Gul Panag can talk nineteen to the dozen and every single second of that non-stop conversation will feel like it’s perfectly articulate. She may have been a beauty pageant winner turned actress, but she’s not limited to her acting credentials. Gul has climbed mountains, both literal and figurative, she’s piloted the skies, cycled the Ladakh landscape, been in politics and pursued every profession that you would think of for the quintessential film hero. Only difference is, she’s done it in real life. For this week’s Big Interview, ETimes caught up with the actress and recorded her views on everything that’s changing in the big, bad world of Bollywood. Gul has also made some political predictions for Kangana Ranaut, Taapsee Pannu and Siddharth. Read on…

With trends like boycott Bollywood and cancel culture dominating social media, do you feel it’s far more challenging being a celebrity today as opposed to 20 years ago, when you started off?
Why go back 20 years? It was way easier 10 years ago. We are going through a phase right now where our public discourse is not accepting of an alternate point of view. The shape and impact of the alternate point of view depends on how big you are as a celebrity or what you symbolise. The space to disagree with someone is shrinking on social media. You can still have a conversation with a large group of people and disagree with popular opinion, but the cost to pay for that disagreement is huge. That’s why most celebs are saying let’s not do it. Let’s just focus on what we’re doing.

Cancel culture has destroyed many celebrity lives.
I have a philosophical view towards Cancel Culture. Nothing is permanent. Everything will change. Change comes faster than you think it will. No one saw the pandemic coming and it changed things individually, collectively and on a societal level. Even back in time, certain thoughts were allowed to be and others were not. As a public figure, it’s always been the norm to measure what you say. I have always been conscious of what I say. Not just today, I’ve been conscious of that fact since the first day that I made a public appearance. I was aware of it even during the first ever interview that I gave after winning the Miss India pageant. I was cognizant of the fact that, being a public figure, your words will always be twisted out of context. So I knew never to make loose statements. A public figure should always say what they believe in, but they should be measured and nuanced in the way they say it. So people who dislike you can’t really do much about it.

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On the subject of being nuanced and balanced, do actors have the right skill set to make good politicians?
Absolutely. Politicians are actors.

Why do so many actors fail or struggle with their political careers?
When you’re an actor you’re given a script, written by someone who is competent at writing scripts and it’s their job to do so. Then, you go out and deliver that script in your finest style. As a politician it is your job to communicate to the people what your party believes in. It has to be done in a manner that is exciting and maybe to do some rabble rousing with the public. That depends on the party that you support. So essentially, you’re projecting in both professions. As an actor you’re projecting for the camera and as a politician you’re projecting for people. But that’s not necessarily who you are. I have many friends and colleagues who are very different from when they are saying rubbish. But they’re just doing their job, they’re actors. Every political party has a line, a script or a toolkit. We have seen actors become very successful politicians across the spectrum – be it in South India, America, where an actor rose to be the President.

Very few actors look to transition from showbiz to politics.
The reason a lot of actors don’t consider politics as an option is because a lot of them were shielded from the true public opinion for a long time. Until a few years ago, most interviewers were flowery and flattering. If someone said bad things about an actor, they would not show up for the awards shows. If you would write something nasty about me or my nose job, I would not turn up for your awards show. Actors were shielded from brickbats. Perhaps it was because of a nexus or a bonhomie between the PRs of the actor and the publications. But two things changed with the advent of social media. The actors began hearing all the bad things about them directly. The bouquets and brickbats started coming in equal measure. And then, they were able to talk back. That’s the other big differentiator. Because the actors could talk back, they did not have to be interviewed by publications to deny what was said by another rival publication. They didn’t have to wait and plant a piece or refute an allegation or speculation. Now, they can just go to twitter and say their bit. I feel, now we will see a lot more actors coming into active politics because they’re becoming thick skinned. They now understand that bouquets and brickbats are both part of being in a public life.

Who from the current lot of stars do you think will make for good politicians?
I see Kangana (Ranaut) definitely being in active politics. I see Taapsee (Pannu) perhaps doing the same. I am not seeing any guys with spunk of late. But hopefully they will find their spine sometime. But these two women have a spine. I don’t agree with everything that Kangana says. I disagree with a lot of what she says, but the woman has a spine. She has a lot of spunk. Taapsee has it too and I won’t be surprised if those two end up in active politics a little later on. Perhaps even Siddharth (Suryanarayan, Tamil and Telugu actor of Rang De Basanti fame), might get there.

We’ve reached a stage where actors are getting slapped, not physically though that happens as well, with the worst that they can hear as the public is directly interacting with them. And they are reading it, too. I feel they’re just a small space away from saying, ‘You know what, how bad can it get?’ That is when they will make the transition. I could be wrong as well.

Your Twitter profile says you are an entrepreneur, aviator, actor and producer, automobile and fitness enthusiast, biker, adrenaline junkie, adventurer, traveller and student. Are you a jack of all trades?
I am not a jack of all trades. I am accomplished across multiple disciplines.

