In Bollywood, the single syllable club is a class unto its own – especially so among the female superstars. Hindi cinema’s most glittering leading ladies are simply and unostentatiously known by their single names, like a favourite brand of toothpaste. That’s the enduring power of their recall. All-time greats like Madhubala, Nargis, Rekha and Sridevi lead this pantheon. Of the latter generations, there is Kajol and Tabu.
1990s grande dame Kajol’s filmography is packed with romantic and comic parts (most memorable are those opposite Shah Rukh Khan with whom she made for a dream team) in some of her era’s most iconic commercial outings. At one point in the 90s, a time when Karan Johar was still a kid in the candy store that was Yash Raj film sets, Kajol was probably the most famous female Hindi movie star. Yet, the seasoned Kajol, who hails from a family of actresses, was never known as a risk-taker, opting for safer bets all through her superstardom. Perhaps, Rajiv Rai’s Gupt: The Hidden Truth was one crazily sharp turn for the romantic star where she managed to break the mould.
Tabu, on the other hand, is a study in risk-taking. The 47-year-old has worked inside the system and outside it and forged a multilingual career (Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali, you name it) without the need to prove anything to anyone. In her life and career, there has been no jazzing up her image to suit market demands, no public displays of private moments and no mandatory second-comings and comebacks. While many of her 90s peers were forced to reckon with Bollywood’s changing reality at the dawn of the millennium – a time ripe for restless new voices – Tabu was the lone survivor who made the transition easily. It was a shoo-in. And for 25 years, the actress has been happily bouncing between commercial and personal cinema, between David Dhawan’s world of slapstick, Priyadarshan’s Southern remakes and Vishal Bhardwaj’s heart of darkness.
The Hero of Haider
Reviewing Haider in 2014, The New York Times noted, “Instead of Haider, the director Vishal Bhardwaj might have considered calling his fast-and-loose adaptation of Hamlet – Ghazala, after its Gertrude character.” The thoroughly-impressed critic continued, “As played by the sad-eyed Tabu, Ghazala has such depths and mystery that she hijacks the movie, pushing Haider (Hamlet) to the sidelines in his own story.” That’s signature Tabu – stealing the thunder. She did that once again as sassy Simi in the more recent Andhadhun (at Rs 433 crore at the box-office, it may well be her career-best). Her star power and acting mettle was put to great use in Sriram Raghavan’s pulpy noir, the juicy role of a femme fatale that saw Tabu having fun with macabre comedy. Simply put, if one of our greatest so-called serious performers is having a good time on screen, be sure that the audience watching her is having nothing short of a blast.
Combining personal charm and humility with a lifetime supply of talent, Tabu has captured the minds – leaving the hearts to the likes of Kajol and Deepika Padukone – of a generation of movie-goers who will vouch for the fact that what she can do, nobody else can.
The ‘Taboo’ Effect
Long admired as contemporary Bollywood’s finest actress, she’s often clubbed in the same lofty league as Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. As Azmi’s niece and yesteryears’ star Farah’s baby sister, getting a toehold in Bollywood must not have been too difficult for Tabu. Only 14 when discovered by serial star-spotter Dev Anand, she played the evergreen star’s daughter in Hum Naujawan (1985). Her first grown-up part was in the forgettable Pehla Pehla Pyar (1994). But in quick succession came Vijaypath. “Ruk ruk ruk”, a hit song in which she tried to woo co-star Ajay Devgn (who had become an overnight star with Phool Aur Kaante some years earlier) with the help of nearly the entire city doubling up as background dancers, brought Tabu commercial fame. Cashing in on the limelight, Tabu could have easily stuck to the hill station song-and-dance routine that was Hindi cinema’s mainstay of the time. Instead, she chose to follow her heart. So, you saw Tabu spending much of the Nineties pursuing different ideas and emotions in a gamut of films that couldn’t be more disparate: Virasat, Maachis, Biwi No 1, Iruvar and Border.
“What I call weakness, you interpret it as infidelity,” says Aditi, a simple housewife of Mahesh Manjrekar’s Astitva (2000) who’s left to grapple with her identity after events from her distant past are ratcheted up. As she confronts her shocked and suspicious husband (Sachin Khedekar), she demands to know if a woman’s heart and desires are any different from that of a man’s. “Tan ki pyaas jo tumhare shareer ko jalati hai kya woh mere shareer ko kum jalati hai? Aur agar mere tan mein yeh pyaas jage toh main kya karun?” she asks her husband, scandalising the entire family.
