Actor Taapsee Pannu does not mince words because speaking her mind keeps her sane. “Being real is not tiring. Putting up a facade is,” she says. Pannu’s sister advises her to “carry a filter” to work. But following her instincts come naturally to the actor, and so does being realistic. It’s perhaps why she can blatantly talk about the existing power disparity between herself and her male counterparts.
Ahead of the release of her ensemble sci-fi drama Mission Mangal, Taapsee sat down with a group of journalists to share her thoughts on why her co-star Akshay Kumar was given the biggest space on the film’s poster, what box office numbers mean to her and why she still does not consider herself a star.
Excerpts from the conversation
Q. The most commercial film that you have done is Judwaa 2. But you must have been advised not to do that to maintain a certain kind of image.
I get advice all the time. The recent one is “Now, you should do one very dhinchak role in a dhinchak film and then you should do a special song in a big film and that’s it.” People still advise me. But I don’t listen to anyone.
Q. Do you feel we burden female actors with our expectations of strong characters?
Honestly, I have never taken it as a burden. Somewhere, I wanted my audience to expect things out of me because I feel you are truly a star or someone the audience loves when they have expectations from you. I take expectations as a big compliment. You should expect that if I am there in the film, it would be of a certain standard. I see it as my driving force.
Q. But how do you view bringing gender into those expectations?
All of these gender problems, you know why it’s happening? Because for so many years a certain type of role, film, takeaway from a female character has been happening. Now we are at the cusp of change. We are in that unsettled, transitional phase right now where all these teething problems are there but they will go away in a few years. If not in my generation then surely in the next one, provided we don’t give up.
Q. The “Kumkum” song in Mission Mangal, which is about women empowerment, has a male narrative (Akshay Kumar has lent his voice to the song). That feels odd. How do you view this?
A glass is always half empty and half full. It’s how you look at it. The same problem we had heard during Pink. ‘If you want to talk about women, why have a man speak about them, why not a woman?’ If a woman had spoken up, it would have been said, ‘Of course, a woman will speak about it.’ So, where do we go?
I didn’t realise it would mean anything remotely wrong because Akshay sir – being the biggest star in the male star cast – wanted to pay a tribute to women from a man’s perspective. When his face occupied the biggest space on the poster, it was a problem. And now when he is not in the visuals at all and there’s just a voice over, even then there’s a problem. Why do we find a problem in everything? Let’s look at the positive intention.
Q. Maybe it’s about women owning their spaces and having the mic. When it’s about women, there’s no need of Akshay’s voice-over.
He is a star. His voice is heard more than all of us put together.
Q. And that’s sad, right?
That’s the reality. Sad, but it’s the reality. The question about the poster was raised at the trailer launch. I would have loved to answer but there were too many people and I didn’t want to butt in. I wanted this question to be raised and I am happy people noticed it. Now, I want to know what is everyone doing about it. As an actor, I am doing my bit by doing films that are shouldered on me. As an audience, you are not giving me equal collection as that of an Akshay Kumar film. Who is to be blamed?
If you had taken out all five (female actors in Mission Mangal – Taapsee Pannu, Vidya Balan, Nithya Menen, Kirti Kulhari and Sonakshi Sinha) of us, it would have affected the film a little bit but not much. The script would have remained the same. Akshay Kumar’s film would have opened to the same numbers. If we are in it, then it has changed things a little bit. The film will look more starry but there won’t be a great difference.
This is what the audience has given us. All five of us are trying to change in our capacity. It’s the audience that needs to help our faces become bigger on the poster by giving our films equal number of box office figures. He (Akshay) is the biggest selling point in the film.
Q. You had five releases last year and Mission Mangal is going to be your third film in the last eight months. There is Saand Ki Aankh in October. You are one of the busiest actors in Bollywood right now. You seem to be inspired by Akshay Kumar.
(Laughs) He always told me to do as much work as possible. The minus of it is that now he asks me, ‘Why are you always busy?’ Yes, he is inspiring. But I work a lot because I am very greedy for good scripts. I can’t let a good script out of my hand because I have worked really hard to reach a level where if I choose a good script, it will happen. But my team has been going mad accommodating all the films in 365 days.
Q. Over the last few months, whenever you have been asked if you feel like a star, you say no despite your success.
I will still say no. When I go out in the world and think about my film’s opening figure, it gives me a reality check. When I get a secure opening figure, then only will I agree that I am a star. I am waiting to call myself a star.
Q. Do you have an opening figure in mind?
It would really be nice to start with a double digit but I am not impractical. A figure means a consistent figure. Only those people, who are really excited to see your films, will see your film in the opening weekend. After that, word of mouth and reviews matter.
Q. But you draw a certain credibility. Also, everyone knows of films which were big on box office numbers but lacked quality.
Quality of a film is debatable. You might not like a film but if people are spending money to watch your film, it means your film is good. And box office collection should be judged on the basis of profit margins. If a film has been made on a budget of Rs 150 crore and it makes 160 crore then it is not a success. But if it earns Rs 300 crore, then it means people have spent money and time on watching your film.
Q. If we talk about stars, today, even the big films of Khans are not surviving beyond the opening weekends.
See, definition of stars is still the same. It’s just that people are changing. The time is such that people probably cannot digest all their (Khans’) content. But there are newer people coming under the star umbrella.
Q. So, does Taapsee Pannu wish to be bigger than her films?
No. That’s the downfall of an actor the day he/she thinks they are bigger than the film. I don’t want people to come to the theaters to only watch me. I want them to come for my characters. I want the audience to blindly trust my choices.