Sajan mohe tum bin bhaye na gajra”. As Neesha Singh (of Buniyaad fame) sings this line in the foreground, a tall ten-year-old with an angular face sits behind her and mouths words. The year is 1982 and the movie is Bazaar directed by Sagar Sarhadi, “I was so sleepy,” exclaims the girl now. “It was at my naani’s sister’s house in Hyderabad and they wanted some kids in the background for the wedding song. They dragged us out of bed and forced us to sing.”
Not the most auspicious of beginnings for a stellar career that has lasted four decades and looks set for more. The little girl, now an adult, is one of India’s premier female actors, delivering commercial blockbusters and critical darlings in equal measure, well into her fifties. In her latest avatar in Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 , which has crossed the `100 crore mark at the box office, she plays a double role, across two timelines, where she scares and smirks, and is at the helm most of the time.
Tabassum Fatima Hashmi or Tabu, the actor renowned for bringing to life complex Shakespearian characters such as Nimmi (Lady Macbeth in Maqbool) and Ghazala (Gertrude in Haider), can also play an irritated ex-wife in De De Pyaar De (2019), a hippie mom in Jawaani Jaaneman (2020), a refined courtesan in A Suitable Boy (2020), a murderous adulteress in the huge hit Andhadhun (2018), and now a ghost who mocks in Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2. “Anees bhai (Anees Bazmee, the director) and I went to see the movie, quietly in the last row, and we were amazed. Audiences were whistling when the ghost came on,” says Tabu.
Applause is something Tabu is used to. It comes as seeties (whistles) when she is flouncing around in a skirt saying to Ajay Devgn, “Ab meri zid hai banoongi teri bride varna tere saamne karoongi suicide (I insist I will now be your bride, or I will commit suicide),” in Vijaypath (1994). It comes when she is seducing Irrfan Khan in Maqbool (2003). It comes when she is delicately putting her feet into Irrfan’s wingtip shoes in The Namesake (2006) and when she is laughing at Amitabh Bachchan’s Hyderabadi zafrani pulao in Cheeni Kum (2007).
She has spoiled us with the richness of her work, and yet she wears her greatness lightly, not even watching her old movies. “If my mother is watching me in something, I tell her to change the TV channel immediately,” she says. It isn’t so with her writing, which is a record of who she was at that point in time, a habit encouraged by one of her mentors, Gulzar. “Writing is like a good friend to me. It looks at you and says, ‘This is who I am, what I am, and this is what I was feeling back then.’ It’s a way to rediscover yourself as you were. It’s a record of your internal world,” she says.
Over the years she has done away with frills and flowery language, reducing her language to elegant simplicity, searching for the truth, just as she has in her performances, paring away at it, stripping away the artifice, the coyness, the pretence expected of mainstream Bollywood heroines, yet keeping alive the allure and sensuality that marks her out as a woman in a sea of Barbie dolls.
“I want to experience everything, every genre, every kind of director. It has added so much richness to my career path,” says Tabu, actor
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“Tabu-jaan,” as one of her favourite directors Mira Nair calls her, contains mystery. She doesn’t reveal everything and has such an accomplished sense of craft that she knows what each jhalak, each glance will do. Laced with it is a comic timing, says Nair, that is inimitable. “She is a great cackler in private and we have a very girly relationship,” adds Nair. “We love design, we love fabric, sometimes Raw Mango and sometimes rasta ka maal (street stuff). We just enjoy aesthetics. She has a depth of emotion and a lack of showiness. There is no falsity in Tabu, on and off the screen. She’s a real treasure.”
A national treasure, she has always kept the Hyderabadi in her alive, in her work and in her personal life. She has worked with two generations of Telugu actors, in what someone once described as a “generation-agnostic career”. Telugu films have also allowed her to be comfortably secluded, at home in an idyllic bungalow in Jubilee Hills with frangipani trees and peacocks. “It’s a 7-km radius where everybody lives,” she says, “Hamari duniya wahin shuru aur wahin khatam hoti hai (Our world begins and ends there).” It’s just the business that has grown.
At 51, Tabu is working more than ever. She can transition from playing a mother who loves her son a little too much and a little too intimately in Haider (2014), and one who thinks nothing of kissing him on the lips before going out to blow herself up. Equally, she can make a young man fall in love with her poetry and her adda (style) in an instant in A Suitable Boy.
