Taapsee Pannu: “Actresses are replaced easily while filmmakers wait years for male actors”

Taapsee Pannu returns to the big screens after a two-year hiatus. His last release was Looop Lapeta which landed straight on a streaming platform during the pandemic. In Shabaash Mithu, the actress steps into the shoes of Indian cricketer Mithali Raj and tells the story of her struggles and victories.

In this interview with indianexpress.com, Taapsee explains why Mithali’s journey felt a bit personal and wants to be her cheerleader for life. Admitting that she is nervous, the actress explains: “Not because it may be the first, but also because it almost looks like the first lady of women’s cricket. It’s also a theatrical release after two years for me, so the stakes are very high. It is also the film with the biggest budget that I have made. It is important that you know and feel that it matters. The day when it stops giving me butterflies or this feeling of nervousness and pressure, it means that I have become indifferent and that I have to change jobs.

Taapsee was one of the few actresses to have multiple releases in a year. The actress shares that she is now able to choose her work and the filmmakers believe she is capable of portraying the characters they write. She shares, “It works both ways now. There are filmmakers who believe that I can match a certain character so that they come to me, and therefore I can choose them. Then there are movies where I’m not the first choice, and after a few rejections they come to me and I take it and it works, like Haseen Dilruba. Then there are films that I like, like Saand Ki Aankh. So it’s happening in every possible way, and I’m happy about it. It means I have a choice, and the power to choose and having him come to me is also like a position of power. When I started a few years ago, nobody wanted to come see me and I had to keep asking for work. I saw those days too.

Mithali Raj has earned praise for her sport, as well as her outspokenness and speaking out against sexism in her profession. In this way, its arc is somewhat similar to Taapsee. She says: ‘I started noticing Mithali when she made that statement about ‘who is your favorite cricketer? We know women’s cricket thanks to her. I was guilty of being ignorant about it, and wanted to use my medium to correct it. Since that day, I am his fan. She had the courage to call it when she was captain of the Indian team. People keep saying that as actors don’t cross that line, don’t talk too much. She is a woman who speaks very little, but she chose these good words to say it at that time.

As Mithali’s cheerleader for good reason, Taapsee says, “I followed her journey after that and saw the kind of ceilings she broke. She has set foot in the door for women’s cricket. Of course, there are still people who are ignorant, and I hope this film will help them learn a little more about one of the greatest female cricketers, who has certain records that put her on par and above of many male cricketers. These kinds of facts need to be corrected and I’m glad that as a fan girl I can present this.

Taapsee has spoken out against sexism in Bollywood on several occasions, and she shares that even with the changing times, she keeps getting asked who her male co-star is. She shares: “I am still asked who your favorite actor is, I have been answering for twelve years. I am also asked, after having signed a film, hero kaun hai (who is the hero)? So, I also have that, a very exasperated reaction that is presented in the trailer, in the film. That’s the connection, that’s what made her journey a bit personal when I read that reaction, because I was faced with the same questions – why the lack of opportunity and the lack of equality, why are there discrepancies. This country has two religions – cricket and cinema – and yet it matters to us what is the sex of the one who bats or throws the ball or who directs the film? Are we a nation loving male cricket team or male moviegoers not really moviegoers or cricketers? These are the questions that arise, finally. I’m happy that conversations about these issues are taking place, that people are asking questions.

Fighting sexism in the film industry, Taapsee has found a formula that works for her.

“I had no other options. Honestly, I haven’t been offered many movies where I have a hero to piggyback on early in my career. In addition, I came from films in the south where I grafted myself onto all my heroes and I didn’t know any better. I didn’t even know the basics of my job. I learned them while I was at work. I realized that the root cause of all these problems you face as an actress is that you are easily replaceable. Eventually, everyone is replaceable and we’ll walk through it, but the ease with which an actress is replaced is very different from the way directors and producers wait years for a male actor or write scripts for them. If that changes, things will change. So when I started Hindi movies, I decided not to repeat those mistakes and try to be someone that people would really want to play a certain role for, that people would want to go into theaters for.

Speaking about this dichotomy, she added, “For a very long time, I observed that they didn’t want to pay me because they felt like I wasn’t really bringing the audience to the theater. But, it was a very clear difference. The movie budget was decided by who the hero is because he’s the person who takes you to the theater. So you’re a bit more insignificant, a more irrelevant part of the movie. So when you command a certain audience, you get paid, that’s what I learned. So, I wanted to start working on it very early here, and so the kind of films I chose and made, I had no choice but to be the protagonist,” Taapsee concludes.

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