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Thankful to Akshay Kumar for taking backseat in Naam Shabana, says Taapsee Pannu

The actress, however, underlined how the star's cameo will help take Naam Shabana to the masses.

Mayur Lookhar

Shabana, Naam Shabana. The title is a bit James Bond-esque, and so could the film be. Taapsee Pannu will flex her muscles in Naam Shabana, probably Hindi cinema’s first film with a female spy as protagonist.

The character Shabana had first appeared in Neeraj Pandey’s Baby (2015). Two years on, Pandey has penned a spin-off with Pannu stepping into the saddle, while the directorial reins will be in the hands of Shivam Nair.

Pannu impressed all with her show in Shoojit Sircar’s Pink last year, and is hoping to repeat the success with Naam Shabana. She spoke to a group of journalists and shed light on the film, on why she has no qualms about being labelled India’s female action star, on why she welcomes Akshay Kumar’s cameo in Naam Shabana, and on why she is not too fond of excessive feminism. Excerpts:

Baby was like a teaser for your character, but with Naam Shabana, can we say the ‘Baby’ girl is now set for her James Bond moment? 

(Laughs) James Bond without those fancy clothes... from the outside, it would appear that way, but we didn’t know about this when it [the shooting] was happening. For me, it [playing Shabana in Baby] was a huge role. There is no role big or small, that is what Baby proved for me. I gave whatever I could for those 15-20 minutes. Never knew that Naam Shabana would happen later. I guess the filmmaker noticed my hard work and gave me an entire film now. The audience, too, showed much love for Shabana and this is why I have got Naam Shabana.

Most spy thrillers across the world tend to have a set pattern — a secret agent is out to nab a wanted criminal. The good spy thrillers are largely known for their high-octane action and thrills. Does Naam Shabana promise that? We haven’t seen much thriller action in the trailer.

Of course, we will have all the action, but that will just be one part of the film. There is more to Naam Shabana. The other successful films are just about how the spy completes the mission. This film is about how you spot a spy, what kind of tests that person goes through before he/she becomes a spy. There also has to be a reason why someone is a spy. Then you have to go through a certain kind of training. So, Naam Shabana covers the entire making-of-a-spy aspect. This is something we haven’t seen before, at least in India. The film is a journey of how a normal person becomes a spy.

How is it to not let Akshay Kumar do what he is known for, action? He even says in the trailer, 'I’ve come too far, allow me to do something'.

As a producer, he was the one who asked for it. I think he was the one who set the stage for that. We are thankful to him for taking a backseat. However, it is his presence that will help us take this film to the masses. He comes at a crucial point in the film. That makes me believe he has a certain belief in the film, and me portraying that character. I was just following my producer’s expectation.

You are perhaps the lone female action star in Hindi cinema today. Is that a happy space to be in or is there always the pressure of competing against yourself?

There are girls who have tried their hands at action. It’s just that with Naam Shabana, I now have two films, in comparison to others who probably would have done one action film.

True, but none of them have skills like you. You are trained well in martial arts. 

I’m happy if I’m starting a space, genre for a girl. I don’t have any qualms being ‘the female action star’ or whatever you can call it. 

Last week (on 24 March) we had two woman-centric films — Phillauri and Anaarkali Of Aarah. Your film is scheduled to release next, then we have films like Begum Jaan, Noor and Maatr coming up. Given how fickle our audiences are, is there a fear of having an overkill of woman-centric films?

Well, one never asks such questions about male protagonists, then why ask about a female protagonist?

No, what I meant to say is that these films are coming in quick succession. Some of them may be perceived as feminist tales. Could all these films have been timed better?

Haven’t you seen enough heroic roles of guys? Don’t the male-centric films talk about machoism? As an actor, I feel very lucky witnessing such a change in Hindi cinema. I wouldn’t have expected such a thing earlier where we had just one or two woman-centric films a year. So, it’s a welcome change, people are accepting it. What we need is everyone, the media included, to support this endeavour. You need to project these films on a par with the so-called male-centric films. It’s then that the audience will also spend Rs200-300 on a ticket to watch it in theatres.

