When you look at Amrita, the calm woman, sitting through her divorce negotiations in a room where her husband who had slapped her is trying to prove that she’s manic in Thappad, do you go back to think about the young, shy girl who made her Bollywood debut with three other actors, in a David Dhawan film called Chashme Badoor? It’s been quite a climb, and quite the path — as Bollywood always is — even when an actor, who is 10 films old in the South, joins the bandwagon, but isn’t a part of any of their camps. She came, she set up her own camp, and she thrives.
A lot of what Pannu brings on screens reflects in her instincts, in her choices. And if you have been noticed for your performance in a film when the actor talking to you on screen is Amitabh Bachchan, you clearly are making the right choices. But what was the idea behind making a debut with a David Dhawan film when this is the calibre you possess, I wonder out loud to her on the phone, as we start this interview. “I stopped making plans long before, because I realised whatever plans I make never happen. So there was no strategy behind the kind of film I wanted to debut with. I did get a few offers before, but I didn’t know the directors…I knew who David Sir was.
I have grown up watching his films, and he’s one of the few directors who has his own audience. I wanted to do his film because he has his own audience, and it was a new experience for him too, to work with such a young crop of actors. It became a very tempting opportunity for me,” she says. Pannu wants to do films that have an audience, she adds. “When I look back, I think it was the right decision to start with a film that has an audience, and then do a Baby and a Pink because if I had entered with Baby or Pink, I’d have been tagged as an ‘offbeat’ actress. The fact that I could do a commercial film and then do one that’s a little different shows that I can do both mainstream cinema and content-driven films,” she logically points out.
Her career graph, when it comes to the narrative or the character she brings to life, has only touched newer heights. The complexity and childlike innocence of Rumi in Manmarziyaan, the poker face Naina in Badla, or the fiercely feminist Minal in Pink, is it a conscious process to pick films with substance? Pannu believes that the substantial part is not just her process, it’s the subjectdriven films that are getting better. “When even one film that’s content driven works, 10 such films spring up. When I started out, there were very few such roles. But slowly, it has gone up. I did not plan so far ahead. It was only after Pink that I got a kind of direction that this is the zone for me, where people expect me to do something substantial. People already have actresses who are so good with singing, dancing, looking glamorous, they had their aspirational models. Why fight in that crowded space? I decided to be the actor that the audience looks at and feels like they can relate to. That’s the direction I picked up and after that, it was about listening to a script from an audience’s point of view and thinking, ‘will I go watch this film?’”
Extremely aware how the onset of OTT has changed the dynamics for the silver screen, Pannu says it’s definitely gotten harder to get people to the theatres, and that’s why, it becomes even more important to do work that drives people to want to watch you. “You have to either give the audience something larger than life, or you give them really good content that makes them want to watch you immediately. Also, it’s not just the roles that get me to pick a film, it’s the film and it’s narrative first, and then comes my part in it that makes it a good film,” she says. Her personality has always reflected a certain sense of resilience, and she believes her roles definitely connect with her, and vice versa. She believes in retorting when necessary. When the casting of Saand Ki Aankh was questioned as to why are 30-something women playing senior roles when there are actors out there who can, she simply pointed out to the times when actors in their 40s have played young college students, and the silence then. “We don’t need to pay heed to every random question being raised on our choices as actors. There are a lot of people who want to bring you down to their level and then beat you at it, so you can’t let them do that. However, when questions come from a credible name or space that you respect, that’s when I personally feel like answering. I only respond to questions or people that affect me,” she explains.
Given the roles that she’s done and stood out shining, no matter how star-heavy the cast is, Pannu has time and again established herself in the league of the strong women that can carry a film on their shoulders. She’s done the angry young woman who screams consent, she’s played the extremely unruffled wife who refuses to be disrespected. Her characters have had their own shades of feminism. “Feminism is a basic definition of equality that we’re all aware of, but we like to bend it to our convenience sometimes. The term has been coined because there has been inequality and that’s what it stands for. I have no qualms in calling myself a feminist because I know the rightful usage of the term and how I propagate feminism, and I’m proud of it. I don’t have to worry about someone else’s wrong definition of feminism. It has come to a point where I’ve stopped hushing this word just because someone else might have a wrong idea of what it stands for. I’d rather prove it through my work and how I live my life,” she simply states. I told you she’s got the guts.
