What does it mean to be a successful feminist actor? For Taapsee Pannu, it’s being her own person and chasing her dreams. “I have never felt the need to live up to a different image,” she says, and then admits that she was the girl whose dreams changed often—scientist, astronaut, fighter pilot. “You know the ‘When I grow up…’ conversation on a school bus? All I remember saying is that whatever I do, people will remember me.” And for about a decade, Pannu’s been busy making her unforgettable mark via her filmography of strong leading roles and in her vocal support of issues she cares about.
Assured but unassuming, Pannu has no qualms admitting she’s a lucky girl. “If I had to struggle for roles, I wouldn’t have lasted in this field for so long,” she confesses. But as an outsider is it really luck or hard work? We need to dial back a bit to understand how Pannu’s star was born. She comes from a typically Indian middle-class family of professionals, where it’s taken for granted that you study and get a secure job that pays the bills. “I had the most regular childhood in Delhi. We had no pocket money, we shopped twice a year (and never without a good haggle) and we never changed homes. We studied and worked hard,” she says. But while pursuing her engineering degree, Pannu picked up odd modelling jobs for some extra pocket money. When she graduated in 2009, the film offers rolled in. “I was always this hyperactive multitasker.” So she took a year off to work on improving her CAT score (to get into a top MBA school), even as she signed on two big-banner films in Telugu and Tamil.
Soon enough, David Dhawan signed her on for Chashme Baddoor (2013) without an audition. “Thank God I wasn’t auditioned. I haven’t learnt the craft formally, my training is all on-set. I would have failed miserably. I was known as the girl who has the ‘Preity Zinta vibe,’” she says, adding, “which is why I even got a Bollywood break.”
She didn’t make her mark as an actor with a bang, more a slow and steady trickle. She comfortably pegs herself a Bollywood outsider and outlier, but a happy and proud one. “The view is the best from here,” she adds.“People now expect my work to be interesting and worth their time, so I can’t do four films a year and look and sound the same in all.”
Does that mean a more picky approach on the number of films she signs on? “Being a female actor I cannot afford to do just one film a year. I wish I had that luxury. But I cannot turn my life upside down for a role,” she replies honestly. Her trade-off is to shoot one film at a go in 45 days. And as a method actor she simply psyches herself into believing that she is the woman she’s playing. “I bore quickly, so new roles and new places help. Fame is not important. I am a Leo, after all,” she quips. But then clarifies more seriously, “I am the modern young woman. My roles represent that. People should be able to relate to my character.”
Pannu is unarguably a firebrand. She remains strong in her convictions on social or political issues on her online platforms, no matter if it’s tax raids or trolls. She is determined to remain true to herself. But how does she deal with the constant negativity? “I realised that I would get trolled even if I said the weather is good,” she says. But when Pannu wasn’t a seasoned hand, she would get angry and respond up a storm with her nameless, faceless trolls. “Now I enjoy it. I worry when I’m not trolled. I wonder, am I not relevant anymore?”
As for what’s next on her wish list, her main boxes to check were to own her own home and a car (and be able to shop without looking at a price tag, though she still cannot bring herself to drop a bomb on a pair of shoes), and she’s managed to achieve that. “Now I’d rather live each day as it comes and sleep happy every night,” she says. Push her a little and she confesses that she really wants to be an Avenger, so the day she signs on as Captain Marvel will be mission complete.