“Girls look down and walk. The moment they look up, they will find someone staring at them”

There are separate rules for girls set by others. Like, they must wear 'proper' clothes, sit cross-legged and look down while walking, said Taapee and added she started questioning these rules after she grew up

Neelesh Misra
| Updated: Last updated on March 4th, 2020,

What’s the meaning of your name?

Tapaswini. It’s a Sanskrit name. My aunt and uncle had heard this name when they had visited Kochi around the time I was born. People often think I am a Bengali, but they definitely don’t think that I am a Sardarni. People get confused. At times, they refer to me as Mr Taapsee! It’s a new name, it’s a unique name. I am happy that I am named Taapsee.

It’s a beautiful name. Where were you born?

Delhi. I was born in Delhi. I grew up in Delhi. I was in Delhi until I was 21-22. I stepped out only after that. I did my school and college in Delhi. I went out of Delhi only for holidays.

Tell me about your family.

Until I was in the seventh standard, we lived in a joint family at a place called Shaktinagar, which is close to Kamlanagar. We were tenants there. The landlord would live on the ground floor. We lived on the first floor and we had the terrace to ourselves. It’s called a Barsati. There was a room in that Barsati. It’s a typical template of a Delhi house. Ours was a joint family. My grandfather lived here after he moved from Punjab to Delhi. My father had two siblings — one brother, one sister. After they all got married, we felt that we needed a bigger house. We bought an apartment in Rohini with the savings that we had. We still live there. I keep telling my parents that we should move out, but they like it there.

Taapsee with her mother, Nirmaljeet. Source: Taapsee’s Instagram

Tell me their names.

My father’s name is Dilmohan Singh. My mother’s name is Nirmaljeet.

My mother’s name is also Nirmal. Nirmala.

Nirmal is a unisex name. Some boys are also named Nirmal. My sister’s name is Shagun, which is also a unisex name. Back then it was a unique name. Now it’s quite common. She is four years younger to me. But she behaves as if she is my elder sister!

How was your childhood? Were you naughty?

Yes, I was quite naughty! But I wasn’t punished that often. I managed to find that balance; that I will get to do this, if I do this. I was good at studies. No one had to tell me to study. I loved to study. I enjoyed reading my books. I would quickly finish my homework. During exams, I would finish my paper before everyone else did. I was the kind that children generally hate! I would sit on the first bench. I was teachers’ pet. I would raise my hands and answer all the questions. I was the one who would take the maximum number of answer sheets. I was that annoying kid! I would do well. I would top often. I was quite competitive. I would get a fever whenever I would lose. I hate losing. Now I am not like that. I have grown up. This industry has taught me a lot. But while in school, I could not tolerate losing. When I would participate in a tournament, I would give my 100%. I would sulk a lot when I would lose.

Taapsee (center) after she won a race competition. Source: Taapsee’s Instagram

Did you share your feelings with people?

Yes, there were a lot of people around me — my sister, my parents. But I wasn’t too comfortable sharing my sorrows. People say that it’s important to get things out of your system. But I wasn’t comfortable. These are small things. That time it seemed like a matter of life and death. When I look back, I feel like laughing.

Did you have friends?

Yes, I had many friends. I am a pro when it comes to making friends. I have always been an extrovert. When someone would call on the landline and it would be a wrong number, I would still talk for one or two minutes! I am good at talking, so I make friends easily. I had friends in my neighbourhood, school, college, tuition. Not all friends stay, some go away. They stay till the time I make an effort. I think some friends feel that I would feel that they are friends with me because I am an actress now. I lost some friends because I didn’t have the time, I couldn’t keep in touch. In fact, I met some of my classmates from school after I moved to Mumbai and then I revived my friendship with them. I meet them quite often. They are not actors but are from related fields. But I am in touch with my college friends.

Do you have any unpleasant memories from your childhood?

There is nothing that impacted me deeply. People usually ask those who are not from the industry to talk about their childhood. They assume that it must have been full of struggle or troubled. They assume that we must have slept on the footpath during our struggle days. Or they assume that I come from a rich family. I am actually from a typical middle-class background. Mine was a typical childhood wherein I would share everything with my mother, but she couldn’t do much …

Tell me about her.