“I don’t do anything half-heartedly,” she says. “I have to be convinced of why I am doing it. I want to experience everything, every genre, every kind of director. It has added so much richness to my career path,” she says. But once she does a movie, she is detached from it. “When I am doing something, I am fully and passionately involved in it, but I try not to think about how it will be received. I have a fair sense of how the film will go,” she says.
The Namesake was a life-changing experience for her and came at a time when she was looking for something different, having perhaps sensed opportunities after roles such as that of the village girl turned terrorist in Gulzar’s Maachis (1996) or the unapologetic wife who leaves her abusive husband in Astitva (2000). After all, she had slipped into movies almost by accident. After Bazaar, there were a few more small parts in films with Dev Anand, Anupam Kher and Ajay Devgn, until she was 16 and in college when Shekhar Kapur persuaded her to sign onto Prem (1995), which took the longest time to make, so long that even Kapur abandoned it, leaving it to Satish Kaushik.
The Namesake opened up a new world for her, sparked a new political awareness, a creative journey, and a growth in her cinematic choices. “It was so rich, to be taught that life is not this or that, that it is a mix of everything. That life cannot be lived in a bubble, that the world has its conflicts and contradictions, and that every experience has value,” she says.
She has allowed herself to experience joy by being with those she loves, to explore creative satisfaction with her work, to seek out new travels. “Experience is the key,” she says. Everything will stay with you in some form or the other, whether it hurts or makes you happy, she adds. She has no other way of being. A lot depends on the people you surround yourself with, she says, how you see yourself and what you want out of relationships, how you engage with the world. She wants whatever makes her feel alive, whether it is people, new ideas or relationships. The moment she plans, or tries to guard herself, it doesn’t work. The energy shifts. “You can’t protect yourself,” she says, “though you shouldn’t willingly damage yourself either.”
“Your relationship with your career, your work, your industry changes,” she says. “But my endeavour is not to be frightened by any experience. Growth has been my greatest need and desire,” she says.
“Your relationship with your career, your work, your industry changes. But my endeavour is not to be frightened by any experience,” says Tabu
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The director-actor relationship is the most critical for her. So, if Vishal Bhardwaj creates a world of his own for her, with Sriram Raghavan she can share anything. Every director sees her differently, whether it is the tough police officer of Drishyam (2015) or the ghost of Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2. “I want to give the film everything, leave nothing behind.” Indeed, says R Balki who directed her in Cheeni Kum, she brings a lot of herself into the character. Perhaps that is why she is ageing so beautifully. “It’s not just your body, it’s your mind too and how you feel in it,” she says. She does yoga every day, some breathing exercises, watches what she eats but not obsessively. She doesn’t crave food, but when she eats she likes to dig in. “That’s why I love America,” she says with a laugh. “Their portion sizes are huge. In Paris they give you a drop of cream and tell you it’s the main course.”
Age has not diminished her projects. Already in the pipeline there is Kuttey, Aasmaan Bhardwaj’s debut movie; Khufiya, a Netflix movie with Vishal Bhardwaj where she plays a R&AW agent, and Drishyam 2 and Bholaa, both with Ajay Devgn.
Rasika Dugal, who was with her in A Suitable Boy, says Tabu’s career gives her heart. “When I think of Tabu, I think of the films, Maqbool, Haider and the ‘Ruk ruk ruk’ song [from Vijaypath], all done with equal brilliance. Her career shows the possibility of having an individualistic approach, of being able to change one’s image, of resilience, all the things they tell you Hindi film heroines can’t do.”
As a Shakespeare scholar, Varsha Panjwani says we have still not acknowledged the full extent of Tabu’s contribution to new interpretations of Shakespeare’s heroines. Tabu has that rare gift of being able to present the drama of the interior self through a glance. This makes her a formidable, vulnerable, and complex Lady Macbeth and Gertrude, leading to fresh and feminist interpretations of these roles. Vishal Bhardwaj is the master of good casting and it was a masterstroke to cast Tabu in both roles.
Tabu, along with the younger Vidya Balan, has never felt the compulsion to star opposite any of the reigning male superstars, points out film scholar Aysha Iqbal Viswamohan, instead she has chartered her own trajectory through unusual choices. And as Mahi Gill’s narcissistic character in Gulaal (2009) puts it, “Hum rote hue bilkul Tabu lagte hain,” (I look like Tabu while crying). But no one is quite as beautiful as Tabu when crying on screen. Or laughing. Or simply being.