She started her career in mainstream Bollywood when it was at its worst — the Nineties. Not only did she survive that era but also effortlessly shifted gears as the industry evolved, emerging as one of the finest actors in the country.
Over the last 25 years as an actor, Tabu has to her credit two National Awards, a Padma Shri and a filmography that includes acclaimed Hollywood projects such as The Namesake and Life of Pi.
Tabu will be the guest at the Express Adda in New Delhi Tuesday and will be in conversation with Deputy Editor Seema Chishti on her struggles and what continues to drive her since she made her debut 25 years years ago. She will interact with a select audience about the ever-evolving film industry and how she has adapted to change.
Though Tabu comes from film lineage — she is Shabana Azmi’s niece and her elder sister Farah was an actor — she has worked hard to pave her own path in the industry. She debuted with Pehla Pehla Pyar in 1994 but was first noticed in Vijaypath, which released later that year. On screen, she always stood out, initially for her girl-next-door looks in an industry where glamour was the norm. Later, she used that to her advantage, and opted for roles where her characters were more than an ancillary to the Bollywood hero.
Among her first notable performances was as Veeran in Gulzar’s Maachis (1996), a quiet, homely girl left transformed in the violent aftermath of Operation Blue Star. It won Tabu a National Award for Best Actress, which she bagged again in 2001 for Chandni Bar.
She followed this up with Virasat (1997), an adaptation of the Tamil film Thevar Magan. Tabu has also been part of some of the finest in Tamil cinema, including Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar and Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain (2000).
These, she straddled with big-budget films that went on to become blockbusters, such as Biwi No 1 (1999), Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999) and Hera Pheri (2001). However, it was her Nimmi in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2003) that helped Tabu dig her heels in as the Hindi film industry stood at the cusp of change. In this adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, she plays the titular character, at once seductive and menacing.
This performance perhaps aided her journey into Hollywood. Tabu was selected to play Ashima in Mira Nair’s The Namesake (2006), an adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s acclaimed novel by the same name. She was also part of Ang Lee’s Oscar-nominated Life of Pi (2012).
In 2014, Tabu proved she could shift effortlessly between the world of mainstream and new-age cinema. After Jai Ho, with Salman Khan in the lead, she was seen in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider. In this adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Tabu essayed the role of Gertrude, playing mother to Shahid Kapoor’s Hamlet. She brought to life with deft, one of the Bard’s most complicated characters, in a film set against the backdrop of strife-torn Kashmir.
Tabu’s filmography is proof that she has, always with care, focussed on films that allowed her to play complex characters. In both her work and personal life, she chooses to lie low. Tabu calls some of the biggest names in Bollywood her dearest friends, including Salman Khan and Ajay Devgn, her co-star in her last outing, Golmaal Again. Yet, she remains a recluse and prefers to let her work do the talking.