Nothing Serious About Tabu
She has the inborn, uncanny ability to surprise, on and off the screen. ‘Reel-istically’ speaking, the actor continuously thinks out of the box, with a natural spontaneity that is pleasing because it seems so effortless. She is known to leave her mark on almost every frame in each of her films. But, just when she has created a buzz at the box office, flooring critics and audiences in India and abroad with her flawless acts, instead of capitalising on her success, the peerless performer has often vanished into her real-life private and free spaces – in Mumbai, Hyderabad and sometimes overseas – before resurfacing, often months later with yet another bravura offering.
Even after almost two decades in a proverbially plastic industry, Tabu (born Tabassum Fatima Hashmi) who was first known as Shabana Azmi’s niece and Farha’s younger sister, has also surprisingly pulled off the impossible by retaining her genuineness.
Circa 2007 so far has belonged to the 35-year-old actor. The applause for the Mira Nair-directed The Namesake was still being heard, when along came R. Balki’s Cheeni Kum, an endearing romance between a much-older man and a mature woman. As Tangdi Kabab to Amitabh Bachchan’s Ghaas Phoos, she held her own in a movie that could have so easily gone the ageing hero’s way.
So, it is on a Friday morning, that we are waiting for her at the suburban Mehboob Studio…. Anticipating a ‘slight’ delay Bollywood style, she takes us by surprise as she arrives on the dot of time. As ace lensman, Farrokh Chothia, continues to set up, Tabu’s tall and slim frame settles down in the make-up van…. She listens carefully to suggestions from our creative director, Falguni Kapadia.
Tabu – a girl who grew up on a diet of books like The Enchant–ed Garden and Alice In Wonderland – never harboured any starry aspirations or dreams of acting. “I was fond of the usual feminine frills and fancies, loved putting on talcum powder, had long hair and a favourite doll to play with,” she states. “But I did not have any desire to join films. I got into the movies by chance and timing, not out of a desire of wanting to be here. I still have a desire to run away. That is why my first instinct is always a refusal!”
Luckily for her fan following, her refusals notwithstanding, she has built up a creditable body of work that has earned her the sobriquet of being a ‘serious, thinking actress’. She looks at me askance. “I will do anything for the fun of it,” she says. “I enjoy the interaction with people and do what comes from the heart. For me, acting is an experience. It happens. I cannot write an article about it, I cannot put it into words. Am I appearing dumb when I say this? I don’t understand the technique or the intricacies of cinema. I just know my work. I am a simple person and do not understand all these complex questions and processes. I swear that I cannot answer serious questions.”
I remind her that Amitabh Bachchan had complimented her on her natural rendering of her role. “That was truly kind of him,” she says. “I do not know why I have got this serious image. I am not like that. You cannot make up your mind about someone by looking only at their work. I have never claimed to be an intellectual but somewhere I must be one if everyone continues to ask me the same questions. I am intelligent but there are people who are far more intellectual than me.”
At the risk of contradicting her and being rebuked, I insist that it is commonly – and critically – felt that Tabu draws on her inner reserves for her myriad roles and puts a bit of herself in each performance. That she is a natural actor, nonpareil. “True,” she agrees promptly, to my surprise. “If a little bit of me is seen in my roles, it is because I am playing them. Your work, no matter what it is – writing, acting, singing, drawing – will carry a part of you. I am producing ‘my children’ so they will be like me. But the end result is a combination of many things, not just me – the script, the director, the lighting, my co-stars…. But the truth is that I am not a Bengali nor was I married to someone who lives in America nor am I a 35-year-old in love with a 65-year-old….”
As she moves away before the lens, I think that she has – in a deeper sense – been all those and much more. When she returns to flop down at my side, I tell her that we are going to find a bit of herself in a few of the roles she has assayed over the years, starting with the most recent…and then in random order.
Neena Verma: a software professional, who, on a visit to London, falls in love with and is determined to marry a much older man, a protesting father notwithstanding.
“I have never been pressurised in my life….”
Tabu readily admits that the protagonist is a lot like her real-life persona. “She is vulnerable and yet at the same time is a strong person with a great deal of character. You can say that I have both these characteristics.” Put Tabu in the same situation and she has the instant solution for the problem. “I would not think so much about it,” she says. “I will not do something to prove a point. I will only follow my heart.”
She is equally quick to assert that she has never faced such a situation; never felt the need to be married only because like Tangdi Kabab she too was 35 and single. “My family is very understanding and laid-back. I do not think there will be any opposition to whoever I decide to marry, no matter what age he may be. I do not feel any pressure to get married at all. Really, I have never done anything out of force…. There are emotional and professional pressures. But I prefer not to take decisions out of compulsion. If I do, I know that they will not work for me.”
Ashima Ganguly: a woman who enters a new relationship, travels to a new land, battles homesickness, nervousness to work and bring up her children in an alien land and eventually comes into her own as a person.
“I was alone in the midst of all that….”
Tabu laughs out loud at the prospect of living a life like Ashima Ganguly. “In six months, I will drive my husband mad,” she states. “I will cry; I will not cook because I do not know how. I will crave for home food and he will have to take me to an Indian joint. I will cry more because I will have to walk to the taxi. I will feel hot; I will feel cold…and I will be miserable, even though I will enjoy meeting new people and eating at nice restaurants.”
Working for The Namesake in New York was a challenging experience for the veteran actor. She recalls, “It was a totally new atmosphere. I was working with a new unit, people I did not know. I had not seen most of them in my life. In this industry it is difficult to find that kind of detached space in your work area because normally even as you start a film there is some kind of connect. Looking back, it was a milestone.”
