Why Tabu is Bollywood's Special One

Vinayak Chakravorty

May 10, 2019 13:15:10 IST

She defines un-Bollywood in every way and she has just completed 25 years as a Bollywood heroine. In a world where icons of perfection lunge at every available opportunity to woo mass hysteria, and the PR-driven fame circus works overtime to drill every little star antic into fan psyche, the reclusive Tabu’s silver jubilee feat typically came and went without fuss.

Oldtimers would recall how her first release as a Bollywood heroine all those years ago — on May 6, 1994 — made far more noise, probably because she was Shabana Azmi’s niece and was making her debut opposite the in-form Rishi Kapoor. The film, Pehla Pehla Pyar, a Roman Holiday rehash served Bollywood style, was a dud. The fact didn’t help that the Sanjay Kapoor co-starrer Prem, originally hyped as her first release, got delayed by years and ended up a superflop on its eventual release in 1995.

Luckily for her, Tabu’s run started before the Prem disaster. A couple of months after Pehla Pehla Pyar, her second release Vijaypath, opposite Ajay Devgn, scored bullseye at the box-office.

Call it coincidence that the hero of Tabu’s first release in her 25th year is once again Devgn. Over the recent weeks, she has been all over the music channels and the digital promotional space, hardselling their upcoming rom-com, De De Pyaar De. The film’s peppy dance number Hauli hauli, particularly, has caught popular attention.

The stark difference between then and now strikes as you watch the song. Devgn is not romancing Tabu. Despite her starring role in the film, Tabu darts in and out of the frames as 50-year-old machoman Devgn courts 20-something rising star Rakul Preet Singh.

The film’s synopsis would explain the rom-com situation: Devgn plays a middle-aged man is in love with a young girl (Singh) but his ex-wife (essayed by Tabu) spells trouble in their possible romance.

If Bollywood’s older hero-much younger heroine equation, which the script devotedly sets up for Devgn, seems beyond trite by now, you don’t actually mind the idea in this particular case. Coming after last year’s brilliant Andhadhun, De De Pyaar De seems to promises a sort of comic menace that could once again let the actress revel in irresistible shades of grey.

Andhadhun and De De Pyaar De attest that Tabu, at 46, is going strong as ever, more than most heroines of her generation. Many of her contemporaries quit films for marriage. Others tied the knot with big filmmakers or actors, ensuring assured comebacks every few years. Madhuri Dixit would seem like the only senior actress besides Tabu who still consistently bags significant mainstream roles. However, while Madhuri has struggled to create an impact with all her comeback bids since 2007’s Aaja Nachle, Tabu only seems to better with age.

Commercial Bollywood, otherwise driven by the desperation to thrust stardom on its own kids, is learning to accommodate layered roles for its talented senior heroines only now. Tabu’s advantage as opposed to, say Dixit, has been the fact that she comes without the baggage of image, a trait that would also underline her survival over the decades.

When she starred in the hero-centric action flick, Vijaypath all those years ago, her most important job in the script was to be the hero’s lovergirl who gyrates to the peppy Ruk ruk ruk number. Twenty-five years on, as De De Pyaar De is about to release, mainstream Bollywood has developed a newfound urge to take its actresses seriously.

Yet, Tabu was always different. Bollywood always took her seriously, which is ironic considering, over the decades, she has consistently snubbed their parties, their social media chaos, and their compulsion to be picture perfect. It’s almost as if the industry learnt to create an unspoken code when it comes to Tabu: Get her for the special role, watch her go on screen, and then let her be.

It is easy to understand why. For all her obvious lack of planning and PR skills over the years, the one move that worked wonders for Tabu was signing Gulzar’s 1996 drama, Maachis, barely two years into her career.

Maybe, the tag of being Shabana Azmi’s niece helped, but despite the box-office tendencies of the era, the young Tabu actually became popular in that early sombre role. In retrospect, while the ploy could have backfired, Maachis — despite its grim portrayal of Sikh insurgency in Punjab of the 1980s — went onto become a hit. Tabu won a National Award and Bollywood, where success matters above all else, noted the fact. In no time, she was deemed an actress who could be profitably fitted into an offbeat package of realism.

Yet, no sooner did fans and the press hail her as Bollywood’s new mistress of realism, Tabu was clever enough to skirt a permanent slotting. As Maachis led to offbeat and arthouse projects such as Astitva (2000), Chandni Bar (2001), Maqbool (2003) and Haider (2014), Tabu was quick to balance these projects with mainstream hits including Virasat, Chachi 420, and Hera Pheri. Even as she won a second National Award for her tragic role of a bar dancer in Chandni Bar, she was turning her lack of in-your-face glamour to stand out with strong character roles amid the big-budget multi-star casts of Biwi No. 1 and Hum Saath-Saath Hain. She scored again the same way in 2017 with the multistarrer blockbuster, Golmaal Again, just when the audience was raving about her dark roles in Haider and Fitoor.

She keeps them guessing, which is why she keeps going on. The importance of being Tabu lies in the fact that she has mastered the art of surprising a film industry that loves slotting its artists in comfortable clichés.



The highlight performances in Tabu’s career

MAACHIS (1996): Tabu won her first National Award for Gulzar’s film on Punjab insurgency of the 1980s

ASTITVA (2000): A middle-class homemaker’s life is thrown in a turmoil owing to ghosts of her past

CHANDNI BAR (2001): Her role of a beleaguered bar dancer won her a second National Award as actress

MAQBOOL (2003): Tabu stood out amid an incredible cast reprising Lady Macbeth in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Macbeth adaptation

HAIDER (2014): Vishal Bhardwaj’s Hamlet adaptation saw the actress essay a complex portrayal of an Indianised Gertrude

Updated Date: May 10, 2019 14:22:19 IST

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