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Cover Story
September 27, 2018

Why Tabu Prefers Flying Solo

Text by Shraddha Jahagirdar-Saxena. Photographed by Bikramjit Bose. Styling by Nidhi Jacob. Assisted by Divya Bavalia. Hair and Make-up by Kritika Gill

Awards, accolades and the trappings of fame aside, Tabu leads her life — both on and off the screen — on no one’s terms but her own. Verve meets the critically-acclaimed actor and lone ranger on the eve of her latest cinematic offering, Andhadhun

If her fans had to encapsulate their admiration for her in one sentence, they would probably be quoting Shakespeare’s, ‘Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety’. This is because she tends to step into the shoes of strong characters whose psyches reflect complexities that I too find fascinating. Consummate artiste that she is, Tabu has consistently held my interest, even though her silver screen outings — especially in recent years — have been few and far between. My respect for the 46-year-old actor, who has tried her hand at masala and offbeat indie films, has sustained over every revisit to her work, each movie reinforcing how well she brings her diverse avatars to life. Some of her most memorable roles include the strong yet vulnerable software professional Neena Verma (Cheeni Kum, 2007), the resilient immigrant housewife Ashima Ganguly (The Namesake, 2006), the tragic nautch girl Mumtaz Ali Ansari (Chandni Bar, 2001), the passionate mother Ghazala Meer (Haider, 2014) and the tough cop with a soft heart Meera Deshmukh (Drishyam, 2015).

Tabu is content in her own space — one that lets her speak in her own voice, do the work she wants to and live life on her own terms. She seems to have, through her hits and misses, created her personal ecosystem, one that does not try to change the essence of the woman she is. And though I myself, as a writer and editor, have largely found my so-called comfort zone and am often willing to step out of it for risks I want to take, I envy her ability to walk her talk and be completely free.

A little more than a decade ago, my first in-depth conversation with Tabu was held in a suburban film studio. When I meet her twice a few weeks ago, we relax in her simply, yet tastefully, furnished Versova apartment that functions as her workspace. On the first occasion, after jokingly reprimanding me for not staying in touch, she leans forward into the interaction — as I take her through what our team would like her to do. Interestingly, she pulls out a notepad and jots down details — a habit that writers like me tend to follow. My second meeting with her is a day after she has returned from a trip to the US. Battling jetlag, her words nonetheless flow with felicity. She lounges on a comfortable couch, in casual, loose attire, and despite a few yawns that pepper her words, her concentration does not flag.

I kick-start our conversation by referring to the way she fiercely guards her home. In relaxed mode, Tabu admits, “For me, my home is a sacrosanct, separate space, one that is good to go back to. It is all about my mother, my dog Chinnu, (an adorable chihuahua), my domestic help and my plants. I have not let the energy of work invade it. When I travel, I crave to return home. I feel most comfortable in it. My favourite spot is my bedroom — I always want to sleep. I don’t watch television. I listen to music, read and write. I talk to my mother a lot. If I have not told her what I have done during the day, I do not feel complete. She is very clear about what I should do: ‘If something makes you happy, only then should you do it; if not, don’t!’ She puts profound thoughts in a simple manner: ‘You are doing this thing for a living, so you might as well enjoy it’.”

I wonder at what age she had an awareness of what her true potential was. I, for one, took my time to realise what I wanted to do, but it was only in my final year of school that I came into my own under the baton of my English teacher who nurtured my love for the language. Observing that the room needs to be cooler, she gets up to reset the temperature of the air-conditioner. Settling back on the couch, Tabu remarks, “Before I came to Mumbai — and to this industry — I was too young to understand what I thought of myself. But I knew there was something very strong in me, whatever it was. I always identified with that part of my personality. I grew up in a joint family with uncles and grandparents who doted on me. I was the princess of the house, the most pampered and looked after. I was the apple of my grandfather’s eye. He was a mathematician and a professor at Osmania University (in Hyderabad).”

