"I was careful  to not end up being slotted"

Taapsee Pannu’s much awaited movie opposite Akshay Kumar – Naam Shabana has just released, and the actor talks about how she prepared for the character Shabana which she could not relate to at all.

In her four-year-long career in Bollywood, Taapsee Pannu may not have been as prolific as some of her colleagues are but that was intentional. The feisty gal has undoubtedly made her mark as a talented and versatile actor who can effortlessly slip in and out of a diverse range of roles. So, whether Baby, Pink, RunningShaadi or her upcoming Naam Shabana, Pannnu has been careful to ensure that she isn't stereotyped. In an interview, she talks about portraying a character – Shabana – that she couldn't relate to at all, and how she will continue to steer away from similar genres and roles.

When you portrayed the character of Shabana in Baby, did you realise that the character had the potential to have a movie developed around it?
What I knew was that the essence of the character in Baby would last for a long time. I was certain people would remember me when they walked out of theatres but I didn't have any inkling that it would result in a film that revolved around the character.

Now that the film is set to release and the promos are drawing a good response, are you anxious, excited, nervous?

When Baby happened, people didn't really expect anything from my character or from me; and that kind of worked in my favour. Because then my character shocked the audience. However, with Naam Shabana, people are going to come in with expectations and it makes me happy because I like to work when there are expectations. I want people to have expectations of me because that's what an actor thrives on. They have expectations only if they like you. At least, I like the fact that they have expectations.

Then, I am also feeling anxious but of a good kind because I haven't yet watched the film. After dubbing, I haven't seen it. All the promos and videos that are coming out are a surprise to me as much as they are a surprise to everyone else. I am enjoying that. I am enjoying the process of promoting the film. I am not stressed right now. I might feel a little nervous towards the release, maybe a day or two before that, but right now I am pretty much enjoying the whole buzz.

Your character Shabana comes across as a tough one. What aspects of the character could you relate to and which ones did you not relate to?

I didn't relate to anything in this character. There is no common ground between Shabana and me. I had nothing that I could relate to at any level, whether her body language, the way she talks, her reactions or her emotions… I had to imbibe or learn everything to enact that character. Nothing was my own or real. Perhaps, the only common ground was the focus and determination that this character has, this is something I too have.

What did the director unlock in you as an actor on this project?
I always consider myself a director's actor. I am not a trained actor. Especially with characters like these, which are not in any way similar to me, I have to surrender completely to the director. So my director gets all the credit for how well I could get into the shoes of Shabana.

How does it feel to be the only girl in a film that also features other powerhouse talents like Akshay Kumar, Manoj Bajpayee, Anupam Kher and Prithviraj?
There are two different answers. If you're asking how it felt to be the only female on the sets… I felt really special about that. I was the youngest and the only female, so I was totally pampered and taken care of and I got all the attention on the sets.

But if you're asking me what it was like, as an actor, to be among all these actors… It was intimidating because I was the least experienced of all of them. And then to share screen space with each of them… When the audience watches this scene, any scene that I have done with them, they already know that these actors are very good and they will be testing me. Will I live up to that level or not? This was uppermost in my mind when I had to act with all of them.

So, yeah, it is intimidating when you work with these big names, including Prithviraj. I am actually very scared of him and his fan club because I had to be mean to him on screen because he is my antagonist. Since he is huge star in the South, I told him, 'I hope your fans don't hate me after this.'

Also, as I mentioned earlier, I am director's actor, and it really helped me to have good co-actors because acting is all about reacting. So when I have really good co-actors in the same frame, it enhances my own performance.

There are plenty of women-centric films being made today. Do you think our audience has finally started accepting a female protagonist on screen?
I would say, yes, audiences are warming up to that. We still haven't exploited that potential fully in terms of box-office returns but audiences are
warming up to it. It's so much better than it was a couple of years ago. In the last two to three years, we have taken a leap of a few decades because of the changes we have seen in cinema, especially because of some female characters.

There was a time when there were just one or two female-centric films in the entire year and they were more like experimental films. But now, on average, we have at least one film a month that is centred on a woman. And that is huge leap – and most of these films even end up doing well.

You started your Bollywood journey with Chashme Baddoor in 2013. Since then, what have you learnt and unlearnt?

When I started with Chashme Baddoor, I was new to the Hindi film industry but I had done a fair share of learning from the South. I had made my mistakes there and I didn't repeat them here. Yes, I was pretty slow and steady in the Hindi film industry but I was taking very careful steps. I made sure I was going to play my age. I was going to try to switch between characters. I was not going to do only one type of film.

It's such a huge industry that people tend to typecast you very soon. There are so many actores, once they see you in two to three films that are similar, back-to-back, they slot you in a category. It's like, 'In this genre, these are the actores; okay, move on to the next.' They don't even let you experiment. They have set categories and have typecast actores in each category. So I was very careful to not end up being slotted.That is the only learning I have had during this the period of time. And, yes, a little idea about how to move forward, going a little higher after each film.

I can't expect to suddenly reach the top. I have to be very careful of every step I take going upwards. It shouldn't be a film that will take me down. In the initial years, people would ask me why I was doing only one film a year, why I was taking so long? And I was, like, I am working continuously. It was also coincidence that the films were delayed.

But, this year, I have had so many back-to-back releases. People are probably are realising that I was not faking back then; I was actually working.
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