I am Senior Assistant Editor with the Forbes India magazine in Mumbai. A journalist for over a decade, I am also the author of Ramakant Achrekar: Master Blaster’s Master, a biography of the great cricket coach, and Vinod Kambli: The Lost Hero, a biography of the former India cricketer. Apart from my love for news and writing, I am passionate about cricket, movies and music
Inside a quaint society in the bylanes of suburban Mumbai’s buzzing Lokhandwala area in Andheri, standing tall at 5 feet and 8 inches in a neatly-ironed salwar suit, Tabu is alone, waiting for the elevator. I go up and introduce myself to her. “You’re already here?” she says, surprised to see me reach 15 minutes before the scheduled time. We go up to the fourth floor, where she ushers me into her office. “You’re really early,” she laughs aloud after finding the room a bit too untidy for her liking. The office boy is summoned and the mess is cleared.
There is still a distraction though: The construction activity in the area. Visibly fed up with the dust and noise, the actor closes the sliding windows and offers me a plateful of dates.
It is a regular weekday in January, and Tabu is about to start the promotional work on Fitoor (the interview was conducted prior to its release), her fourth film in the last 18 months. This is on the back of Haider (2014), Drishyam and Talvar (both in 2015), all three of which only added to her standing as one of India’s finest actors.
Tell her this, and the two-time National Award-winner responds with the joy of a newcomer. “It [appreciation] affects you at so many other levels,” she says. “The response to my work has been tremendous. That works on a personal level and affects you more than anything [else]… it has a deep impact and slowly. You cannot absorb everything at once.”
The feeling is so overwhelming, she says, that “happiness is a very small word for it. I cannot encapsulate everything in that. An actor’s personal and professional lives are interrelated. So any kind of progress in your career also means that your own life has changed. I just can’t put that in a word.”
Take a closer look at her journey and you will appreciate the magnitude of this change better, and her struggle to label its implications.
When her sister Farah moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) with their mother in 1983, to pursue a career in acting, Tabassum Fatima Hashmi decided to stay back in Hyderabad with her maternal aunt. As a child with academic inclinations, she wanted to complete her matriculation from St Anne’s Girls High School there. She only relocated in 1986; she was 15 at the time, and enrolled to study arts at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. She did that for a couple of years before the movies came calling. “I never wanted to become an actor; never thought about it; never liked it; never watched movies. I always ran away from it,” says the 44-year-old who was conferred the Padma Shri in 2011.
But with her sister already an actor, she had become a regular visitor to movie sets and, inevitably, was offered a role. Then in her teens, Tabu signed on for her first film Prem with Sanjay Kapoor (Anil Kapoor’s younger brother), certain that it was a one-time thing. However, the filmmaking process itself took six years (it released in 1995) and acting “sort of became my career”, she says. Eventually, she “grew to like it, respect it and to also want to be the best at it”. What followed were a string of powerful, also unconventional, roles: Maachis (1996), Virasat (1997), Astitva (2000), Chandni Bar (2001) and Maqbool (2003) to name a few. “Now when I look back, I feel these were risky choices. I didn’t think like that then. I attracted these kind of roles… they were exciting films. And I was really bursting to do these things. Not many were doing it then; that made it even more challenging. They defined me and made my space mine,” she says.
She was always thinking ahead, “never in the present”, says Tabu when I point out that she portrayed strong women-oriented characters much before such roles started being called game-changers. “For me, it’s always been about the personal journey. I did not even think about how it was affecting my career or professional standing when I took on these roles. [But] I am so glad that it worked out.”
The draw towards such characters was to be expected: Tabu was just three when her parents got divorced; she was raised by her mother, grandmother and aunts, who defined her sense of relationships with other women. This upbringing has played a role in both, shaping her performances and moulding her personality. “I have grown up around very self-assured and secure women. I haven’t seen rivalry or bitchiness… they were very large-hearted women who didn’t belittle anyone. So I don’t understand the power game and the struggle to outdo each other. Such people are rare to find but I have gravitated towards women like that in my life too.”
For instance, close friend Meghna Gulzar. The filmmaker, who cast Tabu in her directorial debut Filhaal (2002) and later in Talvar, explains the gravitation of such roles to the actor. “The minute you have a character which has layers that need a certain depth of performance, more often than not, hers is the first and perhaps the only name that crops up,” she says.
In fact, it has reached the point that nobody offers her “inconsequential” roles, laughs Tabu. That suits her well. What doesn’t is being branded ‘reclusive’. “Enigmatic?” I ask. “Now, that’s a better word. See how the meaning changes,” she says with a smile.
Gulzar agrees. “She’s not this elusive woman in an ivory tower that most people like to make her out to be. She’s a simple and down-to-earth person. And yet, very sensitive and intelligent,” she says.
Tabu draws on this simplicity in her approach to her craft too. She dismisses the notion of “homework”, saying too much is being made about preparing for a character. “All these things are new to me. I get scared whenever I am asked about this and wonder, ‘Am I supposed to give an intelligent answer?’ I can concoct one.” Tabu just stands in front of the camera and reminds herself to not forget her lines. She also stays away from the monitor after a shot because “there would be no end to retakes”. “At that time, that’s the best that I can do [with the scene] and I must be happy with that.” The directors know what they want, she says.
But this is just Tabu being humble, says Gulzar. “The characters that she plays are very simple, ordinary people. But within that everyday ordinariness, she brings a layer or a subtext which is her instinctive contribution to her performance.”