My own early environment too, was peopled with family members who were titans in their chosen fields — medicine and law. From them I also imbibed what I now perceive to be my strongest feature ­— the ability to quietly rise to the challenge when the going gets tough. Reflecting more on her own family, Tabu says, “I have been surrounded by strong women for as long as I can remember. Poles apart from each other, they were individuals who had their unique voices. No one tried to emulate — or was bogged down by — the other. My grandmother, a kindergarten teacher, had strong views on parenting, travelling and the importance of education. My mother — who I now understand more — is not aggressively strong nor does she try to portray herself as someone strong. But, when I look at her journey, I can see her silent strength in the way she followed her heart. In the ’70s, she decided to walk out of a marriage when divorce was so stigmatised in society. I admire her a lot more now because of what I have understood of the world, of marriages and of relationships between men and women. It was very brave of her to take that step — and even after that, give me and Farha (her older sister) a great upbringing…the best that life had to offer. I grew up with the belief that it was okay to walk out of a situation that was not serving you — and to do it quietly. I learnt this from my mother. I do not feel the need to talk about liberation. I have seen it around me and have lived it as well.”

Apart from her mother, I would believe that her go-to-person 24/7 would be Farha — though they are temperamentally different — for the siblings have weathered the vicissitudes of fortune together, and Tabu is known to be extremely close to the erstwhile actor and her son. Tabu says, “Farha was a happy-go-lucky person, a tomboy. She was outgoing and outspoken. She always wanted to be an actress; I had no interest in the movies and did not even like watching them. We bond strongly because we have just each other. I believe that the blood connection always ties you together. Farha got married when I was very young. She had a life of her own. I know that whatever I do or decide to do, she will point out the best and the worst aspects of the situation to me. She knows what kind of man will be good for me, what kind of movie will not work for me. She understands what will and will not make me happy.”

And yet, Tabu steers clear of her own angst in her dealings with both her mother and sister. Both, she states, have borne their personal crosses, and she hates to trouble them with her problems. I can fully understand when she speaks of turning to her friends if need be. A strong network of girlfriends — and family members who are more friends than family — has taken me through the lows of my life. Tabu says, “I trouble all my friends with my problems — which luckily are much lesser now. I don’t have a close coterie of friends because they are all spread across the world, but the list of names is long. Every friend has a different place in my life. Each gives you and takes from you different things. My friends are my support system; I feel like they are my bonus. None of my friendships are cultivated out of a feeling of need. Of course, there is always give-and-take. But we are not holding on to each other out of need.”

The members of the film industry make for strange bedfellows. I ask her if she finds it more difficult to form close alliances due to the nature of her job. Also, with age and experience I find that one tends to step back and think twice before plunging into newfound ties. “I connect easily with people,” the actor opines. “I make friends from an emotional standpoint. I start with trust as a default setting. Then maybe I get hurt some years later, maybe I get disillusioned. But I have gained from being that person instead of holding myself back and not having made those connections through my life. I have learned that you sometimes outgrow friends and sometimes they outgrow you. You realise the need to raise red flags when you see things change. This understanding comes with time and age.”

Having sometimes submerged my desires under what I would term the demand of circumstances, I ask her what compulsions drove her to fly alone. She very matter-of-factly offers her reason, “That is the only way I knew how to do it. That is the only way I wanted to and I experience the joy of being single. I don’t know any other way. I cannot draw comparisons. Everything is really relative and personal. I can only talk about what I have experienced. But this is how I always wanted it to be and this is how it is. It is not that I am saying that this is the best or the only way. But given my personality, my temperament, my needs, this is the only way that it would work. I have my own journey to complete, I have my own path to walk and I could not walk on it with anybody else. I had to experience this world on my own. That was my plain and simple reason. People may not have thought it important, but for me, my emotional freedom meant everything.”

Unfortunately, in my own space, I have not been able to walk out of stifling relationships and have tried to make the best of what I cannot change. Tabu has had her fair share of, for want of a better word, liaisons, that have not culminated in a happily-ever-after. Today, as she stands alone, she has ridden the storm with public equanimity. Sipping on the tea that has been placed on the low table in front of us, she remarks, “In my romantic relationships, I have fortunately not been through heartbreak. Touch wood; I have not come across terrible men. It did not work out because I was never ready. I am an emotional person, but I know that one has to pick up the broken pieces and have the courage and confidence to build oneself all over again.”