She likes everything that I do. It wasn’t the case when I was growing up. She would say I didn’t listen or I argued a lot. I was the black sheep of my family. They would compare me with my immediate cousins, who were elder to me. They were good kids. They would never question or argue. They would listen to all. But I wasn’t like that. I was a curious child. If someone asked me to do something, I wanted to know the reason behind that. People called me a badly-behaved kid because I asked many questions. My mother would always compare me with them. There came a point that I didn’t feel like talking to them. That’s how my mother was. She always told me that girls don’t behave this way. But now she is confident that I will manage. She has realised over the years that I will sort things out. I never go by the book, but I have never done anything that could not be sorted.

It was because of her that the acting bug bit me. Before she got married, she would read Mayapuri. She was quite aware about films. She would know all the filmy gossips. Bur after she got married, she landed in a family that was just not interested, so gradually she also lost interest. She didn’t have a regular job, so she would sell branded things from home so that we could have extra money. She earned and saved. In my second year of engineering,, I felt like earning, so people suggested I get a portfolio made as they felt I looked good. My mother used this money that she had saved over the years. We went to a photographer without telling my father. The very next day after this portfolio shoot, I did a photoshoot for a professional brand. Initially, my father was upset, then he became alright. But it’s because of my mother that I had the courage to do these things. My mother’s saving which was Rs 25,000 — a huge amount back then — came handy.

Taapsee with her father Dilmohan Singh. Source: Taapsee’s Instagram

How is your father like?

He is opposite of my mother. My mother likes everything I do, but my father does not like anything that I do! He never appreciates anything that I do. He didn’t do that when I was a child, he doesn’t do now. Now that he is aged, he does not argue much. He lets me do what I want to. But it has never happened that he went out of his way to appreciate me. If he agrees to something that my sister and I do without arguing or without taunting us, we take it as an appreciation. We have learnt to do this. But earlier, when we had to take his permission to do something, we would plan and frame sentences. Even now he is like this. But now we don’t ask for his permission for everything that we do. But even now his “Do what you want to do” is a yes for us and the no- appreciation policy continues. My dad has a problem with everything — from the speed of the fan to the AC temperature. Now that he is retired, he has extra time to find fault with what we do! Now my sister and I just laugh when he starts finding faults.

Do you have a family WhatsApp group?

Thankfully no! My sister and I decided against it because my parents would bombard us with forwards. They are new to social media, so they have this fascination. And then they also complain about each other to us about the amount of time they spend on social media. They send us many forwards. My father sends mythological and religious forwards, whereas my mother sends forwards related to meditation and stuff. And then they ask us if we have watched those videos! This is the reason why we don’t have a WhatsApp group.

What did you do after school?

After school, the big blow for me was that I could not crack IIT. The two big blows of my life were to not crack the IIT and when I saw my father on a stretcher during his bypass surgery. I wanted to be an engineer. I was interested in Maths and Physics. So, it affected me a lot when I didn’t get through IIT.

Why engineering?

Because in my mind Maths + Physics used to be engineering. Software and computers were the happening streams then, so I took it up. But it was only in the second year that I realised that engineer is a lot more than that and eventually you become something else. So I decided to complete my engineering and then do an MBA because B.Tech plus MBA was considered to be a good combination. So, I decided to do something along with my engineering to make those years interesting. Anyway, I loved doing two-three things simultaneously since childhood.

What were those dreams?

My dreams changed. I wanted to become an astronaut, then a scientist, then a teacher. My hyperactive mind couldn’t make a decision when it came to choosing a profession. I don’t have that clarity even now. If you ask me today what I want to do after 10-15 years, I would not be able to tell you confidently that I would be an actress. I enjoy living in the moment. I always felt that we have this one life so we must do a lot of things. So, I wanted to achieve many things. I participated in Miss India when I was in third year of engineering. But I couldn’t comprehend that world. It looked fancy from the outside, but it wasn’t appealing from the inside.

Why?

