IT’S TAKEN SOME coaxing to get Tabu to give me this interview. She has been an actor from a time when social media was unheard of, smart phones didn’t exist and talking too much about oneself was considered pompous. “What more can I say about me?” she asks with a humility and grace that you wish other actors could borrow. Sitting in her comfortable home-turned-office in suburban Mumbai, in a kurta, with her shiny long hair half open, Tabu’s face is free of make-up and her demeanour casual. About five minutes into a conversation with her, you forget she’s a celebrity. She’s terribly unintimidating, yet carries an aura only a few of her calibre do.
It’s been over a month since the release of her last film, Missing, where she plays a mother whose young daughter is absconding while on vacation with her family. The film did little to empower Tabu as an actor, but what’s noteworthy is that this is her second release in six months (including the hit Golmaal Again), a rare occurrence for her. “Five films in the last four years, not bad haan…?” she asks, well aware that her average is much lower. “There’s a whole new space for films that has opened up these days which makes me inquisitive and excited as an actor. Fortunately, through my career I’ve been part of films that have broken the norm in some way or the other. But I think these days, in a short span of time, people are making films that are trying to say something important, which is great because then actors like me won’t go hungry for good roles,” she says.
Tabu has always been an actor one longs to see more of. She has been choosy with her films, but in the last few years she has been more receptive to roles that demand her craft. She’s shooting a film a year, and it almost seems like a new professional phase for her. “I think it is now that I’ve started to understand the meaning of really enjoying my work,” she says, “I used to think ‘enjoy’ means having fun and being on a high all the time, but that’s not it. Enjoyment is when you really interpret your work in a way that you derive joy out of it. It’s not about the result or about what it’s bringing to you. It’s just about loving what you’re doing that very moment.”
She sounds content, almost as if she finally feels like she’s getting her due. But that may not be it. Thirty years and 84 films later, she confesses that one needs to find reasons to rejuvenate oneself. “I started working when I was 16. And there has been so much work that you end up feeling like an absolute burn-out. You don’t want to do it anymore because you’re simply fed up. There have been times when I’ve just gone to my mother and said, ‘All I want is a house in the mountains and want to go lie there.’ But of course it’s all wishful thinking,” she says.
Tabu is the only female actor of her time (her contemporaries include talents such as Kajol, Preity Zinta and Karisma Kapoor) who is doing any noteworthy work currently. Her recent filmography—with fearless and bold characters— would give younger performers acting goals. Be it the jilted half-widow in Haider (2014) who draws empathy even while manipulating her own son, or the astute yet helpless cop in Drishyam (2015) looking for her lost child, or the dejected ex-wife of a super busy cop in Talvar (2015), she’s never played black-and-white roles. They are complicated, confused, passionate, progressive, ones that refuse to toe the line. They exude this power, which most of us feel only in our most trying circumstances. And Tabu, the performer that she is, underlines that power with complete control and grace.
“I found it pretty boring to play the good girl. I never thought it’s a wrong thing or a risky thing to play morally incorrect people, or layered people or lustful women for that matter. I didn’t understand why not. I told myself that society’s idea of what is moralistic should never come in the way of my saying ‘yes’ to any character. That’s why I could play a suicide bomber or a militant or a woman who has an extramarital affair in a film like Astitva,” she says.
In a scene in Astitva (2000), Tabu, a housewife, questions expectations of women being loyal to their husbands when men are often unfaithful to their wives. It was a rare Hindi film that touched upon adultery from a woman’s perspective. “These characters exist in the world. They exist in us. We are not as simple as we portray to the world. If you’re ashamed of your darkness, you will never grow, and these were characters who celebrated their dark side. I found it very interesting to bring them out on screen through myself,” she says.
I told myself society’s idea of what is moralistic shouldn’t come in the way of my saying ‘yes’ to any character. That’s why I could play a suicide bomber or a woman who has an extramarital affair
She chose roles that were unconventional, a reason why she never got stereotyped despite such a long run in Hindi cinema. She’s got a clay-like quality, which she credits to the fact that she began so early. “When I came to Mumbai from Hyderabad, I was just 13. My sister was already in films, and like they always spot the sibling, they spotted me too. When I set foot on the sets of my first few films, I had no idea what I was doing. I had 20 people saying 20 different things to me and I could hardly hear the sound of my own head. My first director K Raghavendra Rao (who directed Coolie No 1) said to me that I only had to keep a few things in mind. I should always be on time. I should always be financially independent. And I should know that no matter what happens, it’s just work. I feel like that made me confident and I have held onto that till today.”
In the first film she was recognised for, she was divested of all glamour. She played Mohanlal’s love interest in Priyadarshan’s National award-winning Malayalam film Kaala Pani (1996), a film she maintains she struggled with. In the same year came Maachis, where Tabu played a Sikh girl from a simple family who turns to militancy. It got her her first national award. Gulzar, the director of Maachis, spoke of her as an actor who was fearless and belonged to an era much earlier than the 90s. “Maachis gave me hope to go on doing what I was doing,” she says, “It changed the way I approached myself as an actor. Gulzaar saab gave me so much freedom to play that part that I realised that it can be so empowering to do it. After that film, even people who were not very sure of my taking this path were validating the choices I made. It was very gratifying.”
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that the 90s—which was a bleak decade for Hindi cinema when it came to good content—belonged to her. Or at least, she starred in films where the female lead had a meaty role to play. Be it Virasat (1997), Chachi 420 (1997), Hera Pheri (2000), Chandni Bar (2001), Filhaal (2002) or Maqbool (2003). For every three or four commercial films, there was one meaningful film that paved her way ahead.
She says, “Some characters might take more from you emotionally than others. That’s what Maqbool did. I had never ventured into that kind of dark space before. I was completely taken aback by the entire experience of that film.” There’s a scene where Nimmi wails in Maqbool’s arms after a meltdown. You experience what she did during the film, thanks to that one scene. Even today, Nimmi, the woman who destroyed Maqbool with her love, stands apart as one of the top ten roles ever written for a female Indian actor. It falls in the league of what Meena Kumari did with Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962) or what Rekha did with Umrao Jaan (1981). Tabu recognises it was an unparalleled role, saying, “I can’t ever think of that film as something I just shot for or just another good film. It was something that changed something in me, forever.”
Despite her love-hate relationship with acting, she has given us other gems like The Namesake (2006), Life of Pi (2012) and Cheeni Kum (2007). Ask her about her process and she replies, “I don’t think you can ever deconstruct or intellectualise the process of an actor. It’s become a fashionable word, ‘process’. Every day you are feeling differently, you are different characters, you are working with so many different people; the weather, the colour you’re wearing, the fabric you’re wearing, everything affects you. Everything is part of what comes on that screen. As an audience, you only see the actor as a solitary figure on screen. But when you zoom out, it’s an entire set of 500 people who have worked towards that,” she says.
Her understanding of the craft is far more than one can deconstruct on paper. The best part for her is the absence of an image to go by. She is happy to travel the world whenever she wishes, and shoot a film when she wants. The smaller, simpler things in life keep her going, like the smell of popcorn in a movie hall. “These days they have those recliner chairs. I love going and sitting on them. I feel like for three hours I’m just cut off from all the chaos. It’s so blissful,” she says.
She will continue to act, or maybe she won’t. Tabu likes to remain unpredictable, and that makes her the happiest.