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The Indian Quarterly – A Literary & Cultural Magazine – Being Tabu

Being Tabu

Gautam Chintamani 2

Gautam Chintamani puts the enigmatic star in context

Image courtesy: Mira Nair

When it comes to Tabu’s films, there is hardly anything worth talking about until her 1996 collaboration with Gulzar. The celebrated poet-filmmaker hadn’t directed a film for almost half a decade, and Tabu entered a different league the moment Gulzar cast her in Maachis (1996), a film based on the lives destroyed by terrorism in Punjab. Prior to Maachis, Tabu’s name was rarely mentioned in the list of actresses who could replace Smita Patil, Deepti Naval and Shabana Azmi—women who had managed to strike a balance between being dolled up for commercial films and making their mark in art-house cinema.

Maachis became a bigger hit than anyone expected and fetched Tabu her first National Film Award. Her presence in the movie briefly bequeathed a sense of direction to Gulzar, who had been groping in the dark after RD Burman’s demise. He had rarely found a leading lady who could portray the “regular woman” with as much ease as Sanjeev Kumar and Jeetendra had played his everymen. It was seldom that heroines enjoyed his trust when it came to his more male-oriented films, such as Mere Apne (1971) and Maachis. In the former, Gulzar had placed Meena Kumari, an elderly woman shunned by her family, in the middle of two warring gangs as the voice of reason. Similarly in Maachis, Veera (Tabu) is the only beacon of hope amid the darkness for the men.

In Tabu, Gulzar had finally found an actress who wasn’t too bothered with the usual parameters. Unfortunately, their second—and final—outing, Hu Tu Tu (1999), ended up being a well-intended dish served too cold. It’s regrettable that Gulzar never directed a film after that, for it would have been interesting to see how he’d have cast Tabu, who was on the verge of entering a remarkable phase as an actor, open to doing diverse roles across languages.

But what a time she’d had getting to that stage.

Popular Hindi cinema works on different sets of blueprints when it comes to leading men versus women. The men are supposed to fit a pre-existing mould, almost a sort of filling up of the space vacated by the previous occupant, while referring to the past, albeit in a “new” manner. Post-independence, the first wave of leading men featuring the trio of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand found itself being repeated to some degree in the personae of the stars that followed. But for the women, the rules have always been different. The honorific of “star” has been bestowed upon fewer leading ladies compared to their male counterparts; as opposed to the men, the female stars across generations were markedly different: even a slight hint of a nostalgia-evoking trait killed their chances of success.

The only time Tabu has even come close to being reminiscent of someone else was at a time when the world barely knew her. She played the teenaged daughter of a college professor (Dev Anand) who is raped and murdered by one her father’s students in Hum Naujawan (1985). Tabu could have been imagined as the next Padmini Kolhapure because her role was almost similar to the latter’s in Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978) or Insaf ka Tarazu (1980). Like Padmini, Tabu was a natural in front of the camera but didn’t do any more films as a child artist even though she grew up surrounded by cinema.

Tabu’s elder sister, Farah Naaz, was a well-known actress, as was her aunt, Shabana Azmi, but the young Tabassum Hashmi stayed away from the arc lights for almost a decade. By the time she made her debut as a leading lady, the world had forgotten Hum Naujawan and also the hushed incident where the young actress was allegedly molested during a shoot by one of her sister’s co-stars.

While waiting seven years for her official launch, Prem (1995), Tabu had already had a flop with Rishi Kapoor in Pehla Pehla Pyar (1994) and a hit with Ajay Devgan in Vijaypath (1994). She replaced Divya Bharti—who had tragically died—in the latter: a typical commercial vendetta drama that became one of the biggest hits of the year, got Tabu recognition and gave her an anthem of sorts in the chartbuster “Ruk Ruk Ruk”.

When Prem released in 1995 no one was interested in watching it, even though Tabu was a known name by then. She was perhaps the only one who managed to survive that unmitigated disaster, thanks to popular hits like Haqeeqat (1995), Saajan Chale Sasural (1996) and Jeet (1996). And then Maachis came along.

Tabu’s ability to navigate the vapidities of mainstream Hindi cinema and to find magic within them led Vishal Bhardwaj to her, first with Maqbool (2003), and last year’s Haider. While he became famous for locating the complexities of Shakespeare’s psychological examinations within the contours of commercial film, Tabu has now come to be most identified with the director’s tryst with the bard.

When Haider came out, many wondered if the film was really about Hamlet/Haider’s mother, Gertrude/Ghazala. Bhardwaj based the movie in Kashmir, for he felt the contemporary history of the place suited the emotional graph he wanted his Hamlet to explore. This ended up putting more focus on the character Ghazala; in a deviation from the original play, the writing team almost limned the mother’s character onto Kashmir itself.

