Taapsee Pannu had just spent the day in Rishikesh with family and friends. It's a few days before the Coronavirus restrictions came into place, when shooting was still on. Pannu had a break before she resumed work on Haseen Dilruba in Haridwar.
We are speaking on the phone, as she drives back to Haridwar. She's soaking in the praise for her latest release, Thappad, from the sets of a new film. This is an ideal situation for the actress " to be immersed into a new character and a new film at the time of her latest film's release. It was no different this time.
The role of Amrita, a housewife who takes a stand, in Anubhav Sinha's Thappad is the most recent addition to a filmography that is on a firm footing towards being impressive, coming as it did on the heels of 2019's Badla, Game Over, Mission Mangal and Saand Ki Aankh.
It's been an incredible journey for the Delhi girl who had no plans of becoming an actor. The engineering student was on a business school track when occasional modelling assignments resulted in a break into the movies. In spite of knowing neither language, she shot for a Tamil and a Telugu film simultaneously. The early success of her debut was short-lived. A spate of non-starters followed, which earned her the derogatory label of being a jinx. But she was undeterred.
Pannu soldiered on, following her instincts and making singular choices. Ten years in the industry, with films in Telugu, Tamil, Hindi and Malayalam to her credit, the 32-year-old continues to march to the beat of her own drum.
"Good or bad, right or wrong, I feel proud that it is my journey. Nobody else can take credit for it. I cherish this the most. I have made bad decisions, but those were mine. Perhaps if I had not faced those failures and got the nickname 'iron leg', then maybe I would not have paused and rerouted my career to get on the path I am on. Nothing is the be-all and end-all of life. I never planned to be a heroine or to be the hero of my films. That is what gave me the confidence to persevere, even when I was called a jinx, to now headlining films."
Although she sees the glass as half full, Pannu believes in making the most of life, not just because of her optimism, but also because of a palm-reader. "Ever since someone told me I have a short life line, I feel I need to make the most of it all. Life is too short to crib over things that are not in one's control," she said.
Typecasting is not an issue for Pannu, whose repertoire includes a special agent in Baby and Naam Shabana, a girl caught in a love triangle in Manmarziyaan, a businesswoman accused of murder in Badla and an older person, a sharpshooter in Saand Ki Aankh. Pannu explained that the roles are this varied by design. "The first filter is the script and if it engages me as an audience. Then I check if my aesthetics match with the director's, and if I will learn something from and enjoy the experience."
There is a second filter too. "The character. I cannot do the same thing again and again. I have always tried to experiment. At most people won't like it. That's fine. I will start again. Because when you have started from scratch, without a surname or legacy to take care of you, then you become more fearless. I like to keep changing things up so I wake up excited."
One of the unsaid by-products of a profession where you live many different lives in one lifetime, is carrying a little bit of Meenal, Naina, Amrita or Rumi away with you. Still on the road to Haridwar, Pannu described this condition. "Biologically, we are prone to moods. People say it could be hormonal or chemical or whatever. But as actors we force induce a mood by being another character. So we are playing with biology. In turn, that plays with your mind and can affect your mental health. That is the price we pay. So once a shoot is over, it is important for me to leave the country for a holiday to wash that character out."
Some characters are more draining than others, such as Amrita in Thappad or Meenal in Pink. Pannu found her way to reboot after Pink. "It was the first time I jumped into a character so deeply. I was so vulnerable and had almost convinced myself that I was actually a victim of molestation. It was scary. So now I wash the character out by going on a holiday right after the shoot. I disconnect from work and try to do normal things in a place where I can be anonymous. It's about 80 percent effective. I am not sure how to lose the last 20 percent though, which means I do change a little after every film and every character."
After a decade working consistently (in one year she had seven releases), and being a part of critically and commercially successful films across the country, the one thing her unplanned career didn't prepare her for was public scrutiny and public expectations. "There's a thin line between being a public figure and being public property," she said. "That line is crossed often. I am a public figure but I am not public property. For example, if I am out and don't oblige when someone shoves a camera at me for a picture, without asking my permission, then they start abusing me for not being courteous or cooperative. I am still coming to terms with this intrusion."
The upside is a plateful of rich and diverse projects. Besides mystery thriller Haseen Dilruba, she's going to be doing a whole lot of running " between the wickets in the biopic of cricketer Mitali Raj, as a sprinter in Rashmi Rocket and running against the clock in the Hindi remake of German hit Run Lola Run. Then there's a supernatural/sci-fi thriller directed by Anurag Kashyap, and Tamil espionage thriller Jana Gana Mana.
There are a number of filmmakers she'd like to work with, and she is direct in communicating as much to them. "I have been shameless about reaching out to directors whose work I like. I tell them that I want to work with you. So far, none of them have offered me work, which is okay. Maybe they don't have anything appropriate for me. But that doesn't discourage me. I will continue to reach out because I don't think anyone else will make that phone call for me," she said.
One filmmaker tops her wish list. "I would like to be a Mani Ratnam heroine, at least once." And a character she aspires to play? "An Avenger. A Super-heroine Avenger! I am putting it out in the universe now, and I hope it comes back to me soon," said the actress who follows two maxims: learning never stops, and nothing is permanent.