Women, Legends, Gamechangers: Taapsee Pannu & Mithali Raj In A 1-On-1 Chat

Jun 8, 2022, 13:37 IST


On Taapsee: Top, skirt and wrist band: Louis Vuitton; Stockings: stylist’s own; On Mithali: Top and skirt: Shivan and Narresh; Bra: Stylist’s own

We have finished shooting for the June cover and are huddled around a table with our beverages of choice. Taapsee Pannu is sitting with her elbow perched on her knee and a coffee in her free hand. Her hair, like her personality, big and unmissable, and not for you to tame, has been scooped up in a high pony of sorts. A scarf, moonlighting as a hairband, is holding up the front to reveal the face we have loved since Baby (2015), the actor’s second Hindi movie, and the turning point in her Bollywood career. She is chatting with people, recalling the bits of the shoot she has liked the most, and casually suggesting the frames in each look that, in her opinion, were stunning, and, more importantly, not clichéd. Taapsee Pannu has no time for mundane things. Anyone who thinks otherwise has not read her filmography.

To Taapsee’s right, and on the opposite end of the personality spectrum, sits Mithali Raj, mostly quiet, emanating an aura that is both calm and powerful. One wonders why society only gives men catchy titles such as ‘Captain Cool’. Mithali is wearing chic cigarette pants and a summer-appropriate jumper, and sipping hot water, blissfully unaware that, despite being around her for six hours, people in the room are still in awe of her. And why wouldn’t they be? In a country where cricket is a quasi-religion and cricketers are demigods, we’re sharing space with an athlete who, in her over-two-decade-long career, most of which she has spent as captain of the ODI team, has managed to vault us into the stratosphere of women’s cricket. Nationally, she is the only cricketer after Sachin Tendulkar, and the third overall in the world to have played in six World Cups. And, in 2021, she became the first Indian woman cricketer to receive the Bharat Khel Ratna award. Making a movie about her seemed like a no-brainer. And casting Taapsee in the lead role of Shabaash Mithu was second only to that.

“They (Viacom 18 Studios) approached me when they didn’t even have a script,” Taapsee tells us. “They just asked if I’d be ready to bite into it and dedicate the time and effort it needed. I knew it would require commitment considering I’d never held a bat in my life before. But, because it was her, because a film on a female cricketer of her stature might never be made again, I braced myself for a long struggle ahead to learn the sport and make a movie where Mithali’s achievements of 23 years could be showcased,” she adds.

“I had met Taapsee once at an awards show in Chennai and later in Bengaluru after the movie was finalised; I remember thinking, ‘She’s the exact opposite of me!’” Mithali confesses. She didn’t doubt the process of Taapsee’s physical metamorphosis; she was sure that would happen. It was whether the actor could embody her in spirit that had her concerned. “That’s true!” laughs Taapsee. “I am nothing like her in demeanour,” she admits. “Unfortunately, when I was training for the part, I couldn’t spend a lot of time with Mithali because she was simultaneously prepping for a bevy of tournaments including the World Cup. Even her downtime was spent in the bio-bubble. I couldn’t learn much about her in person. I only had video references – her training videos, match clippings, and interviews – to learn how she reacts to everything that is thrown at her. Thankfully, everyone who was training me at the time had worked with Mithali. They helped me learn about all the aspects of her personality both on the pitch and off it.”

On Taapsee: Jumpsuit: Shivan and Narresh; Scarf: stylist’s own On Mithali: Jacket, Pants and Visor: Hermès; Sports Bra: Stylist’s Own; Bag: OuthouseTaapsee Pannu

