Bringing to life fearless, empowered characters on screen comes naturally to actor Taapsee Pannu, something that was visible in her maiden Bollywood outing Chashme Badoor, where she played a girl who was far more uninhibited and feisty than the guy she romanced. Her bent towards characters that stood shoulder-to-shoulder in essentially male-centric stories was reaffirmed with action films like Baby, Naam Shabana and Ghazi Attack. And with the powerful drama Pink, Taapsee made her space in the lesser explored category of female characters – ‘alpha females’, who are independent, headstrong and undeterred by the sexist ways of the world.
Taapsee now can be seen in her debut short Nitishastra, which sees her playing a girl who kills her own brother for raping a woman. Indianexpress.com sits down with her for a quick conversation about how she balances projects like Nitishastra and Judwaa 2, and why for a Bollywood actor to stand up against sexual harassment in the industry is a far-fetched idea.
Q. In a recent interview, you said you take acting just as a job and you are not in love with the movies. But is it possible for an actor to go on about his or her work without being in love with cinema?
Taapsee: I am a living example of that possibility. I don’t watch films that frequently. I do love watching films in theatre. If I can make it, I will watch and enjoy it. But it isn’t like I discuss films at home or me and my sister will watch films together. Rarely it happens. I don’t know why but it has been since my college days. Today also, if I have time, I will go with my friends to watch a film but it is not as if I have to watch French cinema or Hollywood or a specific film. I am not crazy about watching films.
Probably, it’s bad for an actress to be like that because you don’t get to know about cinema across the world. Maybe that’s a shortcoming, but the good part about it is that I am not trying to be like (someone else)… It happens when you see someone on screen, you feel you want to do something like that. I don’t have a reference point. So, I start from the scratch. In my sub-conscious mind also, I am not trying to imitate someone.
Q. Don’t you believe that for an artiste’s growth, it is important to watch a lot of films?
Taapsee: I feel for an artiste to grow, what is important is to have a touch with reality, especially in this profession, where you are surrounded by people, who probably want to be with us because of who we are in our careers rather than what we are as people. So, it is very easy to be detached from reality because of this. So, I believe to be real and honest and to look natural in front of the camera, you need to live a real and a normal life. That’s where you will pick up the nuances from, which will help you in your performances.
Q. Nitishastra talks about the importance of self-defence for women, a concept that can appear problematic in the sense that it propagates that the onus of protecting a woman from an untoward incident lies on herself. It’s akin to telling women to do various things to protect themselves because we know the mentality of men will not change anytime soon.
Taapsee: I don’t understand what’s wrong in that. You probably would have heard this line since your childhood, ‘Self help is the best help.’ When nothing else is working out, you need to take things in your hand. Take from the smallest things, like if you want to go and get something out of the kitchen and there’s no one in the house to help you, you will end up going and getting that job done yourself. So, when it comes to such a big thing like protecting yourself, why wouldn’t you want to take the control in your own hands?
It’s not like we haven’t tried for the =society to change. We have been saying this out loud, ‘Don’t do this,’ but when no one’s listening, do we just sit back and still wait for that one magical day when things will change? You need to be your own hero. You cannot sit and wait for your knight in shinning armour or for the world to change around you. You are also a part of this world. You will change, the world will start changing.
See Taapsee Pannu starrer Nitishastra trailer here:
Q. How do you see the dichotomy when you do a film about consent (Pink), or a movie that has you playing a strong, empowered character like Naam Shabana and Nitishastra, and then you go and do a Judwaa 2, where the guy is kissing a girl and slapping her butt without her consent?
Taapsee: There are two things. Okay, so, I do stand for consent and you can’t do anything against a woman’s consent. But again, am I glorifying what really happened with the girl in Judwaa? Are we glorifying the hero? Are we saying, ‘Oh! He did it and that’s why he became the hero?’ No. He (Varun’s character) comes and apologises (to the girl). It’s his apology, his truthful apology that makes the girl feel maybe he deserves another chance. We can’t stop showing these things. The problem is when we start glorifying these things and make it heroic. We didn’t make it heroic in the film.
Q. Do you think such actions deserve another chance?
Taapsee: To each his own. You cannot decide for another girl. Being a feminist is not about outrightly rejecting everything that you are seeing on screen, (saying), ‘Oh! This is offensive.’ Relax. See the whole thing, see how it has been taken in the film and then react to it. I think this whole feminism wave is kind of going in a wrong direction, if they start nitpicking everything without analysing the larger picture.
Q. Just to point out, when the film was played in single screen theatres, a lot in the audience cheered, laughed and clapped during these scenes. So, when you are making a film, there must be discussions among the team as to how the audience would respond to a scene.
Taapsee: I will tell you, the same crowd will cheer if you put this film (Nitishastra) up because of the kind of action scenes involved in it, even though it is a girl fighting with a man. So, that crowd cheering will not help us decide what we are going to keep in the film and what we don’t want to keep in the film. We don’t decide the film’s script on the basis of a crowd, if they like it, they can cheer that’s the eventual result of it. But that’s not our decision criterion behind making a film.
Q. Many female actors, including you, have said that the reason female and even male actors don’t speak up about sexual harassment in Bollywood is the fear of victim shaming. Do you think in that case, if top stars, especially male, address this issue and talk about it whenever asked would help the cause?
Taapsee: Why only male? Why not female stars? But I think it’s not about top or not. First of all, who decides who is (at the) top? There’s no top or bottom here. People come up to me and say, ‘You are now an A-Lister.’ I tell them, ‘No, I don’t feel like that. I don’t know what’s an A-Lister’.’ Is there a rating system that these are the top five stars, who should speak about it? If they feel like talking about it, they talk about it, if they don’t, probably it is because they don’t have a fallback option.
Tomorrow, when you speak, people think it is another way of extracting publicity. It’s not like People support them. If you have a support system in the industry, you probably have the strength to speak up, and if you don’t have then you just stay shut and keep working. Of course you don’t take it, you don’t do it but you don’t talk about it either because it can be misconstrued.