Walking casually into the suite of a suburban hotel in Mumbai, Taapsee Pannu manages to electrify the room merely with her presence. Friendly if a bit frugal with her words during the course of the photoshoot, the actor is an unlikely rising star in more ways than one. Yes, she,Walking casually into the suite of a suburban hotel in Mumbai, Taapsee Pannu manages to electrify the room merely with her presence. Friendly if a bit frugal with her words during the course of the photoshoot, the actor is an unlikely rising star in more ways than one. Yes, she comes with an entourage but she doesn’t let the bevy buzz around her at all times. Insisting on ordering her own breakfast of egg white omelette and hash browns, she gets straight to business, which begins with blow-drying her naturally frizzy hair currently cropped to a bob.Tall and athletic, she is charm personified in classic black. She listens carefully to the photographer and poses cooperatively for his camera, allowing her expressive eyes to do all the work. That is until a martial arts pose is asked of her. She is now extremely particular about every detail, from her posture to the way her foot is pointed. She is only a few days away from her shoot in Malaysia where they are scheduled to film intensive action sequences for the second half of Naam Shabana, the Neeraj Pandey-produced, Shivam Nairdirected prequel to Baby, 2015, which has her in the lead. Having undergone training in mixed martial arts, Aikido and Krav Maga for over two months, Pannu argues that it would be sacrilegious to get the pose wrong. High heels are not an excuse.It is no surprise that she gets her way. “I always do things the way I want to,” she tells me later. Pannu is not arrogant, just confident and headstrong. In that way, she is very much like Minal Arora, the character she plays in director Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury’s Pink, 2016, her most successful as well as thought-provoking Hindi film. “There’s no one who could have come as close to Minal’s character as Taapsee. Both respond instantly to provocation without bothering about who’s in front of them. Taapsee is always chirpy and brings a certain energy to the set,” reveals Shoojit Sircar, who co-produced the film. Having directed her with Amit Sadh for a Wild Stone advertisement and then in the yet to be released Runningshaadi. com, Sircar thought of Pannu instantly when Pink was being developed and Minal’s character came up. “If the film had anyone else playing Minal, it would have been unrealistic,” he says.advertisementWONDER YEARSLike Minal, Pannu also grew up in Delhi; she went to Mata Jai Kaur Public School and studied computer science engineering at Guru Tegh Bahadur Institute of Technology. Raised in a middle-class family–her mother, a housewife, and her father, in the business of real estate-she is the older one of two daughters. “It comes from the fact that we were all girls in the family, including the cousins, that I was always a carefree brat,” says Pannu. “I would leave home at 7am and come back at 10pm during the holidays. As we grew older, the other girls stopped playing outdoors, and I’d end up playing with the boys. Mothers in the neighbourhood would discourage their daughters to play with me. But my parents never stopped me. They had nothing to complain about.”Despite her devil-may-care attitude and her love for the outdoors, Pannu also managed good grades in school. “I genuinely enjoyed learning. I was always inquisitive and would question everything. My dad would tell me I ought to become a lawyer,” laughs Pannu. But she wasn’t a big dreamer and never really harboured aspirations to “make it big in life.” A child of the present, Pannu’s only criterion has been to make sure whatever she does keeps her happy. Her parents might not subscribe to the same beliefs, but over the years, have learnt to expect the unexpected from her. So, when she announced her decision to accept a lead role in veteran director K Raghavendra Rao’s Telugu film Jhummandi Naadam, 2010, over a job at Infosys, they didn’t so much as blink.SERIOUS BUSINESSShe had chosen to pursue software engineering because she had been good at mathematics and physics in school, and although she had considered an MBA, a nine-to-five job didn’t seem very appealing. When she was offered Jhummandi Naadam after her stint on Channel V’s Get Gorgeous, which she auditioned for on a complete whim, she couldn’t think of a reason not to take it up. “From playing every sport to learning Kathak, I’d always been a jack of all trades of sorts. So I thought, chalo yeh bhi try kar lete hai,” she says. Acting was supposed to be something she would indulge in for a year. It has been six years now and Pannu has worked in 23 films across four different languages.advertisementWhen picking from a pile of scripts, Pannu is mindful that the character she is to play impacts the story enough. “Who is directing the film also matters a lot. Even an average script can work or fail because of the director. There’s a reason why they’re called the captain of the ship,” she says. On set, Pannu is a director’s delight. She likes to prep for a role but is also spontaneous and can be moulded to do just about anything, says Sircar. “One day on the sets of Pink, she was a bit unwell. She had a bad cold and fever. But I told her not to take any medication. It worked so well for the shot. A day before the slapping scene, I asked her not to sleep at all. I’m sure it was very hard for her, and I’m sure she hated me, but she didn’t complain and it worked wonders for the film,” reveals Sircar.An extremely diligent, hardworking actor, Pannu credits luck for allowing her the opportunity to work with veteran directors across various film industries. Her debut Tamil film, Aadukalam, 2011, was directed by Vetrimaran, whose 2015 film Visaranai is India’s official entry to the Oscars. “My Bollywood debut in 2013 was with one of the industry’s most successful filmmakers, David Dhawan. It makes me believe that my luck line is stronger than my life line,” she says. “I really hadn’t done anything to get the fantastic debut projects that I got.” Her struggle, she believes, began after the success of her first films. “It raised the bar, the expectations of my next performance were set higher.” Reactions to Pink have been so overwhelmingly positive, that the pressure to perform and a sense of responsibility to her fans is something she is feeling now more than ever.WHAT THE FUTURE HOLDSBut living in the now is still very much a priority for Pannu, who refuses to plan her life. She does know a few things about her future, though. One, that she won’t be an actor all her life (“I have just one life to live and I wouldn’t want to waste it on one profession”) and two, that she will not date anyone from the acting fraternity. “After all, there can be only one star in a relationship,” she says, giving me a line she uses every time she is asked about her personal life. “I’ve realised that once an actor talks about his or her personal life, that is all the media discusses, no matter what their achievements,” she asserts.In the world of Hindi cinema, Pannu already has enough challenges to meet. While one good performance is enough to firmly root you in the film industry down south, competition in Bollywood is far greater. “There are too many actors who’re star kids and I will have to prove myself over and over again. Until then, not a single slip is forgiven,” she reasons. But she enjoys the challenges and thrives on the time she gets between the directors’ shouts of ‘action’ and ‘cut’. “I love that I can live so many lives through this job. But it takes a lot to enact roles that are nothing like me. It’s difficult for me to get into the skin of the character. I really brainstorm with the director about who the character is, I try and understand her back story,” she says.advertisementThanks to her picture perfect childhood, playing the layered titular character in Naam Shabana has been particularly challenging, she admits. “I’m not the kind of person who reads between the lines, I take things at face value and trust people easily. Plus I don’t really like hitting people,” she adds with a laugh. Jokes apart, the film could very well be the gamechanger Pannu has been looking for. It’s a film actor Akshay Kumar, who makes a special appearance, has deemed “a unique attempt” and a first for Indian cinema. If Pink was touted as an important film for its content, Pannu’s forthcoming action thriller seems to promise more of the same.