On the surface of it all, it might seem easy to write Taapsee and Mithali off as two very different people. It might seem that there’s nothing that ties them together. But dig deeper and the similarities are as clear as the sky at Lord’s on a summer day. Both women, in their own capacities, have fought against the misogyny that hides in plain sight in their careers. Even until a few years ago, there weren’t many takers for movies with strong female leads. There is also, as Taapsee states, the issue of pay parity between actresses and their male counterparts. Among other things like tackling the media’s vicious questions with utmost dignity, Mithali recounts how her successes were often reduced to the fact that she chose to focus on her cricketing career instead of marrying and raising a family. Men even asked her if she would consider quitting cricket. Both Taapsee and Mithali are also extremely aware of the temporality that is a looming threat. “As a cricketer, we’re only as good as our performance on a certain day,” says Mithali. “Past glory doesn’t matter much.” “Nothing is permanent,” adds Taapsee. “The fact that you’re loved by the audience can totally change with the next film. So, your reason to do what you do cannot be because you want to be number one. The thrill you seek should be to wake up every morning and go to work.”

Over the next few pages, Taapsee and Mithali come together to discuss their journeys, now intertwined through Shabaash Mithu, finding lifelong friendships in women and their future. An easy, free-floating conversation – sometimes hard-hitting, at other times humorous – that was a privilege for us to sit in on.

Mithali: Why did you choose to take up this film centred around an Indian woman cricketer? What spoke to you about this role?
Taapsee: I think it was more like the film chose me. I also wanted to do this because very little has been spoken about something that required so much struggle to reach where it has. When we call ourselves a cricket-loving nation, do we mean only a men’s-cricket-loving nation? Or a cricket-regardless-of-the-gender-loving nation? These were the questions that I wanted to raise, and this film became a medium for that.

Taapsee: How did you feel when you heard it was me playing you in Shabaash Mithu?
Mithali: I have seen your work in Naam Shabana and Pink, and I thoroughly enjoyed the movies, especially the way you have essayed both roles. So, when the production house told me that you were playing me in the movie, I was confident that you would play the role well. But, to be honest, I was a little apprehensive because it is a movie based on a cricketer’s life; would you work on your skills enough? But, having watched your other sports films, I realised that you would give your best to this role, too.

Jacket: Fendi; Bustier: Esse; Pants: Lovebirds; Scarf: Stylist’s ownTaapsee Pannu

M: What were the major highlights in the film that you felt particularly drawn to, high points in your portrayal of my character?
T: There were a lot of highlights; I was nervous about how we would show your journey, especially in a feature film just a couple of hours long. You were a classical dancer as a kid. Normally, people who love sports as children transition into becoming athletes as adults. But, here you were, a classical dancer, without the kind of attitude you generally perceive a woman to have if she is in sports, taking up cricket, usually called a gentleman’s sport. Society stereotypes that, if you are a sportswoman, you should look a certain way or have a typical personality. You defied the stereotype from the word ‘go’. You never had a rags-to-riches story, nor did you face issues where the family never supported you or you did not have enough money. It began after you realised that you were good at it and how you could leave a mark that could change the game for good. That became a high point. From your first-ever international match to all the years you represented India as a captain; to the fact that you were India’s youngest-ever captain to take the team to the World Cup finals and the recipient of the Khel Ratna award. These were some of the crazy milestones that I felt people needed to know. I wanted to use my medium to make sure I could be instrumental in bringing society’s attention to these kinds of achievements.

Another thing that drew my attention to you, even before they offered me the film, was when a reporter asked you, ‘Who is your favourite male cricketer?’ and you replied, ‘Would you ask a male cricketer that?’ That hit home for me because I could relate so much to it as someone who answers questions like ‘Who is your favourite hero?’ or ‘With which actor would you want to be paired?’ – my male colleagues are never asked these questions. It is as if our entire career is dependent on our male counterparts. So when you said that, I was specially drawn toward your journey.

T: I had announced on social media that I hoped you would be proud of what you see of yourself on screen. But, honestly, how does it feel to think that your life and your journey have become a movie?
M: It feels surreal that people are basing a movie on my journey, on my life as a cricketer. I have seen women’s cricketers go from being obscure to becoming household names. It has been an eventful and inspiring journey, and I hope that this movie inspires women to take up sports and pursue what they want to do in life.

