Acclaimed actress Taapsee Pannu is quite psyched up about her upcoming release Shabaash Mithu, a biopic based on the life of former Test and ODI captain of the India women’s national cricket team, Mithali Raj. Pannu plays the lead role in the film and will be returning to the silver screen after a long gap of over two years. Her last theatrical release was Anubhav Sinha’s multiple award-winning film Thappad, which hit cinemas weeks before India announced a complete lockdown to contain the spread of the coronavirus in 2020.
During an interview, Pannu talked in detail about her preparation to get into the shoes of Mithali Raj, how Shabaash Mithu stands out from the other sports biopics the audience has seen lately, why there is no romantic angle in the film, and so much more. She also opens up about why she does not want to do more sports biopics in the near future. Read on…
Are you chasing sports or the sports-makers are chasing you?
I think it is a mutual attraction. I love sports, so a film with a sports background be it in any film industry, is bound to come to me. Okay, I love sports a lot and now I would love to take a break from the films that have a sports backdrop because I am really feeling tired now. Acting and sports have always been my thing for so many years now and now I would like to see myself as a normal actor. I almost forget that I am an actor as I feel more like an athlete now.
Most sports biopics follow the underdog victory and struggle. How does Shabaash Mithu make sure that it stands out from the rest?
So, I will tell you what. These underdog stories are very relatable and in fact, your biggest protagonist films are those where the underdog becomes the hero in the end, regardless of being a sports biopic or not. Where this film is different is that her personal struggle is not that special. You will not feel that mom and dad were not supportive, they had no money, and that they rose from their ashes. This film does not have that angle because she did not have that kind of problem. This is more of an underdog story of women in blue, not Mithali. But the story is being told from Mithali’s lens because she is the perfect person who had the longest career. So, she has seen the anonymity, when the women’s cricket team had that anonymity. Till ten years, she had no footage of her career. She kept on breaking records but there was no visual reference to how she used to play earlier. After playing for 10 years, her matches started getting recorded. So, from anonymity to getting women’s cricket to what it is today, her life looked like the perfect vehicle to give you a quick recap of women’s cricket in India and hence this biopic. So, it is not really a biopic of personal struggle, it is more like a team rightfully asking for acknowledgement and attention and love that this cricket-loving nation has been overlooking and avoiding them.
You have never played cricket. So how difficult was it to play it on screen?
Oh, very difficult. Very difficult, not just cricket but personality also. I have not touched a bat my whole life and whenever I used to get a chance to play in our lanes, I only used to do fielding. They never used to let me bat or bowl. So, I gave it, I chucked it and I was like, I will do something else, or play some other sports maybe. So, I played a lot of other sports but not cricket.
When I got this chance, I got really excited about the idea of playing a legend like her on-screen but it came with a heavy price of learning a sport I have never ever played before. So, I picked up the bat and it took me months and months to master the shots that I had to show on the screen. I am not a master at the game. I still do not know how to play the game as a full match. But yes, I can hit the ball and I know the shots. If you tell me to hit a square cut, I will hit a square cut, so if you tell me to hit a cover drive, I will hit these shots for you. I do not know how to bowl, but I can field. I have started the backward preparation of the question paper because it is not possible to learn such a big sport within a few months. So, I will be very honest with that fact but whatever comes in the question paper, I have prepared well for it, I can say that.
Apart from the sport, how was the acting part?
In this film, the cricket is minimum. My part, where I played the sixteen-year-old, the small child who was playing the part when she was 8-9 years old, which was the first time she started playing cricket till 36 years old, you will see it through me. But if we are hell-bent on showing cricket, then I will have to make a web series. Firstly, we have only shown the milestones where she has broken the record and the highlights of those matches. So, we were very, very precise with the cricket that we have to show. Beyond that, most of the film is drama portions where you will see what went beyond the field. For that, I had to be like her which means another acting challenge because I am totally the opposite of Mithali Raj. If any of you has gotten the chance to talk to her, you will agree with me. She is very laid back, very quiet, and does not express much. She does not emote much. She does not talk much and everything is opposite to me. For me, the challenge was how do I show my audience everything in two and half hours because today I am happy, I am sad, I am angry, I am jovial. My emotions are a very, very narrow range of emotions because she does not believe in showing emotions. She herself says, “I do not want the person in front of me to know what I am feeling inside.” So, she is not an expressive person. You cannot read her.
