At the end of the trailer of Aaron Sorkin’s upcoming Netflix period drama, The Trial of the Chicago 7, activist Abbie Hoffman (played by Sacha Baron Cohen) hesitates before answering a question in court.
He says to the lawyer examining him, “Give me a moment would you, friend? I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before.” This scenario, where you are on trial for your thoughts, plays out daily on social media, except that you can’t ask trolls for a moment. The hate is vicious, furious and relentless.
Which is why I admire artists who speak their minds, among them Taapsee Pannu. Taapsee is very much a mainstream Bollywood actress. In the last five years, she has deftly carved out a niche in Hindi cinema. Starting with Pink in 2016, she has become a propeller for films with limited budgets, driven by strong messaging — think Naam Shabana (2017), Mulk (2018), Saand ki Aankh (2019) and, most recently, Thappad.
She has endorsement contracts and millions of followers on social media platforms. But like Ayushmann Khurrana, her brand is unique.
Taapsee is an actor on the rise. In the current cultural climate, it would be more prudent for her to express as few opinions as possible. But she’s never been that kind of woman.
She and I first met in 2018. I set up an interview after watching Mulk, which I consider to be one of the finest films of that year. When the conversation turned to nepotism, she said that it had taken five years for me to interview her while other actors (with more familiar last names) got interviewed even before their first films had been released. She was right — just the previous month, I had chatted with Ishaan Khatter and Janhvi Kapoor ahead of the release of Dhadak.
Taapsee was gracious but forthright in showing me my blind spots. She said that she could be honest because she didn’t have baggage or the burden of living up to expectations. Her words were: “I am purely because of who I am.”
Which is what enables her to take a stand. Taapsee has called out double standards and hypocrisy and got into prolonged and public spats with trolls on Twitter. She has been critical of the unstinting harassment of Rhea Chakraborty. She spoke in support of Anurag Kashyap (who directed her in Manmarziyaan) when he was accused of sexual harassment, adding that she would be the first to snap ties if he was ever proven guilty.
Taapsee has lent her name and voice to striking animated videos made by filmmaker Kireet Khurana to highlight the suffering of migrants during the pandemic and to make an eloquent plea for the importance of free speech in a democracy. The online response to the last is the predictable accusation of traitor, terrorist, charsi, Khalistani agent.
Social media right now feels like a bloodthirsty virtual edition of the Hunger Games. The biggest stars are choosing to stay quiet. Lie low is the advice being doled out by managers, minders and publicists. But Taapsee’s Twitter bio reads: All in… all REAL… with flesh, blood and SPINE 🙂
I think a spine makes lying low difficult.