Taapsee Pannu has quickly become of the most recognizable faces of the South Indian film industry and is now making a mark in Bollywood. Her performance in last year’s hit, PINK, where she starred with the legendary Amitabh Bachchan, has been a favourite with the critics. Known for her offbeat film choices as much as for her intense portrayals on screen, Taapsee Pannu is definitely here to stay. Ayesha Babar caught up with Taapsee to speak about her next, Naam Shabana, that sees her play a secret agent who can pack a punch or two.

Ayesha: Congratulations on the success of PINK and the wonderful feedback that you have been getting for it.

Tapsee: Thank you! It has been a special journey indeed.

Ayesha: Coming to Naam Shabana, you look phenomenal in the trailer and the promos – especially in terms of the action sequences and the physicality of the character that you play. It’s a first in some ways as we have not really seen a female lead doing these kinds of extensive sequences before.

How difficult was it to train for the role?

Tapsee: It was very challenging physically and even more so mentally to play this character on the screen because I don’t relate to Shabana, one bit!

The film was actually quite a big gift for all the hard work that I had put into that sequence in Baby; I see this film as a bonus that I got as a reward for all that effort so I can definitely say that hard work pays off in a huge way. The love and response I got for that small role was what convinced the makers to create an entire film about the backstory of the character.

Physically, yes, it was hard. My training didn’t really stop after Baby as I had to continue for Naam Shabana. The trainers kept on adding different Marshal Art techniques to my regimen and that made me really tough and stronger. My trainer used to say that we are training you up not only to kick but to get kicked as well! The real test is not in hitting or punching someone, it is in how well you can take the blows. That is what really takes a lot more energy. The training has to be much more intensive than what one needs for the screen because you only rarely end up using about 40% of the training in a scene. The strength building really helped me carry on shooting the sequences. Sometimes we shoot for more than twelve hours to film an action sequence which might be only about one to two minutes on screen. It can get really taxing to do those movements for that long a period of time and the body needs to have the strength to pull that off.

There are lots of different types of action scenes in the film so that audiences don’t get bored of seeing the same kind of action again and again.

Mentally, it was even tougher because I could not relate to Shabana’s role. When we were shooting Baby, the role was quite black and white – that this girl has to be extremely vulnerable from the outlook but inside she is a trained professional who can defend herself. For Baby, that was the only instruction that I got.  For Naam Shabana, I had to go through a lot of extensive research and training in terms of how she would react. I, as a person, am so different to Shabana’s character in the sense that I am much more expressive, Shabana is not at all; she is a woman of very few words. She has an amazing sixth sense! There was a statement given out by one of the intelligence agencies recently that female spies make for the best spies because they always have an intuition and can multitask – so we were trying to incorporate that a little bit.

Shabana fits the bill really well that way as she can anticipate things, read between the lines and react very quickly. I, on the other hand, have no sixth sense at all! I am gullible and take things at face value. She is very, very quick. That was one point that we constantly kept in mind in terms of the physicality for not just the action shots but even for other scenes. Since she has that presence of mind, her eyes are always looking around to see what is happening around her. Even if she is speaking on the phone on the balcony, her eyes will always be busy spotting if there is anyone who might have followed her or if the person who she is speaking to is around her. Because she is mentally very sharp and quick, her physical reactions also had to be very fast. These are all qualities based on which she has been chosen for the work she is doing in the film.

Ayesha: Could you tell us about the emotional side of the character and her backstory?

Tapsee: She has different break points in the film. She doesn’t express very much so her emotional reactions are also in line with that. We wanted to address a few different questions in terms of her character – how much can she breakdown? How helpless can we really show her to be? There were some tricky intricacies involved in the emotional scenes. I had to always look at Shivam or Neeraj (the makers) while I was doing such scenes so that I could get a sense of ‘is this much okay?’ or ‘should I hold back a bit more’? The boundaries that I had set for the character were both strict and vague in my head because we couldn’t go all out with her.

Ayesha: Naam Shabana comes after a very successful Baby and the makers have delivered a string of films with Akshay Kumar in the last few years that have done well at the box office and garnered critical acclaim. Does that put too much pressure on you, given that you are still fairly new to the Hindi industry and the film is riding on your shoulders? 

Tapsee: I am actually not feeling even a tiny bit of nervousness or pressure because the kind of people involved in this film – from Neeraj Pandey to Akshay Kumar  – make me feel like I am in the safest possible position. I couldn’t have asked for a better film to be the protagonist in or to have the title role. Both Neeraj Pandey and Akshay Kumar are not just the writer or actor in the film, they are both producing it too – so it is their money at stake and that means that they will give the film their all. I really could not have asked for a better project to be the central character!

Ayesha: Let’s do a round of quick questions to end. One director you would want to work with?

Tapsee: Mani Ratnam is definitely at the top of my list!

Ayesha: One actor you would like to be cast opposite?

Tapsee: I want to work with all of them (haha) but I think if I had to choose, it would be Ranbir Kapoor – I am so impressed with his versatility.

Ayesha: One actress out of your contemporaries who you think is doing quite well and is making good choices?

Tapsee: There are quite a few of them – I think Deepika Padukone is very good with choosing the kind of films that she does. Kangana and Alia too have been part of some very interesting films that I really admire.

Ayesha: Thanks Tapsee – all the best for Naam Shabana!