What has given her the most satisfaction is her bonding with her directors. She believes, “When I am working on a film, my rapport with my directors is the most important because it is their vision that counts. No matter what the actor wants, it is the directors who call action and cut. I always follow their vision and feel that there is so much to learn from whomever I work with. I have done so many films in so many languages and regions. Every director has his/her own unique vision of telling a story. And it is so fascinating to understand yourself through the directors’ eyes, for they tend to see totally different things in you. They might want to portray you in a totally different manner, and that is what is so layered in a director-actor relationship.”

Naturally, she refers to Vishal Bharadwaj with whom she feels she has done two of the best roles of her career. “He sees me in a unique manner,” Tabu says. “When he came to me with Maqbool (a reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth), it was a discovery for me, because it was something that no one would ever ask a lead actress to do. I was amazed to realise that he could see that I could be this person. He understands sexuality in such a different way and that contributed to my discovery of it as well — all that intensity and passion came from Maqbool (2003) and later Haider.”

She has also spoken a lot about her equation with Ajay Devgn, Manoj Bajpayee and Irrfan (Khan). Being a part of a team is important on any set, and she acknowledges that she has received a lot of love from her co-stars. “My friendship with Ajay,” she states, with a smile and a chuckle, “cannot be put into the same box as that with a professional co-star. He is my childhood friend. I share a great deal of fondness for Manoj too — and recently with Missing (2018), he was so busy being a good producer that he spent most of his time ensuring I was comfortable. With Irrfan, I have a one in the world equation on screen. I worked with him in The Namesake and Maqbool. We complement each other so beautifully that the characters become who they are because of us being together. I really believe that you cannot work in isolation. Acting is a job that needs synergy. It’s great with some people, and not so great with others, and sometimes it is not even required. Every film has its own essence, its own nature.”

Coming to the obvious question of awards and adulation, Tabu emphasises, “I am grateful to my fans who love me and are touched by my work. They really admire what I have done. I feel so indebted to them because I don’t even know where my work is reaching. What fans feel about my work is a reflection of their personality. It is so nice when they reach out. It is interesting to understand their views and feel the warmth, especially when one has made a deep — not wide— impact.”

As far as awards are concerned, the National Film Award winner feels that they are not a vindication of your talent. She affirms, “An award is the embodiment of all the appreciation and good feedback that you get. But I have never worked with the idea that I have to be nominated for one. You do your best and whatever follows, follows.”

I tell her that when I see her on screen, especially in some of her cutting-edge roles, I often perceive her as her character — not as Tabu, and that is a compliment. She admits to having pushed the boundaries with roles that have increased her understanding of herself — like that of Ganguly in The Namesake, or Nimmi, a Mumbai don’s young mistress in Maqbool and even Hu Tu Tu (1999) in which she played Panna Barve, the kidnapped daughter of a politician, who meets a dark end. Leaning forward with greater concentration, she says, “All of them impacted me. After The Namesake, I understood the immigrant mind. It was a small shift in my world view. I saw America from a different perspective. In Haider, a film that explored the Oedipus complex, there was again a shift in understanding myself. The work I do is experiential. It has the ability to stretch my bandwidth. That is what I have understood from the kind of career that I am in. My need to grow has been fulfilled by my roles and the people I have worked with.”

Walking down her chosen path, she has evolved, just like we all do. Hence, she refuses to describe her philosophy of life in a finite number of words, feeling that doing so is extremely limiting. She believes, “Every day, life throws different challenges at you. Your philosophy is being formed as you change in the changing circumstances. For me, it is very important to hold on to myself — who I am at my core — through it all. It is something that you feel deeply about. You hold on to that and operate from there.”

We leave the apartment together, and her parting words remain with me, as she refers once again to the choices that come up in life — and her own tried and tested method of exercising her judgement. “What has worked for me is being left alone to do my thing. There is no point in being idealistic. I think you have to pick your battles. You have to decide what you want to and don’t want to compromise on.”

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