The next frame is ready and she gets up. As the rhythmic beats of music fill the room to create the mood, Tabu bursts into an impromptu and graceful dance sequence. I watch her, transported back to the early Ruk ruk ruk number that had caught the audiences’ fancy for more reasons than one.
Kajal: the young romantic lead opposite Ajay Devgan who played a blind boy who gets his sight back and is on a revenge trail to find his parents’ killer.
“I believed that I could do it.”
“I love to dance,” says the actress. “It comes to me naturally.” When I ask her if she feels awkward looking back at this early film, she is quick to deny it. “I feel great when I look back on Vijaypath. It is my biggest claim to fame. Fifteen years on and people have not forgotten Ruk ruk ruk…. After my early film, Prem, my career was going nowhere. No one wanted to work with me. With this movie I got out of the bonded labour contract of Prem. I enjoyed working with dance director, Chinni Prakash. He made it fun and made me believe that I could do it.”
Nimmi: Godfather ‘Abbaji’s’ mistress, a strong grey character with desires and ambitions of her own whose passion unleashes a tragic chain of events.
“I am not that ambitious about many things.”
“It was an interesting and challenging role to play,” remembers Tabu, who ventured into grey areas for the film. “Nimmi’s ambition was coupled with an obsessive attraction. In the midst of all that chaos and darkness, she was drawn to someone forbidden…. I do not know if personally, I will ever go to such dangerous lengths to achieve what my heart desires. Earlier I may have done so but not any more.”
Try as she might, Tabu cannot get more aggressive about her career goals. She is content to go with the flow, though “when younger I was more ambitious about things. I have achieved a lot. Look at where I come from – a modest upbringing. For me, this platform is a huge jump from…. For me, everything looks big.”
Call her a reluctant actress and perhaps, looking at her career choices and refusal of many roles that went out to win accolades for other stars, the label would fit. Yet, the star of many an acclaimed movie has no regrets for movies not signed. “Lots of times, people ask me why I have turned down this film or that,” she admits, stretching out on the sofa in the changing room. “Believe me, I have not lost out. Everything is a bonus for me. I am happy with what I have achieved. I am not carried away by all this external gloss and glamour. My maternal grandmother taught me to never take what is not mine. I am totally satisfied with small things in life. And yet, I know that all this makes me whom I am. Without a decent house or a lifestyle or my name, even you would not have been talking to me. I would not even be invited to so many homes or events.”
Mumtaz Ali Ansari: An innocent village girl who comes to the big city, becomes a dancer at the Chandni Bar and gets involved with gangster, Potiya Sawant.
“I will not run away from or succumb to a crisis.”
It was a re-creation of the harsher realities of life. “The task was made easier by the great rapport I had with the film’s director, Madhur Bhandarkar,” she says. “He never gave me cause to complain.”
The actor, who has been through many ups and downs in her life, would like to believe that “I have the courage to face the situation. I have never felt that this was the end of the world. Things do get better. I will do what is best. Till now, I have been floating along in my life.”
Professional life has brought with it its share of challenges to be faced and overcome. She has coped with them with her instinct and with the help of her friends. “It is only now that I have started to talk to Mom about my work life,” says Tabu. “We are very close but her world is totally different. She is not equipped to deal with my kind of world. The crises here are too big for her. Her solution is simple: if you cannot cope, leave it. We will go away. But here things are not so simple. Everything is not so black and white…. I have really grown up in the industry.”
Savitri Rao: the wife of a government official, who is involved in a car accident that endangers the life of the protagonist.
“I am completely responsible for what I do.”
I can still remember her fragile presence in the special appearance that she made in Saathiya. She too recalls it with fondness. “I loved the relationship between Khusbhoo and Arvind Swamy in the original film,” she says. Her screen alter ego had been protected by her husband who took the blame for an accident he did not commit. “I don’t like it if men do it all the time; it makes one feel juvenile and frivolous,” she remarks. “I started working from a young age and am independent. I will never feel happy if my husband tries to mollycoddle me. Once in a way it would be nice to turn to someone if you were in trouble, but not all the time.”
Tabu owes her responsible streak to her grandfather and mother, stating that though they worried if she were late, she soon learnt to fend for herself. “I travel the whole world on my own agenda. And yet, when I am at home, she worries about me – whether I have eaten my food, whether I will be late after work.”
Janki Paswan: Rich girl, Janki returns to her maternal home with her daughter, after misunderstandings crop up in her married life.
“I would not patch up.”
Before talking about the film where the hero was dressed up as a middle-aged nanny in Mrs Doubtfire style for the better part of it, Tabu bids adieu to the photographer. Not showing any trace of fatigue – even after a long shoot when she has imbibed only coffee – Tabu denies any connect with Janki. “I am not a rich spoilt brat, I did not feel bad for the character at all when she had to go home,” says the girl with sound middle-class values. “I do not think that I will patch up now with anyone, any time. I do not care if someone misunderstands me,” she says strongly. “Life is too short to expend energy on explaining yourself. I am past that stage of wanting to make the effort. I do not want the other person to come to me either. I want my own space. I do not demand and I do not supply.”
We prepare to leave in the fading light of the setting sun. She talks of having been invited to attend the premiere of a fun film at a multiplex. “Will there be media around,” she asks, shying away from the thought of being in the limelight outside a set. It prompts my last question to her as I wonder aloud if she has enjoyed watching her films in cinema halls to gauge audience reactions. “I do not like watching my movies in theatres,” she states. “I watch them when I am alone, sometimes much later at home. I cannot watch my films with so many opinions fluttering around me.”