There are few actors who can lay claim to being a bona fide star 31 years after their debut. Tabu, who turns 51 today, is one of them. The actor made her debut in Coolie No. 1 (1991) and spent the Nineties doing films as varied as Gulzar’s Maachis (1996) — her portrayal of the young Veeran, who becomes an insurgent, remains haunting — to Sooraj Barjatya’s Hum Saath Saath Hain (1999) in which she played the sanskari bahu, had barely a dialogue and was mummified in shiny saris. Conventionally, as women actors age into their 30s, they tend to go on hiatus. Sometimes this is voluntary, but it’s also a feature of working in an industry that has traditionally limited women characters to being either nubile or maternal. Tabu is one of those actors who has worked consistently over the decades, showing through her roles that older women can be more than just a catalyst in a protagonist’s life. Whatever the role, Tabu embodies it so effortlessly that you almost convince yourself that this must be her in real life. On screen, she can become anyone and convince you of anything. In Cheeni Kum, she gave us a heroine who is unapologetic about both her choices and the fact that she’s in her mid-30s. Later, she’d play the hero’s mother, but her Ghazala had an electric sensuality that made her nothing like the stereotype that Bollywood has known. Even in supporting roles, like the two-bit appearance she had in Fanaa (2006), Tabu’s performances made an impact. From Nimmi in Maqbool to Anjulika and Manjulika in Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, Tabu is unforgettable.
From her diverse filmography, here are some of our favourite roles in which Tabu has defied the constraints usually placed on mature, women characters.
Vishal Bharadwaj’s 2004 directorial based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth features an ensemble cast of Irrfan, Tabu, Pankaj Kapur, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Piyush Mishra. Tabu plays Nimmi, who is inspired by Lady Macbeth. She has a dangerously playful quality to her — she is seductive and obsessive, vulnerable and shrewd. It’s a tightrope and Tabu walks it with effortless charisma. She is endearing when she hurts her foot deliberately to gather Maqbool’s (Irrfan) attention; when she holds him at gunpoint; when she pretends to sob while sitting in front of the mirror. Tabu makes subterfuge beguiling. Even then, her ‘come-hither’ eyes exude a yearning that makes it seem more like a request. It is easy to forget Nimmi is a mother-in-law-to-be and a mistress to a much older man. Conventionally, this is not the woman you fall in love with — unless she’s played by Tabu.
There’s no doubt that Vishal Bharadwaj and Tabu bring out the best in one another. In Haider, Bharadwaj’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Tabu is Ghazala who is modelled on Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother. She’s in love with her missing husband’s brother and also a mother, whose relationship with her son, Haider (Shahid Kapoor), is crackling with taboo-flavoured intensity. If you don’t get goosebumps listening to Ghazala remind Haider about how as a child, he would say he wanted to marry his mother, you’ve got nerves of steel. In the end, when Ghazala attempts to deter him from exacting revenge, fails, and kisses him all over the face as a goodbye, Tabu finds that perfect balance between maternal and romantic love. It leaves us uncomfortable, but there’s no trace of vulgarity.
A remake of the eponymous 2013 Malayalam movie, Drishyam was directed by Nishikant Kamat. Tabu plays Meera, a police officer whose son has gone missing and there is a weariness to her body language that speaks volumes. She is unrelenting and indifferent in the face of violence. Even after knowing about her son’s transgressions, her unconditional love refuses to yield. Only towards the end do we witness her falter, when closure appears to be closer than she anticipated. Drishyam is another example of Tabu playing a mother but defying the stereotype even though she is as adoring and loyal as filmi mothers are meant to be. Here, her refusal to indict her son, the absence of either shame or apology about her son’s behaviour gives the character an edge. The role of her husband, who acknowledges that perhaps they spoilt their son, is supposed to be a foil to Tabu’s character, but if that was meant to undercut Meera’s impact, it fails. Tabu is compelling as a proud woman and a mother whose love turns to grief.
Directed by Mira Nair and Shimit Amin, this adaptation of Vikram Seth’s novel by the same name has only a few things going for it, and chief of them is Tabu as Saeeda Bai. A Suitable Boy is something of a coming-of-age novel as well as a portrait of a genteel world in a turbulent time. As Saeeda Bai, with kajal-shadowed eyes and long wavy hair, Tabu is a picture of classical beauty and all the younger women and men pale into insignificance next to her. Saeeda Bai is a much-older courtesan who is seen humouring a young man infatuated with her. She gives him a nickname, ‘Dagh Sahib’, gently mocking him by referencing the romantic poems of the legendary Dagh Dehlvi. Saeeda Bai is a woman of many secrets too, the best-kept one being that her sister is really her daughter. Best of luck trying to find the moral fortitude to judge her when she looks at you through the camera, her eyes glittering with temptation and promise.
Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun featured Tabu in a small role that plays a big part in making this film memorable. Tabu plays Simi Sinha, the wife and murderer of actor Pramod Sinha (Dhawan). To watch her handle the repercussions of a crime is strangely captivating. We see her through the eyes of someone she believes to be blind. Her misbelief lets us witness her at her worst, and Tabu delivered one of the best performances of her career. The unadulterated fear and frustration, the restlessness, rage and cunning, all come through. There is sternness even in her vulnerability, hinting at the awareness of being watched. It’s her cautiousness that entices, and her vindictiveness that makes us stay.
Few would have thought a horror comedy, directed by Anees Bazmee, could be a showcase for Tabu, but that’s exactly what Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 ended up being. While the protagonists of the film are Kartik Aaryan and Kiara Advani, Tabu has a double role as she plays the sisters Anjulika and Manjulika. Tabu’s performance as these two women, oscillating between two ends of the morality spectrum, is a joy to watch and she plays her own nemesis with ease. She also successfully draws the more obvious line between what it means to be human versus a spirit. She’s liquid grace as she dances to ‘Ami Je Tomar’, but she’s also chillingly creepy when she addresses her father’s corpse, asking why he didn’t love her. She’s the reason to watch Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, which is one of the few Hindi films to have scored at the box office in 2022.