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Tabu: On a path less travelled

The actor has always been ahead of her time, both in movies and in life
[From ForbesLife India]

Kunal Purandare
Published: Mar 26, 2016 05:07:48 AM IST
Updated: Mar 30, 2016 11:24:19 AM IST
Tabu: On a path less travelled

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.

Tabu: On a path less travelled

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.

Tabu: On a path less travelledBut 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.”

In fact, Chandni Bar was shot entirely without a monitor on the sets, and on a shoe-string budget of Rs 1.5 crore: That amount was spent on Kareena Kapoor-Khan’s costumes alone in Heroine (2012). The director of both these movies, Madhur Bhandarkar, says Tabu does not need to be given a lot of subtext or metaphor. “Once you brief her, she grasps the character completely. She spoils the filmmaker with her performances and nuances. She’s a one-take actress,” says Bhandarkar who Tabu once famously called her “discovery”. The filmmaker happily accepts that. After all, the comment was not off the mark: When they came together for Chandni Bar, Bhandarkar was a raw newcomer, with a flop (Trishakti, 1999), to his name. His next, Chandni Bar, which Tabu agreed to do even before he had finished narrating the second half of the film, catapulted him into public consciousness. Tabu has since worked with many such “relatively unknown” names and wishes directors wouldn’t hesitate to approach her with any kind of roles. At the same time, she says, “I don’t want to do a project and feel that I have come back empty. It has to take me somewhere in my own growth. You don’t want to feel like a loser after completing it.”
She need not worry on that count. Tabu has had more wins than losses in her over-two-decade-long career, with even some crossover successes (The Namesake, 2006, and Life of Pi, 2012) to her credit. But she wants more, specifically comedies. “I enjoy doing comedy more,” says the actor. And it is surprising that someone who sparkled in the genre with films like Saajan Chale Sasural (1996), Biwi No 1 (1999) and Hera Pheri (2000) has been typecast for serious roles. Bhandarkar, too, believes Tabu’s talent as a comic actor has yet to be explored. “In serious roles, of course, no one can touch her. But her potential in comedy is still to be exploited,” he says. “She’s a great mimic. On the sets, I would talk to her in [yesteryear actor] Pran’s voice and she would reply in [actress] Helen’s.”

When the mastery over the craft is of this degree, it isn’t easy to separate the actor from the person. But there are more layers to Tabu than just her histrionics. For one, she likes to sing and even voiced a song for one of her upcoming films, Missing, by Mukul Abhayankar. It is a “fantastic form of self-expression”, she says.
She enjoys travel as well and leaves the city to explore the world at any given chance. A camera is a must-have accessory—“I love taking random photographs”. Her pet chihuahua named Chinnu has high claims on her time. And when she isn’t doing any of this, she likes to think about the mysteries of the universe. “I could have been a really good space research person,” she says in all seriousness.

However, none of these “hobbies” could ever be cultivated completely, she adds, a touch wistfully, because “films take away your entire mind space”.

But even with the movies, she isn’t on a dogged chase for more. As she says, “I don’t know if you can keep chasing happiness. I want to feel completely content but not so content that I stop striving. For me, growth is the most important factor that drives me and my life.” And anyone who followed her work from the start will testify to the truth in her words.

(This story appears in the Mar-Apr 2016 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Bandish

    Tabu wasn\'t there in Talvar!!! That was Konkona Sen Sharma

    on Mar 27, 2016
    • Harsh

      She played a cameo as Irrfan\'s wife in the film

      on May 16, 2016
  • Jj. Ellison

    I wish there was more to this article. Tabu has always been such a mystery to me which is part of her charm, I would say. Also, such humility from someone who brings to her acting a kind of wisdom and yet vulnerability that makes me feel like I know her. And as a woman, it is difficult not to think of her as a role model. Thank you, Tabu for bringing us so much joy and continuing to reach inside us touch our hearts again and again.

    on Mar 27, 2016