‘Acting, for me, is the means to a bigger end… and that end is living life to the fullest and pursuing my dreams and goals’
Every chat with Gul Panag — a multihyphenate talent in the true sense of the term — is an inspiring experience. Having just earned her law degree, Gul plays the head of a law firm in the web series Good Bad Girl, now streaming on SonyLIV. We spoke about the show, Gul’s varied accomplishments and how she aces her time.
What interested you about Good Bad Girl?
When (co-producer) Vikas Bahl and his team reached out to me last year, I had just finished my law degree. So after having spent three years with law books, the first offer that I got was to play a lawyer. I thought that this couldn’t be a coincidence… I should just close my eyes and do it! Vikas Bahl is a film-maker I have admired for a long time. So when two such reasons came together, the answer was an emphatic ‘yes’ from me. It was pretty instinctive.
Are you mostly driven by instinct when it comes to your choices, in career and in life?
Yes and no. Largely, my instinct is to seek out parts where I am relevant to the plot. If you remove my character from the film or the show, then the plot should be incomplete. That is the primary criterion that I go with. If my role is just padding and fluff and embellishment, then it’s not something that interests me.
If you remove Zaina’s character from Good Bad Girl, the conflict point is gone. The trigger for the events that take place in the show is actually a confrontation between Zaina and Maya (played by Samridhi Dewan).
So does getting a law degree means you want to practise?
The intention was never to practise. Even when I got a private pilot licence, the intent wasn’t ever to go and get a job… for that, I would need a commercial pilot licence. A lot of ill-informed people ask me if I will fly for an airline, but that’s not the case. A CPL (commercial pilot licence) is a higher category. But a lot of people are not well versed with aviation and can be forgiven for thinking they are the same. My pursuit of a flying licence was to fly as a hobby and that’s something I am grateful and proud of. I have been able to fly consistently over the last four-five years, the one year of the pandemic notwithstanding. So I fly every second weekend or once in a fortnight out of Juhu or out of the various flying clubs that I am on friendly terms with.
Coming back to my law degree, I have always been interested in public life, evidenced by the fact that I fought an election… and lost (smiles). Around the same time I fought the election (in 2014), I also got my masters in political science. That was also brought on by the idea of trying to understand our political framework better.
This (the degree in law) was triggered by the desire to understand our legal framework better. These three years have been incredible. They have also coincided with a busy time in my acting career. I appeared for the common entrance exam and got into a good college on merit, while at the same time doing The Family Man, Paatal Lok, Pawan & Pooja, Bypass Road and Rangbaaz 2…. Fortunately or unfortunately, our education system is of the kind where you can hit the books at the last moment and still ace the exams, which I did.
I wanted to study this to know more about IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) or basics like IPC (Indian Penal Code), CRPC (Code of Criminal Procedure), CPC (Code of Civil Procedure). Like anyone else, whenever I would get pulled over by a cop while driving, my heart would start beating faster. Now it doesn’t because I am armed with knowledge about jurisdiction and power and what my rights are.
As a person who was always interested in the subject, I had a working knowledge of the Indian Penal Code, but now I know the nitty-gritties. I feel incredibly empowered now in day-to-day life.
Did studying law come to any use while working in Good Bad Girl?
I definitely understood a lot of things better… it was like playing an actor in a movie. On this show, I felt empowered as an actor because I happened to know the dynamics of the profession I was representing.
But Good Bad Girl is not a legal drama. It’s a show which primarily deals with politics in a law firm, rivalries, the wheels within wheels…. I run that law firm, something like Jessica Pearson (played by Gina Torres) in Suits. Maya (Samridhi) drives the narrative, with inflection points here and there.
My law degree came in handy when there were improvisations on the dialogues on set. We couldn’t always have a lawyer on standby to tell us whether we were using the correct context, terminology, and that is where I was able to contribute. But the overall script was whetted by a dear friend of Vikas’s, who is a lawyer. But he wasn’t available all the time, of course. So it was the improv where I came in handy.
Are you doing your best acting work now?
In terms of quantity of work, since 2018 to now, I have done as much work as I did in the first 10 years of my career. Earlier, the audience for certain kinds of content were fragmented in geographically diverse places. So audiences who liked slasher films with fountains of blood spilling all over — the kind of films my husband likes to watch — were scattered all over the country.
The OTT platforms came in and became game-changers because they gauged everyone’s choices based on data and algorithm. All of them have tons and tons of data points on you and me.
Earlier, making a film on something niche based on a whim and no tangible data didn’t justify the economics involved. But now we know that there are multiple subsets of audiences who like all kinds of content, and OTT is able to reach those audiences.
As a result of this, more kinds of content is being made and overall content consumption has gone up. Qualitatively, we have more choice and quantitatively, we have a lot more content. It’s a very busy time for everyone associated with the content world.
Has this interest in excelling in different things evolved over time or were you inherently like this always?
I have written a chapter in my book which answers this question. I always wanted to be many things. Seeing myself doing only one job at any point of time in my life was always an anxiety-inducing thought. I did want to be an accountant, I did want to be a lawyer, I wanted to join the army… I wanted to do many things. But I never saw myself doing a 9-to-5 job forever.
The first step towards that was entering the (Miss India) pageant to get more exposure, a platform to pursue other things. My intent, by design or default, was to always seek out new platforms and expand my horizons as an individual.
From very early on in my career, it became evident that my acting jobs would be few and far between. So I had to figure how to support myself as well as find ways to occupy the rest of my time. My interest in everything else is enabled by the platform that being a movie actor gives me. Acting, for me, is the means to a bigger end… and that end is living life to the fullest and pursuing my dreams and goals and making sure that I am accomplished in many things.
People can say that I am a Jack of all trades, but I am actually not. I have a high degree of accomplishment across all the things I have pursued. The ultimate aim is to be a well-rounded human being who constantly has a goal-setting outlook towards life.
You are a mother too. How do you manage to juggle so much and so well?
There is definitely a method to the madness. I am hoping I am able to address that properly when I get to that chapter in my book (smiles). I compartmentalise… there is no multi-tasking for me. I would mess things up if I talk to you at the same time as I am writing an email and also planning what should be there for dinner. I divide my day, week and time very judiciously into compartments and I fiercely protect those compartments, including the one in which I prioritise myself.
It’s like the time table we had in school, but here I don’t have the option of bunking (smiles). If you have a schedule, there will definitely be pressure, but you will achieve a lot more than if you didn’t have a schedule.
I have been working on this 5am club thing for a while now, and it’s life-changing! It does mean I have to sleep early, but that’s fine. The partying phase, whatever little I did earlier, is behind me. I sleep two hours after Nihal (son) goes to bed and I wake up an hour-and-a-half earlier than him and that’s how I manage to carve out more time.
The multihyphenate talent who inspires me the most is…