If you love cricket, it shouldn’t matter which gender is holding the bat: Taapsee Pannu

Taapsee Pannu talks about portraying Mithali Raj in the upcoming biopic, Shabaash Mithu, struggling with ‘square cuts’, and her forthcoming films with Shah Rukh Khan and Anurag Kashyap
Taapsee Pannu as former Indian skipper Mithali Raj in the biopic 'Shabaash Mithu'. (Trailer screengrab)
Taapsee Pannu as former Indian skipper Mithali Raj in the biopic 'Shabaash Mithu'. (Trailer screengrab)

Taapsee Pannu, like many self-proclaimed fans of cricket, wasn’t exactly watching women’s cricket. That changed when, in 2017, she read of Mithali Raj’s famous repartee to a journalist, who’d asked the former Indian skipper to name her favourite male cricketer. “Do you ask the same question to a male cricketer?”

Mithali had snapped, a reply that rightly made headlines and turned out to be the kind of dissent that sportswomen sometimes seem to need, in order to have the world take notice of them. “Until then I was also one of those people guilty of not watching,” Taapsee, who plays Mithali in her forthcoming biopic, Shabaash Mithu, says. “Mithali became my window into women’s cricket because of what she spoke and stood for.”

Taapsee Pannu
Taapsee Pannu

Taapsee first met Mithali at an awards function in Chennai. After the biopic was announced, they could only interact once or twice. “It was during the pandemic; so, she was either in a bubble or playing a tournament or training for the 2022 World Cup,” Taapsee recalls. As a replacement, she had to rely on Mithali’s teammates including bowler Nooshin Al Khadeer, Mithali’s best friend of 23 years for input.

Taapsee apparently threw herself hard into the training. Having never played cricket, she tried learning the sport in character, adopting Mithali’s stance, backlift and footwork. Even the cricketer’s pre-match rituals, like putting the left pad on before the right, became hers.

Batting was another matter altogether. Imitating Mithali’s fierce and flamboyant batting style was no joke, and Taapsee, surrounded by actual state-level cricketers in the supporting cast, had to really up her game. “For me, the toughest shot to do was the square cut. The timing of it was hard. I wouldn’t let the ball come to my side. I would always end up hitting it earlier.” Also, it didn’t help that there’s a little visual record of Mithali’s early career. “We are portraying her from ages 16 to 36, but there’s no visual before 2006-2007 when the BCCI took over (women’s cricket). Whereas for a film like 83, they had clear footage to rely on.”

This, like Mithali’s ‘favourite cricketer’ response, or the fact that there were just three teams in the Women’s T20 Challenge (it’s being replaced by a full-scale Women’s IPL from 2023), illustrates a wider bias towards men’s cricket in India, Taapsee feels. “Changes are happening, but we needed to acknowledge this problem. If we really love cricket, it shouldn’t matter which gender is holding the bat.”

‘Bollywood has a crisis of courage’

While sounding enthusiastic for Shabaash Mithu, and hoping it changes things for the better, Taapsee also expresses some weariness about the sports film genre. A third of her recent Hindi projects have been sports films, in fact. Even two that weren’t—2018’s Manmarziyaan and 2022’s Loop Lapeta—had her playing protagonists with an athletic background.

“Whenever I get a script or character sketch now about a sportsperson, I just shut it these days,” concedes Taapsee, who’s been offered swimmers, cyclists, shot putters and footballers in the past. “It’s become too physically and mentally taxing for me. So, I need a pause.” With no less than six other films in the offing, that’s a minor concession in Taapsee’s buzzing filmography.

The most exciting of these, of course, is Dunki, Rajkumar Hirani’s film starring Shah Rukh Khan. The film’s first schedule was wrapped up last month, with the film said to be a cross-border immigration drama with a message. We ask Taapsee if SRK spoke about his favourite film of hers. “For all obvious reasons, it should be Badla (laughs), since he produced it, and it made a lot of money.

He keeps mentioning my films to other people. I love Chak De! India of his. It’s my favourite Hindi film of alltime.” After Shabaash Mithu, Taapsee has Anurag Kashyap’s Dobaaraa for release. The Manmarziyaan duo has reunited for a sci-fi tale about a mother and a young boy. The film, adapted from the Spanish-language Mirage (2018), premiered at the London Indian Film Festival, and is headed for the Fantasia Festival in Montreal this week. “No other director has the stardom of Anurag Kashyap at film festivals,” Taapsee says.

“Even in scenes where he is trying to hide a mistake, people find some meaning. There’s a different level of obsession with his work.” Last year, Taapsee floated her production banner, Outsiders Films, with Pranjal Khandhdiya. Their maiden venture, the psychological thriller Blurr, starring Taapsee and Gulshan Devaiah, will release this year. She has also backed Dhak Dhak (a road trip film with an all-female cast) and is producing a film starring Samantha Ruth Prabhu.

After over a decade in the industry, how liberating has turning producer been? “It’s liberating for a few days,” Taapsee says, laughing. “Most of the time though, I feel a lot of responsibility and pressure. I am discovering new aspects of the industry. There is so much that goes on behind the scenes.” Such as?

“Well, for example, a lot of people used to call me brave for choosing films like Pink. It seemed like a no-brainer to me. But when you are a producer and you go into the market to pitch these films to cast and crew, the kind of reactions you get… not everyone is ready to take that kind of responsibility. That was an eye-opener for me, as someone who used to think that the industry was lacking in opportunities. Not everyone has the courage, it seems.”

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