What’s the reason for so many passions? Do you easily get bored?
No. I need to constantly remind myself that I can do anything. That is true for all human beings. It’s a means to forget the flight instinct, from the fight and flight system. Most of us can fight no matter what comes our way but we just choose the flight instinct. But what I found out over time is that I like to set goals for myself. When I set those goals for myself, I tend to be goal oriented. In pursuit of those goals, I get enriched as a human being. It widens my perspective and it also enriches me in my primary profession which is being an actor. Be it pursuing my masters in Political Science, or getting a private pilot’s license or recently getting a Law degree, I think these pursuits come from a sense of chasing accomplishment. Recently, I also cycled to Ladakh. It was very tough and at one point I thought my lungs would burst. But when I finished that task, I felt like I could do anything. That feeling is the most powerful drug in the world. It empowers you and it sets you up for all the little googlies that life can throw at you on any given day or week. Chasing challenges and accomplishing them is a great way to remain agile and on your toes. When you’re leaning back on your heels, change will suddenly come about and you won’t know how to deal with it. COVID was not something that really hit me hard, unlike many others. It was because I am very accepting of change. Because I am agile, I will always figure out a way around things. I am not fixated on how to do it, but on achieving my goals. I am flexible on how to achieve those goals.

Traditionally, actors aren’t known for diverse life choices.
And yet, acting is such a diverse profession. It’s almost like an oxymoron.

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Your profession lets you have those diverse experiences anyway, then why go chase them in real-life as well?
Because acting only lets you have those experiences in small doses. When I first came to Mumbai to pursue a career in the movies, I remember I told someone I had hobbies like trekking and camping. The person cut me short and said, ‘Never say that. Just say your hobbies are Kathak and movies’. I was stumped. Then I signed a film and we were to start shooting in a few months. Since I had a few days on hand I went off to Uttar Kashi for a camp. When I came back, I heard on MTV through Nafisa Joseph’s show that Gul Panag had been replaced by XYZ in the said film. Until that moment I had no idea. It’s a good thing that I wasn’t a part of that film. Even though my ambition and profession was to be an actor, I rebelled and refused to be defined by it alone. I had an interesting encounter with Deepti Naval about a month ago. She was promoting her book in my hometown Chandigarh. She said something very interesting. Back in the 80s when she was pursuing her acting career, whenever she didn’t have work at hand, she would go off to click photos in the mountains. She never waited around to see when the next film would come. She never chased work. She said, ‘I may be an actor, but that’s not the only person that I am. I am also a poet, painter and photographer’. I firmly believe that all human beings have the potential to do far more than what they are confined to or what societal conditioning will allow them to.

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Is that the reason why you always chose different or offbeat films like Dhoop, Jurm, Dor…
Jurm was an aberration, especially when you look back. I don’t think I knew what I was doing. When I did films like Dhoop and Dor, I was seeking a certain kind of cinema and that cinema found me. I could identify with films like Dhoop more than the obvious offers that said, ‘
Chaar gaane honge aur paanch scene honge’. That’s how films were sold back in 1999 and 2000. I was lucky that these films found me and they became my career defining path.

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Yet, you’ve done your share of commercial movies.
Just a handful like Jurm, Hello and Hello Darling.

You also worked with Amitabh Bachchan in Ram Gopal Varma’s Rann.
Rann came at a time when you could tell interesting stories in a different way. I feel it was a fantastic film and I am sure it will do really well if it were to be released today. I am not sure who has the rights but I guess the company that produced it has now been officially wound down. Just because it had Mr Bachchan doesn’t make it a commercial film. Perhaps just having to pay his salary makes it a commercial film (laughs). But it’s from a genre of cinema. Basically, every film you make is intended to be viewed commercially by people. It’s not meant for private viewing.

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Do you feel your preference in film subjects and your artistic affinity have changed over the years?
It has. I like to be part of stories that excite me. Stories that are told differently. Characters that I may have played before, but now I can play them differently, attract me, too. In Paatal Lok my character was essentially very similar to the character I played in Manorama Six Feet Under more than a decade ago. The writer’s brief said the same thing, he was very influenced by my role in Manorama. All said and done, I don’t have a simple formula for what attracts me, but I just look at my character and ask, if this role would be taken out from the story, would it make a difference. If it does, then it works for me. That’s basically the nut and bolt fit system for me.

Your latest show on OTT, Good Bad Girl is about a compulsive liar. What’s your real-life experience been like with pathological liars?
I have come across a few people who just lie because that’s what they do. There’s never a specific intent attributable to why they are lying. Some people just like to lie. Your first instinct is to always believe, because, if you’re not a pathological liar, you will not look at someone with suspicion. But then you only find out that someone is a habitual liar when they tell that to you. And it does leave you flabbergasted because most of the time the lies are just so pointless. That’s when you realise, that’s who they are and you can’t change anything.

You’re not a pathological liar, going by the strict vigil of truth and information that you’ve taken up on social media platforms.
It’s difficult for me to be a liar. I agree, who hasn’t told the odd lie here and there to get out of a sticky situation. But I have found that you have to have a really good memory to lie successfully. Even though I have a very good memory, I just don’t want to use it up remembering lies. My brother and I cook up a lot of stories, but then we quickly tell each other, because we know no one else will back us up. A lot of the lies that I have told over the course of my life have usually been for my own entertainment. Say, someone on a plane will ask me what do you do? And I’ll tell them I’m a doctor and I’m heading for a conference. I just do that kind of role play while I’m travelling. I usually pull these tricks on unsuspecting people at parties, too. When my brother has foreign clients over, I’ll tell them some story and then when they find out, they ask my brother, ‘Hey you didn’t tell us your sister is an actress!’ and he usually replies, ‘Well, she’s been acting all evening’. It’s always for some harmless fun.



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