Today, there is a debate on whether actresses should be paid on a par with actors. Your thoughts?

I don’t have any problem with that. This is show business. At the end of the day you will only be paid according to how much your film makes. How many people will walk into a theatre because it is a Taapsee film? I should be paid according to that. That is why I say that if films like Naam Shabana are projected in a big way, the audience walks in and says, ‘it has this girl, then I want to watch it’. Then our box-office returns will be high, and accordingly our pay cheques will rise.

It doesn’t work one way. I can’t expect to put a burden on my producer, saying pay me on a par with my hero. The truth is that most producers ask, ‘who is the hero’? Most of them are not bothered about the heroine. So, why should I be paid more? The day audiences walk into theatres wanting to spend Rs200 on a Deepika Padukone, Priyanka Chopra, Kangana Ranaut, or even my film, then that will be the day I will ask for a particular amount.

Today we to get to hear the word ‘feminazis’ — feminists who are probably equivalent to male chauvinists...

For me, chauvinism, feminism should not be gender-specific. Excess of anything is bad. All these years, we have seen excess of one gender, now probably the other side is going out and expressing itself. I didn’t support the dominance of males, but neither do I support the ‘feminazis’.

For me, feminism is about equal opportunity. I don’t want any reservation. I don’t want pity just because I am a female. Today, I feel weird when people ask me, ‘How do you feel being the female protagonist?' That is a weird question to answer. Sometimes, we tend to overuse the power that we have. 

So you would never like your film to be dubbed a feminist film?

I would love the day when we don’t categorize our films as feminist, woman-centric. For me, heroism is not about a gender.

Akshay Kumar had recently said females make for the best spies. Did you come across one? Is the film inspired by any real-life characters?

Some things are best hidden. So, today I can’t talk about whom all I met. During my research, I came across a female spy called Mata Hari, a female exotic dancer, who was deployed during World War II [Note: Mata Hari was convicted in France of being a German spy during World War I and executed by firing squad]. We don’t have that part in the film. Then there were other female spies — Nancy Wake, Noor Inayat Khan. Probably these were the last of the female spies in that lot. Women make for better spies because they have a sixth sense.

Neeraj Pandey has written the script while the film is directed by Shivam Nair, who is unknown so far. Can you talk a bit about him?

You may not know about him, but you talk to any of these big directors, be it Anurag Kashyap, Imtiaz Ali, Neeraj Pandey, all of them have great respect for him. Some have even worked under him. He has been here a while. Sadly, he didn’t get his due till now. I hope he gets it with this film.

You recently posted on your Facebook page about how you were once labelled an ‘iron leg’ and ‘one who brought bad luck' to films. Have the views of such people about you changed now?

I didn’t ask them if it has changed. I’m hoping the views have changed. It didn’t happen here [in Hindi cinema] but down South. I just felt very sad. I don’t want to start a fight. The reason why I spoke of those things is that there are a lot of other girls also who are probably facing such criticism. There is a bunch of people, some even from the media, who did that.

Imagine what a girl goes through. Here’s a girl who comes from Delhi, she has never even heard the language. She decides to come down South and give it all that she has. Learn a new language and do the kind of roles that she thought she would never do. Just because a couple of films failed, I was tagged as a reason for bringing bad luck to films. I didn’t even have much say in those films.

How devastating is that for a girl? Today, I’m in a position to voice these opinions and hope that people will listen to me. I used that platform to merely tell those people to never do such a thing to a girl. It destroys you from inside.

Thankfully, I’m not a person who was very passionate about films or who has long-term goals. Imagine a girl who always wanted to be an actress and then ends up hearing that you are sheer bad luck, how devastating would that be? Someday the tables will turn, and you will not want to be in that position.