By the turn of the millennium, the “Ruk Ruk” girl had turned to taboo subjects. Astitva was a Tabu milestone – a power-packed performance that made her the poster child of women empowerment. She followed it up with Madhur Bhandarkar’s Chandni Bar (2001), another show of brilliance and boldness. For Tabu, Astitva and Chandni Bar were major turning points that won rave reviews for being the kind of powerful issue-driven stories celebrating women power that is de rigueur even today. A testament to the fact that Tabu was making unusual choices and championing personal cinema at a time when it was neither fashionable nor profitable for mainstream stars to go ‘indie.’ And yet, all along, she has considered herself to be an utterly commercial player, as one can glean from what she told Mid-Day newspaper in an interview last year. Recalling how Maachis, Gulzar’s poetic take on militancy on Kashmir, happened, she explained candidly, “I still don’t know what made him (Gulzar) cast me in Maachis, and I still ask him that. At the time, my song, ‘Ruk ruk ruk’ (from Vijaypath, 1994) and trailers of Pehla Pehla Pyar were on air — full-on dancing. But he still does not answer my question. It is now that I understand that the director, and the cinematographer, has a completely different perspective on an actor. They have an eye.”
Two modern films responsible for turning Tabu into the darling of the ‘thinking audience’ are Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool and Mira Nair’s The Namesake. Both saw her cast against the equally formidable Irrfan Khan. Another thing in common: they were literary adaptations, throwing Tabu who, surprisingly, is not much of a reader, to work with complex material that has always captivated readers of serious writing. Although she’s often ranked in the ‘serious actor’ category, the surprising fact about Tabu is her improvisatory and naturalistic style of acting. There’s more madness here than ‘method.’ In a chat with Livemint.com, she credited her directors for giving her “the space for rediscovery and rebirth.” As an actor, Tabu has relied mostly on her instincts and trust in her scripts and directors. Despite not knowing the works of Shakespeare, she pumped the right amount of anxiety, tension, vulnerability, jealousy, intrigue and daring in her redux of Lady Macbeth in Maqbool and Gertrude in Haider. The role in The Namesake was subtler. She played the demure Bengali housewife struggling to reconcile Indian values with American dream. It was, in fact, Konkona Sen Sharma who was the first choice to play the cotton sari-clad Ashima Ganguli, but when she declined, Nair roped in Tabu. There couldn’t be a better replacement. “She’s not Bengali but she’s absolutely reinvented herself and the Bengalis are ecstatic,” Nair, pleased as a punch, later reported.
Best Years Of Her Life
Today, Tabu is going through a career renaissance that many, equally gifted actors can merely dream of. While others of her generation have long vanished or shunted out to supporting roles, Tabu continues to command attention and awe. That is not to say all her roles are those of the leading lady. Some of her cinematic choices are seriously questionable – what was she doing in Golmaal Again? But Tabu being Tabu, she makes even the most mediocre role fun and watchable. Her strike rate is better than most, but there’s no stopping the occasional stinker (De De Pyaar De). Discernible audiences swear by her, but that does not often translate to box-office success. While critical acclaim is expected of her, in her 25-year career, Tabu has personally never claimed to care much for the box-office game. “I have no interest in the box-office,” read the headline of one of her recent interviews in a leading newspaper.
Box-office clout or not, Tabu belongs to that rare class of leading ladies who have survived it all. She’s a product of the 90s, but had the keen sense to continuously rebrand herself and yet, she’s never been in a race, like so many others have. She’s built a great career without falling for the short-lived charms of celluloid stardom. Instead, she made the timely switch to cinema that believed in the power of good writing. At the same time, films like Andhadhun, Bharat, Golmaal Again, Drishyam and Jai Ho reveal that, despite critical success, she never lost touch with her real roots – commercial cinema and its mass reach. On an episode of Koffee With Karan in 2007, Tabu was asked if she’s Hollywood-ready after the success of The Namesake. “I know I am not gonna get the roles that Julia Roberts does,” she protested, blushing. The firebrand actress has often been compared to Meryl Streep, one of the few Hollywood leading ladies to challenge the man’s world and turn conventions on its head. But the Julia Roberts comparison seemed more apt.
Like the indefatigable Pretty Woman, Tabu is a throwback to classic vintage. Armed with an unstudied style of acting, infectious energy and long-haul talent, she enlivens any film, no matter which genre, with her extraordinary range of magic tricks. And then, there’s a certain old-fashioned mystery about her private life. In the maddening age of social media, she’s still hard to pin down.
What’s not to like about Tabu?
The Tabu File
Tabassum Fatima Hashmi
Niece of Shabana Azmi and yesteryear star Farah’s sister.
A Star is Born
Dev Anand nicknamed her Tabu in Hum Naujawan (1985).
“Gulzar saab gave us chocolates after a good shot. We were having a picnic.”
MF Husain on Tabu
“Madhuri Dixit is an illusion, Tabu is reality.”
Films she’s had most fun doing
Saajan Chale Sasural, Biwi No.1, Chandni Bar and Ninne Pelladata.
“I don’t think my generation of actors was the planning type. Because so much was happening, I was just doing what I wanted to do — sometimes because the money is good, or the role is great.”
“Drishyam is one of the most difficult characters I have done in recent times.”
Karan Johar wanted to cast her in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil before roping in Aishwarya Rai Bachchan.
The Rumoured Men In Her Life
Nagarjuna, Sanjay Kapoor, Sajid Nadiadwala
On Being Single
“Single is not a bad word.”
On Completing 25 Years in Bollywood
“I consider strong relationships to be my biggest achievement.”