Taapsee Pannu appears to have emerged as a veritable personification of woman empowerment in the new-age Bollywood with her choice of powerful women-centric movies such as Pink (2016), Naam Shabana (2017), Mulk (2018) and Saand ki Aankh (2019). The 32-year-old actress is now ready to deliver another hard-hitting film, Thappad, which tackles the rampant domestic violence in society, a theme which the “patriarchal” Indian cinema has conveniently chosen to skirt over the decades. In conversation with Giridhar Jha, the feisty actress talks about, among other things, her latest movie, her image of a firebrand actress and why celebrities should not refrain from speaking their minds out on socio-political issues. Excerpts from the interview:
It is almost a decade since started your career in films. How do you look back at your journey so far?
It has been a terrific journey for a person who never wanted to act in the first place. I never thought of myself as someone who had anything in her to become an actor. I never fantasised about becoming an actress or was ever in awe of the film world. I just stumbled on it and learnt it through experiments. Now, I am loving it! I have never been addicted to my profession because of its money or glamour. The day I will stop getting the exciting roles which I love doing, I will just pack my bags and walk out of the industry. It is of paramount importance for me to get happiness from what I am doing. Every day I analyse my life to check if I am happy doing what I am doing. I feel that you should change if you are not happy with something. Life is too short and I don’t want to lead an unhappy life. Right now, of course, I have no reason to complaint because of the challenging roles I am getting to play in plenty.
Expectations from your upcoming film, Thappad (Slap), which tackles gender and domestic violence, are quite high because you have collaborated again with your Mulk director Anubhav Sinha, who had delivered a gritty Article 15 on the caste system last year. Any butterflies in the stomach ahead of its release?
There are some films which are beyond butterflies as far as box-office success is concerned. Thappad is one such movie. Given the response its poster and trailer have generated, I already think that I will get the feelings of success before its release. I always wanted to work in a movie based on domestic violence, an issue which was always swept under the carpet in and outside the film industry. Nobody wanted to talk about it. This is despite the fact that three out of five people in our society are affected by it, be it our family members, friends or neighbours. Everybody would turn a blind eye to the problem and that is why I chose to do a mainstream movie and bring this subject to the fore so that a discussion could finally begin. With the kind of positive messages I have been getting, it seems that my objective will have been fulfilled by the time Thappad hits the screen. And if God would be kind enough, it will also attain commercial success.
Domestic violence has been a long-standing issue, but Bollywood fought shy of making a film on it over the decades. When and why did you decide to do a film on it?
It is true that such a theme has never been tackled directly. Don’t ask me anything beyond but it is too personal an issue for me. That is why I wanted to do a film on it. I am happy that Anubhav Sinha sir had an idea. When I told him about domestic violence, he said to me that he had a story line in his mind which he would develop further. He did that after the release of Article 15 last year.
Do you think that the Indian film industry avoided this issue simply because of its overtly patriarchal mindset?
Of course, it has been patriarchal. The film industry is more or less a reflection of our society. There is no shame in acknowledging that we have been living in a patriarchal society. But then, the first step towards solving a problem is to acknowledge the problem. Thankfully, we acknowledge that ours is a patriarchal society. In fact, a majority of societies across the world happen to be patriarchal. Being a mirror of society, cinema, therefore, is also patriarchal. It is only in recent years that things are beginning to change here. We are raising issues which the audiences are beginning to understand. Of course, it will take time for the ideal situation to emerge. It has been going on for decades and the narratives from the other side have not been shown much. So we cannot expect the change to happen overnight. It will require time and patience on our part. I hope the coming generation don’t get to see the big difference between the genders which we have seen.
