Taapsee Pannu has followed an uncharted path to a career in show business. A software engineer by education, the Delhi-born Pannu first had a stint as a model, then a successful run in the Tamil and Telugu film industries, before making her Hindi film debut with David Dhawan’s Chashme Baddoor in 2013. But it was a 10-minute role in Baby (2015) that made audiences sit up and take notice. Playing a special agent, Pannu nailed a highly stylized action sequence—it was such a hit that it spawned a spin-off for her character: Naam Shabana (2017).

Ask the 31-year-old what she sees as the turning point in her emerging career, and she picks Pink. In the 2016 drama, she played Minal, a victim of molestation and sexual harassment who fights a harrowing court battle. Since then she has featured in diverse genres, ranging from comedy (Judwaa 2) to drama (Mulk). Even though 2018 may have begun with the disjointed Dil Juunglee, it’s turning out to be the year of Taapsee Pannu.

In the sports biopic Soorma, which released in July, she played hockey player Harpreet Kaur, who motivates Sandeep Singh to overcome monumental obstacles to reach the top of his game. She was seen as Aarti, a Hindu lawyer defending her wrongly accused Muslim family, in the critically acclaimed Mulk, which released last month. Her Telugu movie Neevevaro opened on 23 August, the day we met for this interview. And on 14 September, Marmarziyaan, her first film with director Anurag Kashyap, will be in theatres.

“I am getting to do a lot of good work," says Pannu. “Besides Dil Juunglee, which I signed even before Pink, when I didn’t know which way my career was going to go, which of these films could I have turned down? Post Pink, I figured out which direction I want my career to take."

When Pannu heard about Baby, she pursued the part doggedly. “I knew that the only way to get noticed would be by doing something that was not expected of me. I was sure I wouldn’t get noticed if I continued to play the heroine in films like Chashme Baddoor. Those 10 minutes in Baby were more than enough, though I couldn’t have predicted how big it would become and that it would get me Naam Shabana," she says.

Pannu, who keeps fit by playing squash, says she doesn’t have a set plan for her career. “Till date, whatever I have planned in my life has not happened, or else I wouldn’t be sitting here for sure." She’s drawn to challenges and potential discomfort while considering new projects. “When I am unsure of what I will be able to do in a film, then something beautiful comes out of it. I am looking for projects that challenge me, make me uncomfortable, and also projects that are in the hands of the right team. Then it’s up to me to take a leap of faith."

Manmarziyaan is a love story orbiting around three characters. How is it any different from the innumerable love triangles explored in cinema across the world? “Usually the girl is like a tennis ball being tossed around between two men," Pannu says. “But here my character, Rumi, is the racket, the ball, everything. She’s no victim. Manmarziyaan is an intense love story from the girl’s point of view."

Pannu speaks warmly of her Manmarziyaan co-actors Vicky Kaushal and Abhishek Bachchan. About Kaushal she says: “I don’t get intimidated by stars, but I do get intimidated by good actors and Vicky kept me on my toes. I was very conscious of the fact that if I don’t give my best, then he is going to take the scene away from under my nose."

After Manmarziyaan, Pannu’s next Hindi release will be Sujoy Ghosh’s Badla, a remake of the Spanish thriller Contratiempo, in which she reunites with Pink co-star Amitabh Bachchan. She’s also given the go-ahead to Womaniya, in which she plays a professional shooter. Prakash Raj’s Tadka, based on the Malayalam film Salt N’ Pepper, is nearing completion and she’s about to start shooting a Tamil-Telugu bilingual.

About her experiences in various language cinemas, Pannu—who once lived in Hyderabad but now calls Mumbai home—says, “About four years ago, I changed my style of selecting films. By that time I had done enough commercial potboilers in Tamil and Telugu and I was not okay with doing them again and again, just for the sake of being an A-lister. As long as I get to do the kind of work I want to do, I am okay with being a Z-lister. So although the number of films in the south reduced drastically, I was happier."

Her co-stars have included a number of accomplished actors such as Rishi Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan, Prabhas and Dhanush, as well as contemporary stars like Varun Dhawan, but the number one name on her wish-list is Robert Downey Jr. “I want to work with him," she says. “My jaw drops every time I see him on screen. I will teach him Hindi so we can do a Hindi movie together, because I don’t have any Hollywood plans. Actually there is a long list of people I want to work with. Forget the men, the leading ladies in mainstream cinema today are so talented."

When it comes to choosing a script, she keeps three things in mind. First, would she spend her hard-earned money to go see this film and devote two and a half hours to watching it? Second, will she enjoy the 50-60 days of her life which are under the supervision of this production team and director, and will she learn something during that time?

“The third thing is that, when I am done with this career, will I be able to show these films to my children proudly?" she says. “Even in something as brainless as Judwaa 2, at least they will be able to see how hot their mother was. I should not be embarrassed or scared to show my kids the work. It’s a legacy, so I want to be sure of my choices."

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