Like Gertrude, Ghazala lies to herself about the consequences of her actions. Bhardwaj also made Ghazala Haider’s stepmother to attach a certain ambiguity to their relationship. This could well have been Tabu’s idea; it was rumoured that she had refused the role in an earlier draft and came on board only after this change. As expected, Tabu excelled in her portrayal of Ghazala. Her reputation is now set in stone, you’d think. Yet, if Maachis was the first step towards Haider, there was a greater performance, in a role written with her in mind, along the way—as Mumtaz in Chandni Bar.

The interesting thing about Tabu’s filmography prior to Chandni Bar (2001) was that she had more than 20 titles in the bag, but the bad ones were readily forgotten (and thus forgiven by her more discerning fans), while the ones that stood out made her oeuvre look really impressive. In the few years prior to Chandni Bar, she worked in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, Punjabi and even Assamese films, with some of the biggest names in the business: Kamal Haasan (Chachi 420), Mani Ratnam (Iruvar), Priyadarshan (Hera Pheri, Kaalapani, Virasat), David Dhawan (Biwi No1) and Sooraj Barjatya (Hum Saath-Saath Hain). She found herself equally at home in art-house breakaways such as Kalpana Lajmi’s Darmiyaan: In Between, Rajiv Menon’s Kandukondain Kandukondain and Govind Nihalani’s Thakshak.

Tabu’s mere presence was enough to not only get projects with little commercial feasibility green-lit—think Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!! (2000)—but also made and released. She became the first choice for many filmmakers when it came to heroine-oriented subjects that in previous years might have been considered unviable in spite of a marquee name attached to the project. With Virasat (1997)—a performance that endeared her to both critics and audiences alike—Tabu delivered on the promise of Maachis. A remake of Kamal Haasan’s Thevar Magan (1992), Virasat was a big-budget production. Tabu’s presence added the star value of a commercially successful heroine and the gravitas of a critically-acclaimed actress.

Consider this: even after the success of Vaastav: The Reality (1999), Mahesh Manjrekar might not have been able to make Astitva (2000) had it not been for Tabu. Manjrekar’s background in Marathi theatre made it easy for him to cast her as an adulterous middle-class housewife who ages enough in the course of the film to play mother to a 20-something young man. Such a practice is common in theatre. Yet Tabu, who doesn’t come from the stage, played Aditi Pandit with natural ease, without relying on extensive make-up. Her presence allowed Manjrekar to cast Sachin Khedekar and Mohnish Bahl in pivotal roles instead of more known names, and keep the run time of the film down to a riveting 109 minutes.

It was Chandni Bar, however, that took her to another plane. Considering the state of popular Hindi cinema at the time, it was exceptional, as it was completely art-house, or even indie, in its outlook. It featured Tabu as Mumtaz, the displaced village girl who survives communal riots and comes to Mumbai to be with an uncle and ends up becoming a beer bar dancer. Chandni Bar was as gritty and realistic as a mainstream Hindi film could be. It was directed by Madhur Bhandarkar, an erstwhile assistant to the 1990s wunderkind Ram Gopal Varma. A friend coerced a jobless Bhandarkar into visiting a beer bar on a hot summer afternoon. Even though he ran off without finishing his drink, the image of the dancers lingered on in his mind. Before he knew it, he was writing a film, and it was while writing that he started imagining Tabu as the lead. “I had hardly seen two or three films of hers, but the pain on her face in the ‘Paani Paani Re number from Maachis ended up becoming the point around which the character of Mumtaz centred,” said Bhandarkar.

The director had a full script—a rarity in those days—and while Tabu prepared herself based on it, along with a couple of visits to real beer bars, she chose to rely on the filmmaker’s guidance. Bhandarkar recalled how he kept changing the lines. “Even though I was a new, and moreover, flop director, she never questioned the changes.”

Tabu soon transformed into Mumtaz. The manner in which she infused latent sensuality into the sheer hopelessness of her life was stylised enough to make Chandni Bar appear commercial; while Bhandarkar’s execution and the presence of Atul Kulkarni as the mobster who falls in love with Mumtaz, and Vallabh Vyas as the mob boss, added a great deal of realism.

The film fetched Tabu her second National Film Award and made her a brand that would endure to the present day. The following years saw her veer easily between playing a woman whose friend changes her mind after offering to be a surrogate (Filhaal …, 2002) to a desi Lady Macbeth in Maqbool, to a woman existing on three planes as the representation of an artist’s muse in MF Husain’s Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities (2004). Husain couldn’t imagine anyone else but Tabu for the role of the muse, Meenaxi, who inspires the writer Nawab (Raghubir Yadav). He even called her “reality”, as opposed to the “illusion” that Madhuri Dixit was to him.

