I did not believe there is only one way for a heroine to be, says Tabu

After more than two decades in cinema, Tabu stands tall as one of the more individualistic actresses of our times.

Priyanka Sinha Jha June 27, 2019 16:16:57 IST

“The world is both small and big,” says actor Tabu haltingly as we discuss the improbability of her shifting base to Hollywood. If anything, technology has made boundaries and distances mere personal details; those who want to work with you, will find a way to do so, she reiterates in response to my question on why she had not considered a move, following the rousing reaction to her international projects like The Namesake and Life of Pi.

A list of memorable performances from Tabu will be a fairly lengthy one, remarkable, considering she came into cinema in the 1990s when Hindi films were struggling to find new forms to present mainstream stories. But this was one actress who was marching to her own beat. “I didn’t want to be encumbered by expectations, set patterns, rules or a formulae,” she reasons.

Anyone who has watched Tabu even in smaller roles in would understand why film-makers seek her out to work her magic. A case in point being her recent supporting part in De De Pyaar De, an adult family comedy where she plays the wife of a man (Ajay Devgn) in love with a much younger woman. Citing the example of Oscar-winning director Ang Lee who had seen her in The Namesake, she tells me that he refused to meet any other actress for the part of the mother in his film based on Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi.

Tabu, (short for Tabassum) who hails from a middle-class, traditional family of educationists in Hyderabad, is something of an accidental actor. But for the fact that her sister Farah Naaz was a huge star in the 1980s, her links with cinema would have been tenuous at best. Legend has it that late veteran actor Dev Anand met her with her sister, and was very keen to cast a teenage Tabu as his daughter in his directorial project Hum Naujawan. But, her mother was rather reluctant. Eventually, it was Tabu’s aunt, the renowned art-house actress Shabana Azmi, who coaxed the family to let Tabu take up the film as a lark.

“At 16 you are not in cinema because of your views or anything,” she says starkly as only she can. Being a shy, withdrawn youngster, there was not much reason for her to consider a serious career in acting after that.

However, what helped was that the industry’s leading men and sister Farah’s colleagues – Rishi Kapoor, Jackie Shroff, and Sunny Deol — who had seen the gawky, shy teenager when she accompanied Farah to the sets, were very encouraging towards her pursuing a film career.

“Looking back, I feel that was a big, big cushioning that I had. Maybe because of that, I could afford to do things my way,” says Tabu thanking her stars.

Having got a foot in the door and recognition of her talent, the young actress was quick to realise that she preferred cherry-picking projects that allowed her the latitude to explore the craft. Even as a newbie she preferred carefully selecting her films based on the director and roles instead of merely conforming to the formula. "For me I feel the director has been the most important factor," reiterates Tabu. The actress who was dusky and pretty tall as far as Indian heroines were concerned, did not bother trying to fit in. “As an actor, I need to look my best. (But) It’s not the only thing. I would not let it override everything else,” says the actor who has continued asserting her individuality not merely through her physical appearance, but also with her choice of films.

“The most interesting thing for me to see and experience is how different film-makers or writers bring (out) the man-woman equation on the screen. For me, that was the most interesting thing - is it one dimensional, is it predictable, how is it supposed to be?” And she has never hesitated to take up a role where she has found this relationship worthy. When Gulzar’s Maachis, that weaved a love story against the backdrop of terrorism in Punjab, or Kaala Paani a gritty film with a much older South-Indian Superstar Mohanlal were offered to her, she instinctively knew that the roles fit her groove perfectly. Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar offered her an opportunity to play a character with darker shades — the mistress to Prakash Raj’s character in the film, and she grabbed it.
Standing by her creative conviction certainly paid off for Tabu, what with an enviable repertoire that boasts of films like Astitva, Chandni Bar, Hu Tu Tu, Virasat, each marked by a memorable performance from her.

In retrospect, going by her conviction and following the thumb-rule of working with the best directors turned out to be a good choice. Even in commercial Hindi films like Vijaypath, Chachi 420, Biwi Number 1, Hum Saath Saath Hain, Hera Pheri, Drishyam, and most recent De De Pyaar De the actress stood out.

Tabu’s assertion is a simple one. “I was not happy doing only what I was told was the right way. When you talk about mainstream commercial films, it is formulaic for female actors, male protagonists, songs and all of which I was enjoying but I also knew I could do it another way. I wanted to do it my way. I wanted to express myself in my own way. I did not believe there is only one way for a heroine to be. Or to act, or dress. I wanted Me to exist.”

After more than two decades in cinema, Tabu sure does stand tall as one of the more individualistic actresses of our times.

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