It is not as though film on woman empowerment were never made. Take Mother India (1957), for example. But it is true that a majority of commercial films seemed to perpetuate the “bhala hai bura hai jaisa bhi hai, mera pati mera devta hai (Good or bad, my husband is my god)” kind of image of the average Indian housewife onscreen …
Mother India kind of movies used to be rare – such films came only once or twice a year. In the past five years, however, there has been a big change in our cinema because women have changed in our society. Now, they are going out to work in large numbers and earn money not only in the metropolitan cities but also in tier-II and tier-III towns. It has given them financial independence and a sense of empowerment. She thinks that she can also be a breadwinner for her family. She realises that she does not have to put up with all the s#*t or the torture in a relationship because unlike in the past she is no longer financially dependent on her husband. Earlier, half the time the women were worried as to what would happen to them if their husbands deserted them. There is a scene in Thappad where a domestic help, a victim of domestic violence, says that she will have no place to go if her husband, howsoever abusive, decides to drive her out of the house. Such a problem always existed for women. They could not go back to their parents’ house fearing humiliation and scorn from society. More often than not, they would continue to remain in an abusive relationship for the sake of the children. They would give so many excuses to spend the rest of their lives in such situations. But now it has changed. The women especially those living in the cities are now coming out of such relationships. And if women are changing in society, it is being shown likewise onscreen. The women have realised that they do not necessarily have to be the traditional Sati-Savitris. Until five six years ago, there were only two kinds of women characters in Hindi cinema. They were either paragon of virtues or the vamps. Their characters were either black or white but now that there are plenty of characters with grey shades which they all like to see. They relate to such characters. They go out to watch such characters in the theatres on their own because they are financially independent. They don’t bother whether the men in their lives approve of it or not. The cinema has changed simply because society has changed.
Bollywood has also changed because these days we see so many women doing the job they have traditionally never done in the industry. Hasn't it?
Anubhav Sinha sir wanted to have maximum women crew for Thappad. I am also doing another film where more than half of its crew is women. It is happening now. It is such an interesting development lately. I have seen the time when I started off. In my first film in Tamil, I was the only woman on the set. The entire cast and crew were men. I did not find out any other women. There was a woman character artiste, but we did not have any scene together. So wherever I would look, I would find only men around. From there to now when I am seeing 50 per cent female crew on the sets, it is a beautiful change indeed.
You have emerged as a role model for women especially young girls because of your choice of roles. How do you look at it?
It is very empowering, though I had not planned any such thing. When I had not even planned my career in film in the first place, how could I plan such an image-building exercise? I choose only those films which I would like to see as an audience. I have the mentality of a middle-class girl and I have grown up like that. Until I was 22-23 years old, I have been a typical middle-class girl, just like any other girl who goes to the theatres to watch my films today. I know exactly what is going on in their minds or how do they feel because I have experienced similar emotions. That is why the kind of characters I do easily resonate with these girls.
How close are you to the characters you portray onscreen?
They are kind of an extension of myself, some more, others less. My character of Amrita in Thappad is less like me. After 31 days of shoot for the film, I wanted to get out of her character because she is so unlike me. This character is so righteous that she would not do anything wrong or take no step against anybody even if she is provoked. We all have grey shades in our character, but she is so white a character, so docile and so subdued that it proved to be a challenge not only for me but also for Anubhav sir to mould me like that. It is because I have had a firebrand image offscreen. We had to ensure that at no time does the audience expect me to live up to my image in this film. I, therefore, had to hold my emotions back during the 31 days of non-stop shoot, keeping everything under check inside me. I did not have to cross the line. It was very difficult and after a point I felt claustrophobic because I am not like Amrita. I like to speak my mind out if I find anything amiss.
You even go to the extent of slapping someone if you find something wrong?
That is one thing I cannot do. I cannot slap anybody probably because I have never been slapped as a kid. I am not comfortable with it. In fact, I learnt the martial arts with a lot of difficulty because of that. I am scared and hope that I don’t have to face such a situation ever because it is something very difficult to deal with.
You are known for speaking your mind out in an industry where people normally behave in a politically correct manner? Do you love to get involved in controversies?
I do not target any person. My ideology is, hate the sin not the sinner. I will never call out people. They can take my name or abuse me. I have never done that. I will never call out a person but I will certainly speak out if I find something wrong. I never poke my nose into other people’s businesses because I have my own list of problems to contend with. I do not target any individual or a group as such.
Do you find the film industry to be politically more aware and also divided at the same time, more than ever before?
It is very much political aware, though only a few in the industry speak out. I cannot force people that they should also speak out just because I do. Some can be extremely vocal while others can keep quiet. However, if my opinion does not match theirs, it does not mean I am right or they are wrong because it is a subjective opinion. However, it is good for the audiences, who idolise the stars, to judge them whether they are good or bad in the real lives, regardless of how good they may be as actors.
But isn’t it a double-edged sword for them? Some stars are wary of speaking out on the socio-political issues due to fear of backlash, trolls, etc.?
You also get trolled if you don’t speak also. So it is better to speak out and live with the spine. That way, you can look in your mirror and feel proud of what you have done. I live life like that.