M: As an actor, I am sure you have some takeaways from every role you play. What would you say has been your biggest learning from this one?
T: Let your work talk. You are quiet and introverted, but your career milestones and achievements speak so loudly that you do not need to say much. You are not one of those we will see on every poster or every second day in the newspaper giving statements or being involved in controversies. In all these years, people have written about your work and credentials. Another thing I learned from you is that precedence is not always a benchmark; you can create your own. Just because someone hasn’t done something before doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

T: We’ve met a few times over the course of this project. What do you think of me on screen versus off of it?
M: On-screen, I have seen you take up brave projects and single-handedly carry them on your shoulders and own them. You have played a variety of roles, each endearing. You have grown as an actor from film to film, and all of us look forward to your movies. Off-screen, I have always found you warm, chirpy and full of energy, and, as I said, the opposite of me. Something I realised while you worked on this movie was how you started following women’s cricket. You watched all our games and cheered when the team did well. When we lost matches, you texted me saying we would do well the next time. So, it became more than just a role. You took to the sport; you picked up the bat even when you got some time off from the shoot. And even during this shoot! You were there for me throughout, guiding and helping me. People might not know this, but you are a wonderfully warm person.

T: I believe women are stronger when they work together. And I think your life as part of a team of women demonstrates that. What do you think are the unique benefits of women working together?
M: We are a formidable force when we are working together because I think that women, by nature, are more sincere towards their jobs. So, when women work together, they can create magic and do splendid stuff, just like a group of girls in 2017 did when they became part of a revolution in Indian women’s cricket during
the ICC Women’s World Cup Final.

M: Female friendships in Bollywood are the stuff of legend. Tell me more about these relationships?
T: I’m not sure if I know enough about it. I am not socially active in the industry because I have intentionally and voluntarily kept my professional and personal lives apart. But whenever I have worked with female actors, like Jacqueline (Fernandez) and Bhumi (Pednekar), I have shared a great rapport with them. My friendships within the industry are in a professional capacity where I can sit with you at an event and have a great time and exchange experiences we’ve had without giving it too much thought.

Dress: Lovebirds; Earrings: Aquamrine; Socks: Stylist’s own; Sandals: HermèsTaapsee Pannu

T: What are you looking forward to in the days to come, Mithali? What do you see for yourself and for the women’s cricket team?
M: The last two to three months have been stressful because of the World Cup. Now I am using this time to enjoy my time off and think about what’s next in store for me. Where women’s cricket is concerned, the graph is only going upward. With the kind of popularity the sport has gained, there has been a lot of support for women’s cricket. BCCI recently announced Women’s IPL for 2023, which will be interesting. Women’s IPL will be one of the biggest things to happen in women’s cricket, and I hope it does the same wonders for the women’s team as it has for the men’s.

M: I have watched a few of your movies, and being an actor does not look like an easy job either. There must be certain kind of stories that you are drawn to. What are you looking forward to showcasing to the world – other than Shabaash Mithu, of course?
T: I don’t think any work is easy when you are committed to pushing boundaries and envelopes, be it cricket or movies, especially when you strive to become better and better without first thinking about whether anyone has done this before. That job is not easy. So, when you know that you are here to carve a path that no one has walked, you know that it’s not going to be easy. But that’s okay; you want to enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

When people watch my films and walk out of the theatre, I hope they take me and the story back home. I don’t want them to forget me once they walk out of the theatre; and I want them to take the story and the impact with them for a few days. That’s my intention when I pick up films.

Photographs: Ajay Kadam 
Styling: Krishna Mukhi
Art Direction: Bendi Vishan
Videographer: Vaibhav Nadgaonkar 
Hairstylist for Taapsee: Gabriel Georgiou (Anima Creative Management)
Makeup for Taapsee: Cassandra Kehren (Sparkle Talents)
Hair and Makeup for Mithali: George Kritikos (Faze Management)
Fashion Interns: Ritvi Mehta and Dominique D’sa
Location Courtesy: The St Regis Mumbai 

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