A Reminder That Birthday Girl Tabu Is The Best Thing About ‘A Suitable Boy’, And Almost Every Movie She’s In!
There are some actors who we like, and some who we don’t. And then comes a certain class of actors who have transcended these trivial matters of liking and loving. Their art is so subliminal that every time you see them on screen (or on the stage) there’s no way you’re not profoundly moved by it. We’re lucky to be in a time where more and more actors are striving for this rather than a basic box office success. And one of those actors, for me, has always been Tabu, who celebrates her birthday today. At 49, the statuesque beauty isn’t just a vision to behold, but with each passing day and film she works in, her beauty is elevated by the nuanced performances she delivers. Most recently seen in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Vikram Seth’s classic English novel, A Suitable Boy, Tabu is the best thing about the series. Actually, I’d like to say she’s usually the best thing about every movie she’s in!
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Born Tabassum Fatima Hashmi, she is the niece of actors Tanvi Azmi and Shabana Azmi, and cinematographer Baba Azmi. Tabu’s acting career began in 1982 with an uncredited appearance in the movie Bazaar, followed by a role in Dev Anand directed Hum Naujawan (1985) where at the age of 14, she played his daughter. Post this she made her first lead debut in a Telugu film, Coolie No. 1 opposite Venkatesh, and a bunch of other Hindi films. But most of us 90s kids will claim our first Tabu memory to be of her playing a white piano, in a deep pink saree… her long hair and pallu flowing in the wind as Ajay Devgn sings “Raah Mein Unse Mulaqaat Ho Gayi’ in Vijaypath.
Since then, Tabu has worked in a myriad of films, both commercial and indie, small budget and big banner, Indian and international. You’d see her in a movie like Gulzar’s Maachis (1996) where she blew the audience away with her performance and even won a National Award for Best Actress. And then in the same year, she would’ve also done an out-and-out commercial comedy like Saajan Chale Sasural alongside Govinda and Karisma Kapoor. Again in 1999, she starred in another Gulzar political drama, Hu Tu Tu, earning a Filmfare nomination for Best Actress. And then, went on to play a full-dramebaaz Punjabi wife to Anil Kapoor’s character in Biwi No. 1. Remember that range meme? You might as well put Tabu in it!
That being said, Tabu the actor really blossoms in films that require much heavy lifting. For me, the adoration for Tabu began with Virasat, where she played a small but pivotal role as the wife of a man who was in love with another woman. Anil Kapoor’s character wanted neither the village politics that his father rules over not the girl that he gets married to. And yet, with just that one scene, where Tabu’s innocent village belle Gehna sings Paayalein Chunmun Chunmun (rendered beautifully by Chithra), she doesn’t just win her husband’s heart but also that of the woman he loved as well as the audience’s. Wide-eyed, nervous, wearing a gajra and a huge red bindi on her forehead, and stressing on the ’un’ sound like a little kid who’s learning how to sing, Tabu makes the character even more endearing than it is!
Unfortunately some of Tabu’s acclaimed performances in films like Maachis, Hu Tu Tu, Chandni Bar and Meenaxi came at a time when I was too young to appreciate or even watch serious dramas. But who doesn’t love Chhai Chhapa Chhai, Chappa Chappa Charkha Chale and Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai (the song not that lame TV show) where Tabu looked so beautiful!
This doesn’t mean I was deprived. She was still around in commercial movies, giving me plenty to like about her in Rajshri’s Hum Saath Saath Hai, where she played this dutiful wife, babu and bhabhi. I won’t lie, back then it was really impressive for an 8-year-old to see, as the characters in the film remarked, that a girl raised abroad would so easily settle into an Indian family and become the most beloved member of the family. You see, in most movies back then, the heroines were usually rich daddy’s spoilt brats who were ‘taught a lesson’ in humility by the poor hero. There was also Hera Pheri, a movie I remember sitting in the front row and watching, laughing my guts out, and sparing a thought for Tabu’s Anuradha Shivshankar Panikar, badass but good of heart.
That scene where she is trying to flirt with Suniel Shetty, saying, “Waah, kya mardana chaal hai” makes me crack up even today! Because when you see it now, Tabu is usually so slick and sexy that she makes men of every age stumble for words. Look how she easily seduced Irrfan Khan’s Miyaan Maqbool in her bed to murder her husband! Could there have been any other Lady Macbeth in Bollywood? And here she was, as Anuradha, sucking at giving a guy a basic compliment! It’s why Main Ladki Pon Pon Pon and her outfits in the song remain comic gold.
But let’s talk about the Tabu that has found her niche, shall we? The one whose consistently mindblowing performances back the claim I made at the start, that she is the best thing about the movies she is in. Mind you, she usually has tough competition, considering the films she picks are directed by acclaimed directors like Mira Nair and R. Balki and star actors like the late Irrfan Khan and Amitabh Bachchan. And yet, her demure immigrant Indian wife and mother, Ashima, in The Namesake and her charming, headstrong and independent Nina in Cheeni Kum stand their own.
Speaking of her range again, Tabu has played mom a couple of times on screen now, in both Indian and international productions—The Namesake, Life Of Pi, Haider, Fitoor, and most recently in Jawaani Jaaneman. And in each of those characters, she give out the most incredible performances. She’s a loving, traditional Indian mother in The Namesake and Life Of Pi. And then you’re hit with her acts in Haidar and Fitoor. Both films are literary adaptations of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, respectively. And Tabu’s characters, Ghazala Meer and Begum Hazrat Jaan, are complex, manipulative women, who’re capable of deep love for their children but also slaves to their desires for power and revenge that will often overpower their maternal instincts.
You’re stuck, just like Haider was, between inexplicable love for her character and searing hatred for what she can do with that love to you. I don’t think I can imagine any other actress reprising the character of Gertrude. Or for that matter, of the famous Miss Havisham, her profound sadness, heartbreak and misguided revenge, that Tabu brought on in a searing performance in the otherwise dud, Fitoor. I watch the movie for a few things—Katrina Kaif’s red hair, a shirtless Aditya Roy Kapur, the music, but most importantly for Tabu’s tragic Hazrat.
In Andhadhun, one of the highest grossing films we’ve had, Tabu brings out the femme fatale again, as a remorseless murderess who is the perfect antagonist in a movie where you can’t really decide who the villain is. I can’t put into words how she makes bad look so good, or rather so real. Because people are not white or black, they’re grey. And no one does grey better, or more heartbreakingly than Tabu. Take her character in the recent Jawaani Jaaneman, for example. The hippie, eccentric mother who is so unbelievable that she makes you laugh and think she’s a bad parent who gives no care for her daughter, when compared to Saif Ali Khan’s slowly reforming father. But once again, it is in the layers of her character, those little eye movements, the expressions, that she uses to reveal the deeper insecurities of an almost absentee mother who realises that her daughter might’ve grown to love her estranged father a tinge more now.
When you’ve seen her through all of this, you realise her being cast as Saeeda Bai in A Suitable Boy is perfection. She brings the sex appeal and the rich attraction of a courtesan that pulls in the men around her. But she also manages to bring out the poetry, the emotion and the mystery, which is what mesmerises Ishaan Khatter’s Maan Kapoor and makes him fall in love with her. How do you escape the pull of this magnificent creature? Of course, Mira Nair, the director is quite fond of her and wanted her to be in the series. But the only way that admiration that makes filmmakers want you that badly in their movies comes is because you’ve put never disappointed them. And that’s Tabu for you.
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At this point, I don’t think there’s anything Tabu cannot do! But what excites me more is waiting to see what she does next. Here’s wishing the beautiful actor a very happy birthday!