As a profession, modelling couldn’t hold me for long. I felt as if I was not using my brain. Someone would decide the look for you, someone would decide the pose for you. I wasn’t using my mind. I pursued modelling for a year, which included the Miss India contest. I felt there was too much favouritism. It was the first time I experienced favouritism. It didn’t matter how good you were, but you were judged based on how favourite you were to someone. It wasn’t like this in school and college. I cleared my Engineering with distinction. After coming back from Miss India, I sat for campus placement because I didn’t want my father to comment that I was doing other things because I didn’t want to do engineering. I decided to sit for the first company that came to the campus, which was Infosys. After engineering, I wanted to pursue an MBA. In the very first attempt, I got 88 percentile. I have high expectation from myself because of my father. When I got 90% in the 12th standard, my father didn’t appreciate it. He said if you had put in a little more effort, you would have come first. So that 88 percentiles hurt. There was no plan to join Infosys. So, I decided to take a break for a year and try for an MBA. But I started getting calls from agencies as they had my picture from my modelling days. I didn’t get many calls from Bollywood, but I got many offers from the South. I told them that I didn’t know how to act and I didn’t know the language. They convinced me to come and said they would teach me the language. I told them that I would come after completing my engineering. I went to Madurai and as soon as I completed my engineering. I had signed one Tamil and one Telgu film. I thought I will work for a year, come back and do my MBA. My first film was a hit. I felt as if the god was giving me a signal. But not cracking MBA was a big blow. I never cried when my films flopped, but I cried a lot when I couldn’t crack MBA.

Taapsee’s childhood picture. Source: Taapsee’s Instagram

Tell me about your Punjabi roots and your family back there.

From both sides, my paternal grand-mother is the only one who is alive now. She is someone who call the shots, which is quite unusual in our kind of families. People were petrified of her. If she falls sick, all the three children drop everything and go running to her. My mother calls my father Shravan Kumar. My father is not very reactive. He is a slow-motion person. He reaches late every time. He takes a lot of time to get ready even when there are three women in the house. He drives slowly. Everything is slow in his life. He could be the perfect brand ambassador for you!

Do you have a Gaon Connection?

Yes. There are two villages near Ludhiana — Sidaar and Burundi — where we used to go a lot in while we were in school and college. I didn’t go to Burundi often because my grandfather died before I was born. My maternal grandfather was from Lahore. Both of them died when I was very young.

Sikkhism fascinates me …

Yes. It’s beautiful. I think because it’s a relatively new religion, many things from other religions were incorporated into it. There is a modern outlook.

As a disaster reporter, I have been to the worst of places. I would meet many people. But I always found a langar over there! It used to be very fascinating and inspiring!

I think that’s something that we are always taught right from our childhood — to serve people. In Gurudwaras you will always find people sitting together and eating irrespective of gender and caste. They cook, they serve. I have rolled out many chapatis. I have served. I have eaten there. I have done the dishes. I have cleaned the floor. It’s a kind of worship … giving back. As kids, it used to be compulsion, but as I grew up, I realised it’s importance.

Did it shape you as a person?

Yes. It was only in school did I hear about different castes. No one told me at home. When I asked at home which caste we belonged to, I got a very ambiguous answer. I didn’t know what my ‘gotra’ was. I am not bothered about these things now. I have seen discrimination based on economical strata. When we used to offer food or tea to our maid, she would sit on the floor and eat. My mother would say she hasn’t asked her to, that was her choice. So, I decided I would not allow this to happen after I will grow up. So be it my house-help, my spot boy … I travel with him a lot. Where ever I go to eat, he always sits with me. His job is to take care of my needs, but to sit on the floor and eat is not a part of his job profile.

Are you religious?

I am not a hardcore extremist. We don’t have many festivals or rituals. To serve is the only ritual that we have. To be good and to serve were the two things that were taught to me.

Our identity is unique to us. After we are born, many things are plonked on us, just like our surname. It’s upon us whether to follow them or to question them. Our identity, what we feel, it’s very personal. When I tell stories on the radio, I become someone else. Similarly, you play different characters. Does that shape you as a person?

Yes, like you said, it helps us to be better human beings. In regular jobs, you are just yourself, you see things from your point of view, you make decisions based on your life. But after signing a film, for those 50-60 days, you are someone else. And whether you like it or not, you must think like that person if you have to do justice to your job. Those 50-60 days of living someone else’s life affects you as a person.

Like?

I understood this only after I understood what acting was all about. It took me many years. I understood this during Pink and it was difficult for me to come out of it. I was living the character for 12 hours a day and when I wasn’t, I was prepping for it. It was difficult for me to come out of it. Even after that I played many characters which drove me out of my psychological frame of mind.

Tell me how?

