It was with the silent but strong protest against a ‘mere’ slap that Taapsee Pannu secured her position as the thinking woman’s hero. Or shero, as some would like to characterise a strong female protagonist. She now completes the dyad of Vidya Balan and Kangana Ranaut to make it a triumvirate of actors who make significant statements through landmark films. It has been a steady climb up for Pannu from Pink to Thappad, with Badla and Manmarziyaan, marking the ladder of success. Mulk and Sand Ki Aaankh are also noteworthy where she shares honours with Bhumi Pednekar in the latter. Pannu is now a bankable powerhouse, delivering nuanced performances that resonate with the modern Indian woman. She has the maturity of an actor who is choosing her films rightly. And to a right audience — even if a niche one — ready to engage with these films and start a conversation around it.

For much of her early career that began in 2010 with Telugu and Tamil films, Pannu passed under our critical ladder. Her beginning in Hindi cinema is most unpropitious. She was the girl three guys wanted to hook up with. This remake is an atrocity and unpardonable insult to an all-time favourite, a perennial charmer Chashme Baddoor, Sai Paranjpye’s delicious romantic comedy, that also spoofs the standard ingredients of that genre. I wanted to obliterate the remake from my memory, so appalled I was by its crudity. Not being a fan of Akshay Kumar action thrillers, I gave Baby the go-by, only to be intrigued by the prequel made as a sequel to the predictable hit. Pannu must have created a big enough impression as Shabana Khan in the inexplicably titled Baby (for an espionage action thriller), that the next film, Naam Shabana, traced the evolution of Shabana from a college girl to an intrepid RAW agent, recruited for her shocking past. Pannu displays and capitalises on her lithe athletic presence as the fearless and quick-thinking Shabana Khan. She chases the cunning baddie with hardly much help from the men, except of course, Akshay Kumar, who lands up at critical juncture for the heavy lifting. The big guns play cameo roles, deferring to Pannu, the action shero. That film established her credentials as an action star, but subsequent films, except for the Judwaa remake where she is relegated to arm candy, didn’t trouble the box office too much. We had to wait for Pink to discover Pannu, the actor capable of giving us a sensitive, relatable young woman, who represents a generation of working women living on their own in a city like Delhi.

Pink focused attention on Pannu, even though Amitabh Bachchan’s towering presence could intimidate most young actors. Pannu was confident and comfortable sharing screen space and time with two other actors, Kirti Kulhari and Andrea Tariang, who play three working girls sharing an apartment. Minal (Pannu) speaks to and for women. She is a confident young woman who would rather not inconvenience her parents who also live in Delhi (and thus give gossip mongers enough to tattle) because of her late hours of work as a dancer in an entertainment company. That straight away puts up a red flag, for the patriarchal society to view Minal and her friends with censorious eyes. This trio represents a lot of urban working girls who will go to a concert, hang out with a group of young men they meet there and agree to have dinner with them. But, this is a big but, that doesn’t give the men the right to assume they are sexually available. Pink is India’s equivalent to the Jodie Foster starrer The Accused — a landmark that reasserts a woman’s right, even a sex worker’s, to say no. We can relate to Minal’s fear and distrust to lodge an FIR when the goons of the politically connected molester rough her up. When she finally does so, the unspoken condemnation of her morals by the police is so obvious and it needs the entry of the reclusive, retired lawyer Deepak Sahgal, to imbue the locked up Minal with faint hope.

The twist in the film co-written by Shoojit Sircar (who is also part producer) is calculated for maximum impact. The discourse of the trial is framed, to the consternation of the defendants, to prove them guilty of solicitation and assault. Unbelievably, their lawyer lets the prosecution rant and rave about the threat such women pose to society and decent young men. Sahgal plays his trump card by asking probing personal questions, demanding a yes or no answer. With fine rhetoric that flays society’s double standards, Sahgal establishes a woman’s right to say no. That a wife can say no to her husband is a revolutionary statement in a court of law that does not recognise marital rape.

Anirudh Roy Chowdhury doesn’t centre his film’s argument around shrinking virginal violets for protagonists. They are young women who date, socialise and have sexual relationships out of choice. Not under threat of abuse and retaliation. Pannu is not afraid to play a woman who does not conform to patriarchal notions of what a good Indian girl is supposed to be. She is a rebel against such regressive norms, who doesn’t see her actions as rebellious. But in the public glare of the trial, she is vulnerable to society’s judgement — whatever the legal judgement might be — and Pannu brings out these shades of vulnerability with sensitivity. She could very easily accept victimhood but she fights the good fight against internalised guilt. A seemingly simple role, but it demands the actor to express the complexities of her situation. Pannu’s victory is in the way women identified with Minal.

