Mithali Raj couldn’t give much time to Taapsee Pannu

Being an active player then, who spent much of her life on cricket fields and in bio-bubbles, Raj couldn’t afford to give much time to Pannu for her biopic. The actor then banked on Raj’s former colleagues to get a perspective on the legendary Indian cricketer.

By Mayur Lookhar

Talk to any sportsperson and s/he is likely to tell you how sport is good for one’s general wellbeing. Though an actor but Taapsee Pannu has had a fair glimpse into the life of a sportswoman. She played a hockey player in Soorma [2018], a shooter in Saand Ki Aankh [2019], then a track and field athlete in Rashmi Rocket. She now played the great Indian batter Mithali Raj in the biographical film Shabaash Mithu [2022] that is set to be released in theatres on 15 July.

One look at her toned, athletic body is enough to tell why filmmakers pick her for sports-based films. We’ve met Taapsee Pannu before, but watching her today, she looked a bundle of joy both physically and mentally. Maybe, she’s reaping the benefits of playing a sportswoman.

However, it does with come with its trials and tribulations and Pannu seeks a break from them. Surprise, but that’s the way it goes. The acclaimed actress largely shared her Shabaash Mithu journey in this group interview.


Are you chasing sports or are sports [film] makers chasing you?

I think it is mutual attraction. I love sports. Irrespective of the language, sports film offers tend to cross my way. I like sports but now I’d like to take a break from such films. It gets too tiring to act and also [learn] sports at the same time. I’ve started to feel more like an athlete than an actor. Now, I’d like to experience the actor in me more.

Most sports biopic follow the underdog template. How has Shabaash Mithu made sure that it stands out from the rest?

Underdog stories are very relatable. 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 you won’t find much of Mithali Raj’s personal struggle. This is more an underdog story of ‘Women in Blue’ [Indian women cricketers], not Mithali. But the story is told from Mithali’s lens. She had the longest career in cricket. She has seen Indian women’s cricket from its anonymity days. For 10 years, there was no footage [live coverage] of her career. She set many records but there was hardly any visual reference.  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. Hence this biopic. It is not a biopic of personal struggle, but it is more like a team rightfully seeking acknowledgment, attention, love that this cricket loving nation has been overlooking.

You never played cricket, so how tough was it to get into the skin of Mithali Raj?

Not just cricket, but even as a personality. Firstly, I’d never held a cricket bat. The few occasions when I played, I was only asked to field. I was excited to play a legend like her on the screen. But it came with a heavy price of learning a sport that I’d never really played before. I picked up the bat, and then it took me months to master the shots that I had to show on screen. I still don’t know how to play a full match. But I can hit the ball, I know the particular shots.  

What about the acting part?

Majority of the film lies in its drama where you will see what went beyond the field. For that I had to be like her. That was another challenge because my personality is totally opposite. She is very laidback, quiet. She doesn’t emote much. So, how do I show my audience that I’m happy, sad, angry, jovial in that limited narrow range of emotions. Mithali doesn’t believe in showing emotions. 

I remember my mother telling me that you don’t have many dialogues in the film. I told her right, but it is not my biopic, it is Mithali Raj’s biopic. It was a big challenge to make sure that my audience understands my emotions without showing obvious expression.

Then what is the entertainment quotient for those who are not cricket fans?

Humour. I call it dark humour. You feel it is so sad, but it will make you laugh at how ironic things are in cricket, just because a different gender is involved in it. You’ll see a lot of such humour. Apart from humour… see I’m not a cricket buff and nor is anyone in my family but the amount of cricket that we have shown is engaging, engrossing enough for you to feel the entertainment quotient.

What conversations did you have with Mithali?

Source: Taapsee Pannu Instagram

Honestly, it was that news article headline [journalist asking Mithali her favorite male cricketer question] when I got to know there is a women’s team. So, I’m also guilty of it [ignorance]. Somewhere I would have probably manifested in my head that I would get a chance to correct my mistake. Mithali and I didn’t have enough time to interact as she was still active [player] and then we had the Covid period. She was either in a bubble or playing cricket. We had limitations in terms of time to prep-up and shoot. I couldn’t wait for her to retire and give me enough time. I had to go ahead with other four [former] cricketers who played with her over the years. One of them is her dear friend – Nooshin Al Kadeer. They became my window to Mithali. Sometimes it is better to know someone through a third person’s perspective.  I might forget how I was ten years back, but someone who has seen me closely ten years back, might give a better account of how I used to be versus how I am now. 

Male cricketers are worshipped, but we don’t quite see that kind of following for women cricketers. Taking that into consideration, do you think a [film on] Mithali Raj would be able to pull in the theatrical audience?

Well, that’s the whole idea behind making the film. She has been the skipper, the torchbearer of this big change. She took us to two World Cup finals, [actually one – 2017 ODI Women’s World Cup], I don’t know of any other person who can introduce you to women’s cricket in India better than Mithali Raj.

As a cricket buff, I loved 83 [2021] but I was shocked when it tanked. While cinema and cricket are said to be the two big passions of the country, but hasn’t 83’s failure kind of opened our eyes to the reality that the two audiences are vastly different?  

Honestly, I too don’t know why it didn’t do (well) as per people’s expectations. I have no idea. I loved the film. I also loved Jersey [2022]. I paid to watch both the films in theatres. There can be 100 of theories behind their failure, but I have no idea. Cinema is not just about knowing a certain information; it is about enjoying an experience.

Be it Rani Kashyap in Haseen Dillruba [2021] or the little Mithali in Shabaash Mithu [2022], why is it that your characters get a nail into their foot?

[Laughs]. I have never noticed it. I’m glad you are watching my films that closely. Very interesting. Thankfully, the nail didn’t prick my foot this time.

I’ve come across many cricketing stories but I wonder what was this coach doing by hammering a nail into little Mithali’s foot?

You’ll know when you see the film. He coached Mithali for ten years. That strictness will come out in two or three sessions. We have to show a person’s nature in a limited span of time. So, you tend to amp the strictness to show this is how that person was. He really was a brutal coach. Besides, it shows the reason why that woman was so disciplined, so correct with her technique, and that is all down due to the coach.


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