Anyone growing up on the Hindi cinema of the Sixties and Seventies remembers Agha, the robust comedic figure who was a consistent presence in major films such as Kala Pani (1958) and Padosan (1968). He was most remembered for playing bumbling figures who often had a delayed reaction to the tomfoolery unfolding around him. However, very few know that the actor’s style was inspired by Edward Everett Horton, the famous American actor from early talkies-era films like Trouble in Paradise (1932) and Top Hat (1935). Similarly, one remembers Durga Khote, the gentle-faced mother figure of the 60s, but not many know of her early-career struggles to learn lengthy Urdu dialogues or rigorous song-and-dance sequences that directors wouldn’t expend many retakes on.
These are some of the most recognizable faces of Hindi cinema’s bygone era, but their experiences and stories haven’t been as well-documented as they should be. Among the few efforts made to chronicle Hindi film history, one of the most memorable was pioneered by Tabassum, the legendary TV presenter who became a household name in the Seventies and Eighties with her show Phool Khile Khile Gulshan Gulshan. As Karan Johar put it in an interview with Twinkle Khanna, the image of Tabassum with a rose in her hair and her immaculately draped sari was imprinted on the minds of millions of Indian viewers for whom this was their introduction to the idea of a celebrity talk show.
Born Kiran Bala Sachdev on July 9, 1944, Tabassum achieved fame early on in her life, working as a child artiste in some of the most prominent films of that era such as Jogan (1950), Afsana (1951), Sangram (1950) and Deedaar (1951). While she continued to work in films as she grew older, including major movies such as Phir Wohi Dil Laaya Hoon (1963) and Johnny Mera Naam (1970), the hallmark of her incredible legacy began in 1972, nearly 25 years after her debut, when Doordarshan asked her to host a weekly entertainment show focussing on interviews with famous film personalities. She came up with the title Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan and the rest, as they say, is history.
Siddharth Kak, a famous television presenter who was anchoring Doordarshan’s news segment at the same time Tabassum’s show was being filmed, remembers the host’s distinctive style. “When she appeared onscreen, it was like a breath of fresh air. She was so quick-witted and fluent in the language, it’s no wonder she developed a rapport with all the actors with such ease,” she says. Kak recalls Sunil Dutt showing up to the studio for an appearance on Tabassum’s show, while still in his makeup from a previous shoot. “She was so popular and lively that even most reputed actors were eager to be featured on her programme.”
Tabassum’s show wasn’t always star-studded though. Besides interacting with some of the most popular stars in the business, she also interviewed actors who weren’t as celebrated, but who had made significant contributions to the movies nonetheless. Jeevan, Prem Chopra, Shubha Khote, Manmohan Krishna, Shriram Lagoo, and K.N.Singh all appeared on Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan. “If not for people like Ameen Sayani and Tabassum, we wouldn’t have any documentation or archival material on these film figures who provide us with an important link to our early years of Hindi cinema, which remain criminally under-documented,” says film journalist Irfan who is well-known today for his own talk show Guftagoo.
Tabassum was an affectionate interviewer, bubbling with enthusiasm and disarming guests with her candor. As an industry insider, she knew most of the people on her show well, which added a degree of comfort and familiarity to their interactions. “She was endearing, always smiling and affectionate, like a family member,” says Kak. “It was this vivacious presence that lent her show such energy and interest. She was an eternal optimist. That kind of positive energy is very rare today.”
While Tabassum’s demeanour was generally playful, she could also switch to a more authoritative personality with ease, asking her interviewees pointed questions. When Anil Kapoor spoke about doing small roles to attract the attention of a big producer because his father did not have enough faith in his talent to bankroll one of his films, Tabassum immediately cross-questioned him about Woh 7 Din (1983), which Kapoor’s father produced. Her questions were forthright and yet never made guests defensive.
Her interviews are also a time capsule of the past. In an interaction with lyricist Anand Bakshi in the early Eighties, Tabassum asked why the current songs didn’t have a shelf life anymore. With great precision, Bakshi explained why the older songs were better, belonging more integrally to films that had greater emotional depth and romance, as opposed to films of the 70s and 80s which became more western and action-driven, drifting away from emotionality. Perhaps the honesty her interviews elicited also had something to do with the relaxed mindset of those times, when stars were not excessively cautious about their image. Ashok Kumar spoke candidly about his gradual distancing from his children. K.N.Singh was frank about how the newer generation of actors were more shrewd and calculating when it came to their career choices.
Irfan remembers Tabassum’s “lateefay” (jokes) and her chirpy demeanor. While he admits that he wasn’t an avid Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan viewer when it first aired, he now watches snippets of her interviews on her YouTube channel. “In a world where entertainment journalism was always largely populated by either a gossip-style reporting or PR-driven promotional coverage, shows such as Tabassum’s created a space where we got to know what someone like Shrilam Lagoo thought about differences between theater and cinema, what Manmohan Krishna’s childhood was like, what Jeevan thought about his style of acting and so on. If not for these shows, we wouldn’t know how these actors talked and behaved when they were not acting for cinema.” What remains memorable about Tabassum’s show even now, he says, was her ability to humanise film stars.
The show ran for 21 years, before finally coming to an end in 1993 - but Tabassum remained active on television hosting and appearing on a few other film-related shows in the coming years like Chulbuli Filmein Chatpati Gupshup. She was also one of the few veterans from that era who switched to the digital age with ease, creating a YouTube channel called Tabassum Talkies in 2016. It currently has more than 8 lakh subscribers and is managed by her son Hoshang Govil. Even on a new platform, the host’s demeanour and slightly theatrical manner of speaking remained constant. While her style might have appeared a little dated to younger audiences, it was also a remnant of a gentler time. Irfan notes how Tabassum’s fanbase stayed loyal over the years. “People remembered her work, and kept coming back for the archival content that she curated on digital platforms,” he says.
Most of the videos created for Tabassum Talkies are rather rudimentary, but the host brought an old-world sentimentality to the biographical tributes she crafted for celebrated and forgotten film-stars. Her approach was simple — she strung together a few key details of a film personality’s life, then added her personal memories of them. She rarely shied away from talking about the tragic aspects of the film industry and often lamented its fickle memory. She spoke of small-time actors who didn’t get the recognition they deserved, or who couldn’t prosper owing to personal or professional setbacks. She had a personal story about almost everyone she spoke about.
That sense of attachment is particularly apparent in an interview with Sunil Dutt in which she gets teary-eyed while asking him about his late wife Nargis. It’s not something you see a host do everyday, but it also exemplified what Tabassum brought to her interactions, and how she perceived the industry. Just like Simi Garewal and Karan Johar, who followed the trail blazed by her, she was an insider who had empathy for her guests. And in what can be seen only as a poetic coincidence, her last tweet was an excerpt from a conversation between Karan Johar and Twinkle Khanna, in which the director profusely expressed his love for Tabassum and the impression she left on him as a young film-buff. “Now I have become Tabassum,” Johar says. There couldn’t be a more fitting tribute.