I became very vulnerable. I would cry often. Even the smallest of things affected me a lot. It affected me negatively. If you are playing a molested victim, you will not like your life. When a beggar would approach me, I would start crying. I would have tears in my eyes when I would hear the national anthem. So, I had become very emotional. It was bad. So, I would take a break for a week and consciously yank myself out of that character. It helps that my family is not from the industry. It’s a different world altogether. When I go home after pack up, there are no posters or pictures or awards in my home that remind me that I am an actress. It’s deliberate. When people come to my house, they say this does not look like an actress’ house. There are no fancy artefacts. It’s a regular and cosy apartment where I live with my sister. So, these things help me normalise. If I am not normal, I will not be able to do justice to any character. Then I will be viewing things from a tinted glass. It would be unfair if I see things from a pedestal. So, it’s better that I live in that house. It’s a barter for me. I don’t party. I don’t go out after 10 PM because of which my friends and my sister have disowned me. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, so I don’t have any reason to socialise, which is why I don’t go. So, no one tries to convince me after I say ‘no’. I have done these things consciously. I don’t want to be in a zone from where coming back to normalcy is going to be difficult.

To be a good actor, you have to be a good listener and a good observer. Every artist comes with an expiry date. Some are aware of this, some are not. Some get used to the glamour and the paparazzi, some are grounded. How do you perceive fame?

It’s a by-product of my profession. If my career is a banyan tree, fame is just a branch. It’s not the root, it’s one of the shoots. I had no plans to come here. There was no driving force. I was living my life. I am a Leo. I tick most of the Leo traits. They are always the center of attention wherever I go. I was always the class monitor, a group leader, a head-girl, student of the year … so I didn’t have to go out of my way to get attention. I didn’t become an actress to become famous or to get attention. I do get irritated when people click my pictures as if I am a public property. I am a public figure; I am not a public property. As a kid, I never stood in front of the mirror and said I wanted to be Madhuri Dixit. So now I tell myself that I signed up for this. But till the time I am an actress and people fail to recognise me, then I am doing something wrong. Then I have failed as an actress. So, fame is that shoot; you can’t live without it, but you can’t live with it all your life. You shouldn’t be making decisions based on how famous you are.

What is it like to be a girl in India? We men don’t want to know small things or small things don’t get registered when it comes to men from the point of view of girls. When someone steps out and people are looking at that person, we don’t know how that feels. We can’t feel those piercing eyes. Would you like to comment on this?

There are certain applicable rules for girls versus everyone else. There is a different set of rules for us. So, it makes us feel different than them. Whether you are better than them or worse than them, it’s for you to interpret. But you are definitely not equal. So, the responsibility is upon us to do the right thing — right not according to us, but as per the rules that you have set for us. Be it right behaviour, wearing the right clothes, walking in the right manner, making the right life decisions — the responsibility is upon you.

I would feel very awkward the moment I would step out of my college. College was a comfort zone, but the moment I would step out, walk up to a bus stop and take a bus, I would become aware that there were some strange kind of people in the bus who would make me uncomfortable, though that bus used to drop me very close to my house. This was a DTC bus. There was this other buy that would drop me a little farther from my house, but it was safe, so I would take that. These things were not odd back then, because I was responsible for my safety. So, I changed my pattern rather than questioning them. And it was okay with me until now. When I started working, I broke this conditioning of mine. Even earlier I would ask questions but they were not as radical as they are now because now, I am independent. I can take my life decisions. So now I can afford to ask these radical questions. Even the way we walk is different. We have to look down and walk.

I can’t even imagine walking like that. When the world is in front of me, why should I look down and walk!

Yes! So even if you are a tiger in your college and even if you are pampered at your home, when you step out, you have to look down and walk, because the moment you will look up, someone or the other would be staring at you. You follow these rules blindly. We always have to sit cross-legged. When I stepped out, my father would question my clothes because his reference point was “What would people say?”, which is a reference point of many families in our country. My father has lived his entire life for others. He was very embarrassed when I started modelling. He felt very derogatory. And this continued until people started telling him that they saw my poster or that they saw me on a magazine cover. Only then did he realise that it wasn’t as bad. He wasn’t convinced when I would tell him, I got a validation for my career choice only after his colleagues validated it. And now it’s perfect because his friends or their families want to click pictures with me. But it wasn’t okay back then because if a girl is a model, she is perceived in a particular way. This is why my father was worried; not because he knew a lot about this industry, but because he was worried about getting a validation from his set of friends.

This is how most of the fathers are. It’s the social conditioning.

