With a common goal of equal recognition for women in their career, much like her current on-screen avatar as Mithali Raj, actor Taapsee Pannu says she plunged into her hardest role of the former Indian women’s cricket team captain in the biopic “Shabaash Mithu”.
Regarded as one of the greatest female cricketers ever, the legendary Indian batter redefined the sport, usually referred to as 'the gentleman's game', in the country.
Pannu, known for films “Pink”, “Naam Shabana”, “Mulk”, and “Thappad”, said her and Raj's attempt at making their respective professions a level-playing field for women was the binding force behind the upcoming film.
“In our country, there are two religions – cricket and films. If you call yourself a cricket-loving nation then you should love women’s cricket equally, you are not just men’s cricket-loving nation. The cricket should matter and not the gender.
“Same way, the gender of the protagonist shouldn’t matter. It should be about how the film is. You do pre-booking of a movie if it is a male protagonist but wait for reviews for a female protagonist. That is where I connected to her,” the 34-year-old actor told PTI in an interview.
Pannu said she felt "embarrassed" as she was unaware about the former Indian skipper, her journey and achievements, till Raj expressed her displeasure over comparison to their male counterparts in cricket.
On the eve of the 2017 ICC Women's World Cup, Raj was asked who her favourite men's cricketer was between India and Pakistan teams.
In a sharp retort, she had asked, “Do you ask a male cricketer who their favourite female player is?”
It is a similar scenario in the film industry, pointed out Pannu, adding that female actors too are often asked these questions.
“I have been answering this question for over 10 years. 'Who is your favourite male star? Who do you want to be paired opposite?'
“I hardly see the male stars answering the (same) question. I felt this will be my connecting thread to her character and from there I will build whatever I need to, to be her,” the actor added.
Directed by Srijit Mukherji and written by Priya Aven, the upcoming film is a coming-of-age story of women’s cricket in India as witnessed by the most successful woman cricketer. It will chronicle the highs and lows, setbacks and moments of euphoria of Raj’s life.
Last month, Raj ended her glorious 23 year-long run after amassing 7805 ODI runs in 232 matches at an average of over 50. She also scored 2364 runs in 89 T20Is, as well as 699 runs in 12 Tests, including a century and four half-centuries.
From “Soorma”, “Saandh Ki Aankh”, “Rashmi Rocket” to “Shabaash Mithu”, Pannu has become the face of sports-based films.
The actor said she took up these films as the stories challenged her and with every movie, the scale got bigger.
“In all these films my effort has gone beyond doing that film and learning that sport has been up after every film. After ‘Rashmi Rocket’, I had to work harder on this film to learn a sport from scratch. And it has gone bigger for me scale wise,” she said.
Pannu said she has been offered more sports and action films but she rejected all of them. Reason: she wants to up her game.
She had boarded “Shabaash Mithu” in 2018 when production banner Viacom18 Studios had acquired the rights to make a movie on Raj and had the research material but there was no script.
The actor was required to commit to the film and dedicate time to learning the game of cricket, she added.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It is probably going to be the hardest I have worked on the film but then that’s the fun part."
Pannu said she had started training for cricket while filming of “Looop Lapeta”, which released on Netflix in February. Three months before “Looop Lapeta” came out, “Rashmi Rocket” had released, a film in which she had played an athlete.
Having worked on these two films, Pannu said she was at her fittest when she dived into “Shabaash Mithu” and only had to learn the techniques of cricket.
The actor undertook lessons in cricket for six months under four coaches, including former India cricketer Nooshin-Al-Khadeer and physiotherapist Akanksha.
"My introduction to Mithali’s playing techniques or what she does and how she felt, was through my trainers,” she said, adding, she did not meet Raj in person during filming as she was actively playing cricket then.
Recalling her meeting with the former cricketer before she began work on the film, Pannu said they are "diametrically" opposite as people.
As an actor, Pannu further said she had to restrain her performance as Raj is not an expressive person.
“It is not that I see varied expressions on her face, like she is feeling happy or is thinking, so you can’t gauge it. I had to unlearn. My range of performance is so minimal in terms of expressing, she is not a very expressive person. In two hours, we had to tell her story spanning over 30 years.”
“Shabaash Mithu”, which marks Pannu’s first theatrical release after 2020's “Thappad”, said she is anxious about the audience's reaction to the film.
“I value audience reaction and opinion. I never say that I am an actor and I have done my job and that I could do only this much. For me it matters how they will react and that’s why how the box office reacts also matters,” she added.
Also starring seasoned actor Vijay Raaz, “Shabaash Mithu” will be released in theatres on July 15.
[With Inputs From PTI]