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Taapsee Pannu: ‘Female actors are replaced with ease while filmmakers wait for years for male actors’

Shabaash Mithu, starring Taapsee Pannu, is the biopic based on the life of former captain of the Indian women's cricket team, Mithali Raj.

Taapsee PannuTaapsee Pannu-starrer Shabaash Mithu will be released in theatres on July 15. (Photo: Taapsee Pannu/Twitter)

Taapsee Pannu is returning to the big screens after a gap of two years. Her last release was Looop Lapeta that landed directly on a streaming platform during the pandemic. In Shabaash Mithu, the actor gets into the shoes of Indian cricketer Mithali Raj and tells the story of her struggles and victories.

In this interview with indianexpress.com, Taapsee shares why Mithali’s journey felt a little personal to her and wants to be her cheerleader for life. Confessing she is nervous, the actor explains, “Not because it might be the first, but also because it almost like the first lady of women’s cricket in a way. It is also a theatrical release after two years for me, so the stakes are very high. It is also the biggest budget film I’ve helmed. It is important for you to know and feel that it matters. The day it stops giving me butterflies or that feeling of nervousness and pressure, it means I’ve become indifferent and I need to change my job.”

Taapsee has been one of the few female actors to churn out multiple releases in a year. The actor shares that today she is in a position to choose her work and filmmakers think she is capable of portraying the characters they write. She shares, “It is working both ways now. There are filmmakers who believe that I can fit a certain character so they come to me, and hence I can pick those. Then there are films where I am not the first choice, and after a couple of rejections, they come to me and I grab it and it works, like Haseen Dilruba. Then there are films that I go for, like Saand Ki Aankh. So, it is happening in all possible ways, and I am glad. This means that I have a choice, and the power to choose and the fact that it comes to me is also like a power position. When I started, a few years ago, nobody wanted to come to me and I had to keep asking for work. I’ve seen those days too.”

Mithali Raj has earned praise for her sport, as well as for being outspoken and calling out sexism in her profession. In that way, her arc is somewhat similar to Taapsee. She says, “I started noticing Mithali when she made that statement about ‘who’s your favourite male cricketer?’ We know about women’s cricket because of her. I’ve been guilty of being ignorant about it, and I wanted to use my medium to correct it. From that day, I’m her fan. She had the guts to call it out when she was the captain of Indian team. People keep saying that as actors, we should not cross that line, we should not talk too much. She is a woman of very few words, but she chose those right words to call it out at that point.”

On being Mithali’s cheerleader for a good reason, Taapsee says, “I’ve tracked her journey after that and I’ve seen the kind of ceilings that she’s shattered. She got her foot in the door for women’s cricket. Of course, there are still ignorant people, and I hope that this film helps them to know a little bit about one of the greatest women cricketers, who has certain records that put her at par and above a lot of male cricketers. Those kind of facts need to be set right and I’m glad that as a fan girl, I get to present that.”

Taapsee has called out sexism in Bollywood several times, and she shares that even with changing times, she keeps getting asked who her male co-star is. She shares, “I still get asked who is your favourite actor, I’ve been answering that for the last twelve years. I also get asked, after I sign a film, hero kaun hai (who is the hero)? So, I also have that, a very exasperated reaction that is presented in the trailer, in the film. That’s the connect, that is what has made her journey a little personal when I read that reaction, because I’ve been dealing with the same questions — why the lack of opportunities and lack of equality, why is there disparity. This country has two religions — cricket and films — and yet it matters to us what is the gender of the one holding the bat or throwing the ball or one who is leading the film? Is it we are a men’s cricket team loving nation or male-driven film lovers, not really film or cricket lovers? These are the questions that are being raise, finally. I am glad conversations on these matters are taking place, people are asking questions.”

Battling sexism in the film industry, Taapsee has come up with a formula that works for her.

“I had no other options. Honestly, I was not offered many films where I have a hero to piggyback on in the beginning of my career. Plus, I was coming from south films where I was piggybacking on all my heroes and I did not know any better. I didn’t even know the basics of my job. I learnt them while I was at work. I realised that the root cause of all these problems that you face as a female actor is because you are easily replaceable. Eventually everybody is replaceable and we’re going to walk through it, but the ease with which a female actor is replaced is very different from how directors and producers wait for years for a male actor, or write scripts for them. If that changes, things will change. So when I started Hindi films, I decided not to repeat those mistakes, and try to be someone people would really want to do a certain role, who people would want to walk into the theatre for.”

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Speaking about this dichotomy, she added, “For the longest time, my observation was, that they don’t want to pay me because they feel that I don’t really bring the audience to the theatre. But, that was a very clear cut difference. The budget of the film was decided by who the hero is because that’s the person who brings you to the theatre. So, you are little bit more insignificant, more irrelevant part of the film. So, when you command a certain audience, you’ll get paid, that’s what I learnt. So, I wanted to start working on it early on here, and hence the kind of films I chose and did, I had no other option than to be the protagonist,” Taapsee concludes.

First published on: 14-07-2022 at 08:11:02 am
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