So as someone who has been on the content-driven side of things, does she see the gap between content and roles for women and men bridge and does she think the gap will be bridged further? “Absolutely. when I started back in the South, people used to ask me where I see myself five years from now. I’ve thought back then that my peak career would only be for five-six years. Back then, only a Sridevi level of an actress could have a career spanning 10 years. Now it’s been seven years in Bollywood alone for me. From narratives which were male-driven to where we are now, it has taken decades for the narratives of the film to change. The only thing we have to do is not give up,” she adds.
Even though she’s aware of the power of the web space right now, especially when theatres have been shut for a month now and God knows when they’ll open, Pannu is admittedly one for the big screens, even when it comes to the work she does. “I feel like the quantity of web content is superseding our quality. The pressure of creating content is so much, and we have great talent in all aspects of filmmaking, but there will be one odd show standing out among so many. I’ve personally never been an OTT audience, I like watching movies on the big screen with 100-200 people. Even now, during quarantine when we have no option but to watch everything on the web, my attention span is so low, even when I’m watching the most engaging thing. Whereas when I watch a film, I never touch my phone. I’ve never been averse to doing OTT, but my motivation to do that would be if I get to do something I don’t get to do in my films. My films are giving me enough diverse content to do so if I feel like there’s a story that needs a series to be told and a film won’t justify it, I’ll do it for the web,” she says
Pannu is quarantining with sister Shagun and her sister-in-law Devki, who has shot the pictures for the styled-at-home shoot for this story. She’s much happier that she’s not entirely alone, chores are divided between them, and they can keep each other entertained. This is the time Pannu is using to actually spend time in her house, a space she created with love, her first apartment in Mumbai. “I’ve done up this space without any interior designers etc., but I never got the time to actually absorb this space. Now I’ve explored every possible corner of this house,” she laughs. From the film industry’s perspective, as everyone else, no one can predict the new normal, but Pannu is optimistic about the industry bouncing back. “I think Indians in general are used to adapting and adjusting, that we will figure it out. There will be some teething issues, but we’ll do the jugaad, and we’ll adapt to whatever changes will have to be made,” she says. In general, she continues, if we come out as different people depends, and we don’t know how long the change will stay. “Everyone’s feeling like we’re going to be realising the value of things, but we’re also the race that came after the World War II, and I recently read a tweet that said the same. I don’t know how long the change will last. Those small changes and things we crib about in general, might change,” she reflects.
Personally, what’s Pannu most afraid of during this period? “I’m afraid of the uncertainty of when things will become better. I’m not bothered about the change in lifestyle post lockdown, we’ll adjust. We’ll still be at risk when we step out now, one month later, or later than that. I’m worried about how our healthcare systems are burdened, and other problems like starvation will crop up if this doesn’t get sorted soon,” she says, concerned. Another big conversation around the pandemic has been mental health, and Pannu feels like it’s better handled by her by working out, even by just climbing stairs, and having a timetable. “Whatever little workout I can do, it helps me. I’ve also made a timetable by allotting myself time slots to do my work, workout, and it keeps me saner. I’m a hyperactive person who does four to five films a year and I’m always running around, so sticking to a schedule has helped me. Take it one day at a time, and keep yourself occupied, because you can’t be worrying about something that’s not in your control,” she explains. Stop, pause, breathe. That’s all we can do right now, and Pannu agrees.
Make-up and hair: Taapsee Pannu
Styling, conceptualisation, and photographs: Devki Bhatt
Actor’s Media Consultants: Universal Communications