things, she has learnt to on the job. “I have never slapped a guy in my life, but for some strange reason it suits me onscreen,” she adds.

 

Living a character, especially one which is complex, dark or traumatised, takes a toll on an actor’s psyche. Something similar happened to Taapsee after she finished filming Pink. “I was so moved by the plot that I had to detox myself — physically and mentally — after we were done shooting,” she recalls taking a break after the film. She feels she became vulnerable by the end of it, reliving the pain of molestation every single day. “On the other hand, it was rather difficult for me to relate to the protagonist of Naam Shabana,” she says. Shabana Khan’s ice-cold behaviour and raw energy was alien to Taapsee. “Still, it wasn’t as difficult to portray her as it was to cry onscreen,” she admits.

 

Taapsee is someone who does not cry easily in real life, so it takes a lot from her to do so. She has to dig deep to find the emotions she needs to let out. On the day of the filming of a crying scene, she disengages herself from her surroundings and stops talking to people around her. She brings herself to think of the saddest and ugliest thoughts, wallowing in that emotion and feeling to maintain the mood. “My team gets to know the day I have to deliver an emotional scene,” she adds. Crying scenes drain her, and yet it stirs so many people at so many levels.

 

What she finds easier though is comedy. “May be because I am not your typical diva-like girl. I am goofy. I can totally laugh at myself,” Taapsee says, telling us about her upcoming film, Judwa 2, a comedy directed by David Dhawan, slated to release this September. She is comfortable in her own skin, has no qualms about calling herself the girl with unconventional looks. “I may not be the prettiest girl around, but I try and do justice to my characters.” She wants people to remember her for her roles, not as a pretty face. Taapsee insists on calling herself the girl next door, a reason she likes to give whenever someone compliments her on her relatable portrayal in films like RunningShadi.com, where she played a Dilliwali. “I want to keep it real. That’s the only challenge I throw for myself,” the girl, who was born and brought up in Delhi, says. 

 

May be her seemingly regular childhood, away  from limelight, is the reason for her non-brooding personality, far away from an actor’s narcissism. “I was never into acting, with my eyes set on taking up a job right after finishing my education,” the engineer from Guru Tegh Bahadur Institute of Technology says. It was only after scoring a ‘mere’ 88 per cent in her CAT examinations did she decide to take a break, study harder and take the test again. But as luck would have it, on a fateful bored evening while surfing the Internet, she strayed on to Channel V’s Get Gorgeous. She decided to give it a go. Soon enough, our engineer was flooded with modeling assignments, even as Tamil and Telugu film offers started pouring in. Her first Hindi film, Chashme Baddoor, a comedy, came along only after having acted in ten regional films.

 

The 29-year-old actor, who refrains from calling herself a perfectionist because she feels it is too big a word say, “I don’t take myself so seriously,” as she quickly adds that she does not take her work lightly. Seems to us that she is not an opportunist, but likes to make the best use of opportunities that come her way. And if they don’t, Taapsee doesn’t mind making the effort needed. “I feel I almost had a forced back door entry for Baby.” It was not a big role but she knew it would have a strong impact. But after several attempts at getting an appointment with

Neeraj Pandey, she met the casting director to convince him to cast her as agent Shabana Khan. “I became the surprise element in the film.”

 

But as it happens, very often, with actors, after one hit formula the fear and probability of being typecast is high. In Taapsee’s case, it wasn’t any different.

 

After Baby, she was offered similar sort of hard-hitting films, but she steered clear of them. Taapsee strongly believes that in the initial phases of an actor’s career it is the script that chooses them. Later, it is the actor’s choice of what he or she makes of their career. Her fear is not being typecast, but how the audience would take the transformation that Hindi films are going through. “I worry if the audience will give an equal opportunity to strong female protagonists as it gives to its heroes,” she asks.

 

The young actor’s fear — who has been, for the lack of a better word, the ‘hero’ of her films — is palpable. But from the looks of it, she might just change the game for the better.

Nidhi
BY Nidhi
Managing Editor

Nidhi Raj Singh is the Managing Editor of L'Officiel India. You can find her hidden behind a book when she is not writing or taking photos.