Mulk is an important film that came out at the time it was most needed, when an entire community was demonised for the terrorist acts of a few. Anubhav Sinha squarely posed the Us versus Them division in a society heading towards shrill majoritarianism. There is no sanitising the issue. A respectable Muslim family living amicably in Benares with Hindu neighbours is suddenly a suspect and ostracised by them when a young man of the family is killed by the cops for being part of a terrorist group. It is for the denouement that Pannu enters the film as the Hindu daughter-in-law who lives in London. A lawyer, she fights for her father-in-law and unpeels layer by discomfiting layer, the majoritarian argument that demands a Muslim to constantly prove his patriotism. Aarti’s (Pannu) impassioned yet legally sound arguments indict Islamophobia that has now converted many Hindus into its hate-spewing fold. The fact that Aarti is a practising Hindu who voices the language of secularism may be a convenient plot device, but it is effective. Pannu makes her brief role impactful, ignoring her parents’ pleas to not take up the case, not only because it is her family that is in the dock, but also as a matter of conscience.

Pannu is not an actor who shies away from grey shades. The shades get greyer and greyer, from unapologetic pre-marital sex in Manmarziyaan to a scheming murderer in Badla. In Anurag Kashyap’s Manmarziyaan, Rumi is a headstrong young woman living with her uncle’s family and is crazily in love with a part-time DJ and wannabe rocker Vicky (Vicky Kaushal, with the swag and talk, desperately donning the cool dude avatar). Vicky is game for an affair but can’t bring himself up to marriage, repeatedly letting Rumi down as her family waits for the groom to be to show up. Fed up with the incorrigible, irresponsible Vicky, Rumi agrees to an arranged marriage with Robbie (Abhishek Bachchan), a London based banker. This triangular relationship is untenable, because even after a much delayed consummation on an awkward honeymoon, Rumi is stoically resigned yet, hankers for Vicky and has sex with him post marriage. The film is a tentative open ending for a woman who finds herself drawn to two men at the same time. It is not in mainstream cinema’s genes to show a woman sexually involved with two men, pre and post marriage. There are no extenuating circumstances or reasons given. Rumi is open about the conflicting pulls of great sexual chemistry with one man and the solid understanding the other man offers. Neither man is the love of her life, but she has to make the best of her choices. It is an uncomfortable portrait of a woman’s sexuality that’s difficult for mainstream audience to accept.

But Pannu took up the challenge and went further into high risk zone (commercially) with Badla. Acknowledged by director Sujoy Ghosh as an adaptation of a Spanish thriller Contratiempo (2016), Badla pits Pannu against Amitabh Bachchan in a cat-and-mouse game of evasion, half-truths and final unmasking of a clever, ambitious and successful entrepreneur as a scheming murderer. The twists and turns of the verbal game, between a seasoned lawyer and his client accused of murder, is a challenge. Except for a few scenes set in London and the countryside, the drama is confined to a studio apartment. So every gesture, expression and voice modulation need to be perfect, especially when playing off against Bachchan. Pannu is exceptional, as is Bachchan, and they make the duel very watchable, if not compulsively so. Pannu is now so comfortable with playing unconventional roles that she takes zestfully to Prakashi Tomar, from young bride entering a huge joint family under the rule of a rigid patriarch, to the rule-breaking Dadi who turns an expert shooter in Saand Ki Aankh. Her gleeful partner in crime is Bhumi Pednekar, her jethani Chandro. Pannu’s body language, whether she is loading bricks on her head or taking the stance to shoot is very fluid. In spite of the inconsistent make-up, Pannu traverses the ageing process with professional elan.

And now to Thappad where Pannu’s Amu, short for Amrita, has got the conversation really going. What is the threshold of unacceptable abuse in an otherwise seemingly happy marriage? Anubhav Sinha enlarges Pannu’s role to make it so central that the film stands or collapses on the truth of her performance. Amu is introduced as a happy homemaker (by choice, though she is a talented kathak dancer) who has a set routine revolving round her ambitious husband Vikram’s schedule. The infamous thappad happens at the premature celebration party of a promotion where the usual office politics plays villain, and in the spur of the moment, the furious Vikram publicly slaps Amu. The shock of the humiliation makes others uncomfortable for a while, but everyone expects Amu to overlook what happened in the heat of the moment and move on. For Amu, the “mere” slap is a revelation of her place. Even when her mother, mother-in-law (who is looked after with affection by Amu) and her own brother think Amu is making too much of a minor issue, Amu is quietly determined not to go back to her husband. Even when she finds she is pregnant, it doesn’t make a difference.

To most Indians, this one incident is not strong enough a reason to walk out of a marriage. To persuade and then convince the viewer (other than staunch feminists) that Amu’s reasons are valid, and strong enough to fight for, is a challenge for any actor. Sinha avoids the usual excess of abuse, though he draws vignettes of two such marriages from different strata of society to bolster his case. Thappad demands that we enter Amu’s mind and understand her feeling of constant belittlement that makes her fall out of love with her husband. And she cannot stay in a marriage where she does not love her man. Simple truth that Pannu makes us accept. And Amu has made thoughtful men question their own assumptions and behaviour. To make a quiet but just argument that speaks to so many, without the usual rhetoric and loud melodrama, is something Anubhav Sinha and Taapsee Pannu can be proud of. Speaking softly does carry a big stick.