I remember my mother watching the film with me and at the interval, she was like ‘tere zyada dialogue nahi hai film mein.” So, I was like, “Yeah, it is not my biopic, it is Mithali Raj’s biopic. So, yeah, it is a big challenge for me to make sure my audience understands her emotions without showing obvious expressions. So, I had to give in a whole lot to it.
Unlike in Rashmi Rocket, you are showing a real character who is alive and you are interacting with her too. How did you learn the difference between Rashmi Rocket and Shabaash Mithu?
That is the biggest limitation. With Rashmi Rocket, it is a fictional character where I can make it look like whatever I want to but here I can’t. And she is very much there. See, on one side, the biggest problem that we are tackling in the film is that it is my strength that nobody really knows much about women’s cricket in this country. So, it is not like Dhoni and Virat, and Sachin. People know how they talk. People know exactly how they look or emote. It is not like that so I could have easily taken the advantage and done something easy for me as an actor to perform. But then I am doing injustice to the people who have actually followed her for so many years because there are certain kinds of spectators who have really followed her and who are her fans. So, I am being dishonest to them. So, I do not want to be dishonest to people like this. So, we had to have a very fine line between not getting out of the Mithali character but yet making sure you understand what I am feeling when I am feeling otherwise how will you feel for the character!
What is the entertainment quotient for those who are not cricket fans?
Humour, you know, I would call it dark humour. Dark humour in the sense that you might feel it is so sad but they will make you laugh at how ironic things are in cricket, just because a different gender is involved in it. So, a lot of such kind of humour you will see in the film. See, I am not a cricket buff, okay, and neither is anyone in my family but whatever cricket we have shown in the film, that is engaging and engrossing enough for you to feel the entertainment quotient. You do not need to know all those technicalities and the terms.
There isn’t any romantic angle…
No, because she had no time. She had some other burning issues that she did not find time for. So, there is a slight kind of dark humour you will find in the film that you will like. It will humour you but not like naach-gaana and all. There is no romantic quotient. There are no love songs.
For how long did you know Mithali? Did you meet her and she has given you any tips?
So, I know her since the time she gave the statement that “Why do you keep asking these questions to female cricketers only and not men who is your favourite male cricketer?” which was asked to her. That was the first time I noticed her through that interview. That is when I got to know that there is a women’s cricket team in our country. So, I am myself guilty of the fact that I did not know and hence, somewhere I probably would have manifested it in my head that I would probably get this chance to correct my mistake which I am trying to make the most of.
Mithali and I did not really have enough time to interact or spend time with each other because she was still active at that time and it was a covid period. So, she was either in a bubble or playing a tournament or on World Cup camp which was again supposed to be in a bubble. So, we had limitations in terms of the timeline to prep up and shoot. I couldn’t wait for her to retire and give me enough time to prepare for it. So, I had to go ahead with the other four cricketers who played with her over years and one of them is a really, really dear friend of hers who has known her for more than 10 years. So, she and whoever else has trained me has played for India with Mithali. So, they kind of became my window to Mithali, and sometimes, you know, it is actually better to know someone through a third-person perspective. Because sometimes I might forget how I was ten years back or how I used to talk or how I used to behave but someone who has seen me ten years back might tell you a better account of how I used to be versus how I am right now. So, it was kind of a good practice actually.
After Thappad, this is going to be your first theatrical release after a very, very long time. Is there any kind of pressure? And do you feel that after Thappad, is there going to be a change in your trajectory?
My trajectory hopefully is changing only. It has to because then you have to grow once your risk-taking capacity increases. Yes, it is coming after two years, after Thappad and that is what is making me nervous, making me feel the pressure. But rightfully so. The day it stops making me pressurized, or a theatrical release stops making me feel nervous, I think it is time to change my job. It is indifferent then. It is just happening and I am going with the flow where I stop getting affected. So, what is the point?
For two years, your films on OTT have also done well. So, is it that now you are comfortable be it any platform?
I want people to spend time and money on my films, believing that it is going to be worth their time and money. Whether you release it on an OTT platform or in theatres, I want validation from my audience because they are the ones who are paying for my content, the ones that are putting it on OTT, or the films that are releasing in theatres. I was very skeptical about OTT until Haseen Dillruba released and then it showed me that I did not feel for a second that it was not like a theatrical release. The kind of buzz that it created was great. I will not say that I am totally averse or against or not comfortable with OTT but I kind of liked the idea of community viewing. I like watching films that way. Watching films together in a theatre amidst a great sound system amongst 100-200 people watching it together, that kind of gives me a good feeling. So, I would want my audience to do that for me.
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