For Bollywood actress Gul Panag, who will be seen in gangster drama Ab Tak Chappan 2 this weekend, activism comes naturally. Last year, the former beauty queen contested the Lok Sabha elections from Chandigarh on an Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) ticket, but lost to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate and actress Kirron Kher. She’s now an AAP National Executive Committee member and is happy to pay it forward.
“I have always been politically inclined and some of us believe in standing up [for] what we believe in … I have always believed that one should give back to society. I come from a humble family and I used to get Rs200 (Dh11) as pocket money in college. But I feel blessed with whatever society has given me in terms of adulation … If I can’t use that to make a difference, then I am just a selfish being,” said Panag in an interview with tabloid! earlier this week.
Her films don’t necessarily define her. Despite acting in award-winning films such as Dor, where her portrayal of a desperate wife trying to save her husband from going to prison won her acclaim, Panag has always played Bollywood on her own terms. She claims that Bollywood industry often lacks imagination.
“Now that I play an investigative journalist in Ab Tak Chappan 2, I have been getting calls to play a journalist again. After Dor, I was offered those women-on-a-mission roles. It’s amusing, but I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. But I pursue what interests me. I have just made an adventure series documentary for Discovery Channel. It chronicles my journey with a friend of mine in a customised SUV to Ladakh. This year, I want to learn how to fly a plane, finish my fitness book and submit its manuscript to my publisher soon,” said Panag, who has embraced social media, especially Twitter, on which she has more than 1.4 million followers. Always the first to champion gender equality and education, Panag hopes that activism will spread among Bollywood stars too.
“If you dig deeper, nobody in India with considerable reach but who is not in politics will be seen as somebody with an opinion. The moment you have chosen one side of an argument, a section of people will find it unpopular. Many choose not to have an opinion, because it’s a lot more convenient,” said Panag, adding that she isn’t judging them.
However, her Ab Tak Chappan 2 co-star, Nana Patekar — whom she admires greatly and was instrumental in her decision to accept the role — is under no such compulsion. Though he speaks his mind (he doesn’t bother attending award ceremonies because “it’s boring”), his ability to tackle any role insulates him from getting into deep trouble.
“About his temperament, I was privileged enough not to have been at the receiving end any of that. But a man with his experience — he knows a bit more than an average person on the filming sets due to the sheer virtue of his experience — is entitled to so much. Every experienced actor will point out if something is not going right, but their methods may be different,” said Panag. Excerpts from the interview with Panag as she talks about her latest gangster drama, politics and art.
Why should we watch Ab Tak Chappan 2?
Anybody who’s curious about the nexus that existed between the underworld, the politicians and the gangsters will enjoy this film. It is an extension of what you read in the newspapers and what you watch on television these days. The difference between the first film and its sequel is that the nature of the crime that took place in the early 2000s has changed dramatically when compared to what it is now. Today, the stakes are high in the scams which take place among the underworld, the police and the politicians. What was then a Rs20 million deal has now jumped to Rs2 billion.
You are playing an investigative journalist in this film. Have you moved to the darker side because you have sometimes been critical of the way the Indian media functions?
[On] the contrary, I am one of the few people who have not joined the bandwagon of criticising the media … You may be confusing it with the stand that some people in my party [AAP] have taken. I don’t subscribe to that. In all fairness, India is a democracy to a large extent because of the role that the media plays. It’s a functional democracy despite the huge flaws in our systems. There will be rotten apples everywhere, but to paint the media with a broad brush stroke isn’t wise. Every media professional that I have come across in the last fifteen years [is a person] with utmost integrity and honesty.
Ab Tak Chappan 2 dwells on a police officer who’s a part of a Mumbai Encounter Squad (high-profile cops in the 90s who dealt with the Mumbai underworld and were notorious for killing criminals in shoot-outs). Hasn’t that subject of gangsters and trigger-happy policemen been explored several times before in Bollywood films (Shootout At Lokhandwala, Shootout at Wadala, Once Upon A Time In Mumbai and Company, to name a few)
Different genres of films need to be made in Bollywood and the audiences need to watch them. Otherwise, you may be end up watching only romantic Bollywood films and may not be left with any room to complain that only one kind of films are made in Bollwyood. All kinds of films — be it satire or action — should be made because human beings by default have an immense capacity to consume diversity. We don’t eat the same kind of food everyday. And gangster-driven films are little less done-to-death than romantic films. Even today, the newspapers are filled with cops staging fake encounters and so it’s a topical subject. As long as there are encounters and cops, films will reflect what already exists in society. The day we stop witnessing gangster-driven violence in streets is the day we stop watching or perhaps making gangster-based films.
What’s your role in this film and did you wonder whether you would make an impact in a testosterone-charged film such as Ab Tak Chappan 2?
I play a print journalist who likes to maintain a low profile. She isn’t your television reporter and is trying to complete writing a book that her late father, a crime journalist, had begun writing. In the course of her investigation, she comes across Inspector Sadhu Agashe, played by Nana Patekar, and he takes an instant fatherly attitude towards her after realising that she’s the daughter of a crime reporter that he knew and respected. For the role, I met many crime reporters and cops who have dealt with such underworld cases. In order to get some perspective, I also met a few people who had access to people on the other side of the law. But my starting point was to trust the director and be aware that you are interpreting his vision. That’s our primary job. And, about the importance of my role in such a film, it was a question that cropped up when the script came my way. Though I am not an actor who believes in big parts or small parts [all roles are equally important], I can vouch that my character contributes to the story and is a catalyst for the events that play out.
You have expressed your admiration for actor Nana Patekar on several occasions. How was the experience of working with an actor infamous for his mood swings?
As an artist, you always want to work with actors of a certain calibre. Otherwise you are swimming in mediocrity. Right from my first film, I worked with fine talents such as Revathi and Om Puri. My two criteria for choosing Ab Tak Chappan 2 was that it wasn’t too hard to stand out since you are the only female character in the film and, secondly, the idea of working with Nana Patekar will ensure that you put in your best.
Since your debut in 2003, you have acted in over 13 films. How has the journey been?
It has been gratifying. But one thing that stands out in my journey is the advent of the social media and the platform that it has given me to voice what I have seen and talk about topics that matter to me. It shows another side of me. Whether it’s about cars, fitness or politics or what kind of films I like watching, social media has been a game-changer. Had it not been for that, I would have turned into this fringe actor. The number of people — my contemporaries and senior actors — who have come up to me and spoken highly of me after my political fray is phenomenal. I don’t want to take names, but every single actor I have met has told me how proud they are of what I am doing. I met an A-list star, who’s legendary for his charm, at an airport recently and he said he was so proud of me. There are lots of actors who want to do what I do. In time you will see that happen. Today, we see it only in bits and pieces, which unfortunately are linked to a release of a film. I am not saying that their activism is not genuine, but the bandwidth of them getting into it [politics] is limited.