I remember when I would go to my engineering coaching class, there were two boys who used to like me and they had a fight. But my father was called when it became an issue! That was the first time when my father was called for something negative. That day the atmosphere at home was as if someone had died. And it wasn’t even my fault. But because two boys fought because of me, my character was questioned. So that day I realised that because I was a girl there were a different set of rules for me. After a certain point in time, I accepted it. But now that I am independent, I question it.

Back then, did some unpleasant things happening around you affected you as a person?

I remember I was on 11th or 12th, when on Gurupurab we were on our way to the Gurudwara. I was wearing a regular pant and top. Suddenly someone came from behind and started touching me inappropriately. I felt awkward but couldn’t tell my parents. But I twisted his finger. I actually did that but I didn’t have the guts to turn and look at him.

I think every girl in this country must have gone through this and we, as males, can’t even understand how a woman must be feeling. Coming back to films, what would have happened had you not got those calls to do films?

I would have completed my MBA and I would have done a marketing job — if not a regular desk job, then a freelance job.

When did your first film release?

In 2010-2011. Even when I was shooting for the Tamil and Telgu films simultaneously, I wasn’t thinking about it as my life profession. The Telgu film released first and the director is known to have introduced many girls to the industry. My debut wasn’t a struggle. The real struggle started after the first film released because I had to up my game. My family didn’t have any clue about this industry. Whoever I met professionally suggested me to sign big-budget films, with big directors and big actors. So, I signed a lot of big-budget films in South. But soon, two-three movies flopped back to back. So, then people started blaming me. They felt I was the bad luck charm. I didn’t know how to handle that. I couldn’t understand the logic behind it. I was doing fewer films in Tamil, but my success rate was good. But I also wanted to try my luck in the Hindi film industry. I had done about a dozen films in the South when I came to Mumbai. Down South, I was used to be sitting in the first row. Here, I was treated like a struggler who would sit in the fifth-sixth row. No one even acknowledged me. People were wondering if I was a social climber. I had worked very hard and I wasn’t there by fluke, so it hurt a lot. I was angry that people were not even considering me because I had not done films in Hindi. So, I decided not to attend public events until people valued me. I waited until Pink released.

Have you fallen in love?

Many times! Only after you fall out of love, you realised what love was!

How did that shape you?

The first time someone broke my heart, I was in school. The guy broke up because he wanted to concentrate on his 10th board. I remember going to a PCO and calling him and crying a lot! It was the first time, so I was really hurt. Then I decided I would not give someone the authority to hurt me. I have never cried or wasn’t heartbroken every time I broke up after that.

I also belonged to the PCO-era and love back then was beautiful! Writing letters, waiting for the postman to arrive at 3 pm. The sanctity of touch was a lot more back then. But now things have changed. The meaning of love has changed, the way you love has changed. How has love changed for you from that PCO era until now … the era of blue ticks.  

I think those butterflies have flown away. Now your life is fun and interesting if you are in a relationship. Or there is a sense of security. But we don’t experience those butterflies anymore. Now there is access. That waiting period is gone.

You are also an entrepreneur. Tell me about that.

My family is not very business-minded. Father is not at all. The reason I started the wedding-planning company was because I wanted my sister to live with me. She is interested in planning and event management. So, I have a friend from my Miss India days who is into events. She wanted to start a venture. I asked her if I could be a partner. She agreed. Then I asked my sister who was very happy. I told her, I would invest and she would run it. She does the groundwork and I take all the major decisions as I am the investor. It took us three years to show our father that it’s a profitable business. Once this business went on auto-pilot, I decided to buy a badminton team because I have always been interested in sports. Though it was a long-term investment, but I went ahead and bought the Pune team. My father thought it was the most nonsensical and abrupt idea! I told him it’s my passion and I have conviction. This is my second year as an investor. But badminton is picking up now. There has always been a big gap between cricket and other sports. But sports is a wonderful thing. I think there was a time when I also wanted to become a sports person! You learn so much if you play a sport. You also become a smarter person. While growing up, for me sports stars were the biggest stars.

It was wonderful talking to you. You have had a wonderful journey so far. I hope this continues in future.

Till the time you are alive, you should try to make life interesting. It should not be predictable. I don’t know what I would want to do tomorrow so that keeps me going. Monotony is boring.

One thing that you haven’t earned is appreciation from your father!

God knows when that’s going to happen! I don’t see that happening in the near future! The day it will happen, it will be a historical day!    

Text: Swati Subhedar