Unfortunately, popular Hindi cinema isn’t in the habit of proffering such opportunities to actresses on a regular basis. Tabu had to keep herself occupied with routine fare in the form of Maa Tujhhe Salaam (2001), Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya (2001), Aamdani Atthanni Kharcha Rupaiya (2001), Jaal: The Trap (2003), Hawa (2003), Khanjar (2003), while doing more meaningful roles whenever possible.

Tabu’s immense talent seems to threaten people, especially her male co-stars. In fact, Mira Nair, who directed her in The Namesake (2006), believes that the industry is so myopic that even Tabu’s height works against her. Nair recalled meeting a hero for a women-centric project featuring Tabu that she was supposed to produce. “He wasn’t an A-list name, but the guy said, ‘Arre Miraji, stigma ho jayega,’” remembered Nair. She is convinced that most top male stars would “rather have a sexy bimbette” playing opposite them; naturally, Tabu can easily be one, if challenged, yet they’d still feel incapable of matching up to her. A victim of her own accomplishments, she became one of those who would do a marquee role once every three to four years.

But what roles they’ve been. Nair recalled how Tabu became “Ashima” in a matter of a week and reported to New York for a schedule as if she was born to play her. Enacting the role of a middle-aged woman wasn’t anything new for Tabu, but The Namesake’s emotional graph was different from Astitva’s. Nair was surprised by the way she interpreted grief. There’s a scene where Ashima’s son, Gogol, is returning with his head shaven after his father’s death. Ashima was supposed to stand and greet him at the airport, but Tabu told Nair that her character was too emotionally and physically exhausted to stand. She had to sit. It was only some years later, after someone died in her own family, that Nair understood how perceptive Tabu was.

After having played mother to a young man in Astitva and in The Namesake, perhaps the balance was redressed to some degree when she romanced a much older man in Cheeni Kum (2007). In fact, R Balki had narrated an outline to both Amitabh Bachchan and Tabu and had proceeded to write the film only when both his original choices agreed. Even though the film was essentially a reimagining of the iconic Bachchan, it might not have been as sweet an experience if not for the signature Tabu touch. She infused a sense of believability in Cheeni Kum. Though widely seen as a comic role, the film still doesn’t do justice to Tabu’s comic instinct.

Like a true classical actress Tabu can go from being the muse of thinking directors to adorning the cover of Vogue with equal ease. But even after two decades she isn’t close to being as significant as she should be, in terms of the larger film industry.

Is it her immense talent that scares others, or her inability to play the game that compels her to be the proverbial outsider or misfit? Or could it be that ever since
Chandni Bar put the spotlight on her, almost every noteworthy Tabu performance ends up feeling the same? Maqbool’s Nimmi could very well be Chandni Bar’s Mumtaz; Cheeni Kum’s Nina appears to be Maachis’ Veera had fate not played dirty; Virasat’s Gehna seems to be cut from the same fabric as The Namesake’s Ashima; Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!!’s Kamya could very well be Fanna’s Malini under different circumstances. Is simply delivering what’s expected of her Tabu’s way of rebelling against Hindi cinema for short-changing her? Or is it the age-old nature of the industry that forces her to be in this position? After all, she can only be as good as the roles she gets. Yet the impact of certain details of Tabu’s performances often linger long after the films themselves have gone. It isn’t just the audience; even the filmmakers can’t stop thinking about her. Bhandarkar is on record as contemplating a sequel to Chandni Bar, just to see how Mumtaz is now, 14 years later.

Every Hindi cinema actress wants her own Mother India (1957). While most pay their dues, or try to, very few ultimately manage that summit. Once they get their shot, there’s nothing left to prove, and thereafter, it’s usually curtains. As opposed to her contemporaries, Tabu has already had her moment twice over, in Chandni Bar and Haider. Yet, you feel, there is so much left to say.


Gautam Chintamani is the author of Dark Star: The Loneliness of Being Rajesh Khanna (2014). A popular columnist across leading Indian publications, Gautam’s writing explores everything from world to Indian cinema and whatever exists in between.


  1. George October 9, 2015 at 10:26 pm - Reply

    Very well written and captures Tabu, the actress. She is brilliance and beauty personified.

  2. Saurabh Sinha February 21, 2016 at 5:13 pm - Reply

    The Tabu legend has been enriched by her marquee performances in ‘Drishyam’ and ‘Fitoor’.

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