Indian actor Taapsee Pannu is on a roll. She has just won best actress at India’s prestigious Filmfare awards for her role in Anubhav Sinha’s “Thappad” and wrapped shooting Anurag Kashyap’s “Dobaaraa.”
Pannu also has a raft of films coming up, including Sony Pictures’ official remake of “Run Lola Run” (“Looop Lapeta”), cricket biopic “Shabaash Mithu,” sports drama “Rashmi Rocket,” Netflix thriller “Haseen Dillruba” and comedy “Woh Ladki Hai Kahaan?”
Pannu began her career in South Indian cinema, debuting with Telugu-language “Jhummandi Naadam” in 2010, followed by Tamil-language “Aadukalam” (2011), which won a clutch of accolades at India’s national film awards. Even after breaking through into the Hindi-language Bollywood film industry, Pannu continues to act in South Indian films.
Early on in her career, Pannu made the bold (for India) choice of not being an ornamental foil to the leading man, instead switching to powerful, women-centric roles.
“People think it’s their birthright to give advice to the person without even being asked,” Pannu tells Variety. “And one common piece of advice of really making it big in the industry was that you have to be featured alongside big heroes or be in these big ticket films.” Pannu listened to this initially, and appeared in a few. But the films bombed. “Unfortunately, I started getting the tag of being the unlucky charm of the film industry, because all the things I was choosing opposite the big heroes were not working at the box office,” says Pannu.
The actor decided to step back, take stock of her situation, learn from two years of mistakes and start afresh.
“I decided now I’ll only do films that eventually make me kind of irreplaceable,” says Pannu. “I really wanted to be someone who people would want to because they want to work with me, specifically me in this character. Otherwise they probably don’t know who else to go to.”
The first of several inspired career choices was Neeraj Pandey’s espionage thriller “Baby” (2015), headlined by top Bollywood star Akshay Kumar, where she chose the seven-minute role of an agent instead of playing the hero’s romantic interest. Pannu’s character became popular to extent that a spinoff prequel “Naam Shabana” revolving around her released in 2017 and was a massive success.
In between, there was Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury and Shoojir Sircar’s “Pink” (2016) where Pannu played a molested woman who stands up in court against her abusers. The film, which also starred Indian acting legend Amitabh Bachchan, was a critical and commercial success. Sinha’s family drama with a terrorism backdrop, “Mulk,” (2018) followed, as did Kashyap’s relationship drama, Toronto selection “Manmarziyaan” the same year.
For Sujoy Ghosh’s “Badla” (2019), based on Spanish film “The Invisible Guest,” Pannu was offered the role of a woman who gets murdered by her boyfriend. However, she felt that the male part was more interesting and requested to play it. “I’m glad that the producer and director could take the risk of flipping the gender of that character and making it into a woman,” says Pannu. The film, produced by Azure Entertainment and Shah Rukh Khan’s Red Chillies, was another hit for her.
Pannu, who has 4.6 million Twitter followers and 18.5 million on Instagram, is also known for expressing her opinions on social and political matters, in a country where the norm is for celebrities, including her contemporaries, to remain silent.
“I really don’t understand the problem with the contemporaries by not voicing,” says Pannu. “And maybe let’s just say they don’t have enough knowledge about it, or they refuse to gather knowledge about it.”
“I don’t have hidden skeletons to be scared of… I really don’t know why would I stay shut on something that is right, and that somewhere that has affected me at some level,” Pannu adds.
A particularly emotive issue are the ongoing farmers’ protests that began last year around Delhi, with some 40,000 farmers protesting against the passing of a bill they feel is unfavorable to them. The issue has grabbed international headlines and support from the likes of Greta Thunberg and Rihanna.
“It was really sad to see them being tagged as terrorists and people who are probably the ex-army men or people who have their sons at the border right now, sitting there and being tagged as terrorists. And all they’re doing is that wanting something from the government that they feel is right for themselves, unanimously,” says Pannu.
Negotiations between the farmers and the government are at a standstill. “The government just insists that they will not listen to them because they know better than the farmers, what is good for farmers,” says Pannu. “Which is something that felt very weird for me to (try to ) understand. And I just didn’t like the whole way of treating them with tear gas and those cannons, and it was just not the nicest of visuals to see and very heartbreaking to see that farmers who actually give us food going through that.”
“I’ve always been vocal about pointing out what’s wrong, because I follow the fundamental of hating the sin, not the sinner, because the sinners might just keep changing over a period of time” says Pannu. “I don’t get into name calling or shaming anyone because I want to call out what is wrong, and what is wrong is wrong. And I will not change my opinion on the basis of who is in power and who is not and who is abusing me and who is not, because I don’t feel that I did wrong by calling out your office at all.”
Perhaps unconnectedly, Pannu and Kashyap, who is also outspoken, were subjected to tax evasion raids by the government’s income tax department in early March. No charges have been filed.