The first thing you notice about Tabu is that she is unpretentious. In an interview, when asked about how she prepared for playing Ghazala in an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Haider, a role riddled with unkempt characterization, she brushed it off saying she didn’t bother reading the original text. The purists gasped, but this is who she is. Remarkably, this has no bearing on her craft, for she is an actress for the archives to reminisce and for us, today, to toast.
It has been twenty five years since Vijaypath for which she won the Filmfare Award for Best Female Debut. Released in 1994, this was the film that gave her the definitive ‘break’ in an industry where the three most important movies of an artiste are the breakthrough, the solo success, and the comeback.
So, in celebration of the 25 odd years she, a companion of the cinema lover, has spent with us, we take you through 25 moments of Tabu being… well, Tabu.
1. Vijaypath (1994)
The iconic Anu Malik song Ruk Ruk Ruk, made one thing clear. Tabu is the Queen of Camp. Odd printed costumes, comic choreography, Shyam Anuragi’s mad-fun lyrics and Alisha Chinai’s giggling voice, this song shatters the idea that serious actors need to be taken seriously.
Give the song a watch, brighten up that day.
2. Cheeni Kum (2007)
This is R. Balki, the prolific ad-film maker’s first commercial film, a quirky love story between Amitabh Bacchan and Tabu, the age gap driving the ‘conflict’. Tabu is convinced she wants to get married. Paresh Rawal, playing her father, is up in arms. Tabu is assured and unwavering. Her eyes capture the certainty of love and the insolence towards any higher power that could stop her from pursuing it- it’s brilliant!
3. Maachis (1996)
How do you tell your lover that his best friend, also your brother, is no more? Furthermore, imagine you are part of a counter-culture, fighting a violent state, exposed and almost desensitized to death. Gulzar’s dialogues, Tabu’s weeping, and Chandrachur Singh’s agony amidst the Sikh insurgency is a fine moment for cinema, one of confrontation, pain, but also love underneath all that bloodshed. She won her first National Film Award for Best Actress for this film.
4. Saathiya (2002)
If Tabu can be campy, demanding, and a persistent lover, she can also be weepy, repentant, and demure. Her car had just hit Rani Mukerji who is in critical condition. Being the wife of an influential politician played by Shah Rukh Khan, Tabu understands how this can damage his prospects. (also, the ethics … well, she almost killed someone and drove away) This entire scene she doesn’t say a thing. She just walks in, holds SRK’s arms, and looks about alternating between fear and hope.
5. Hera Pheri (2000)
This film is essentially Tabu inserting the feminine into, and holding her own in a boy’s club. She shows the range- pathos, humour, dignity, indignity (Remember how she pulls off lip syncing the lyrics to the madcap song Mein ladki popopo, tu ladka popopo, hum do milein popopo, ab aage hoga kya?), but always human, always vulnerable, always believable. She comes into the film as Suniel Shetty’s arch nemesis, vying for the same job. After sharing notes on their mutual desperation and poverty, love blooms. In this scene she attempts to do it all, ironing shirts, boiling milk, taking care of her family, falling in love, all done with spectacular ease, even if some things fall off the edge- look at her expression through the burnt shirt!
6. Life of Pi (2012)
She has an extended cameo in this film as the mother who supports, even if she doesn’t understand. When her son, Pi, pronounces at the dinner table that he, born a Hindu, wants to be baptised, Tabu, a faithful believer laughs. With an armoury of mythology, she inflicts maternal warmth by retelling these stories at bedtime. Krishna’s mother is angry because she saw him shove dust in his mouth. She tells him to open it, and she’s shocked, for in his mouth she sees the universe manifesting itself. The imagination of baby Pi captured, his notoriety validated, the tender love of a mother triumphs, thumping.
7. Haider (2014)
Shahid Kapoor’s father, also Tabu’s husband, has just been kidnapped by the state military of Kashmir. On returning home, Shahid finds his mother serenading his uncle.
Here she is seen trying to convince her son that she isn’t pretending to mourn, but perhaps she is. She seemed happy, but perhaps she isn’t. She suspects her son thinks something is rotten, and perhaps it is. She gets angry, slaps him, but immediately falls back on her maternal desire to keep him safe. She doesn’t want to lose him but perhaps she will. Her role in this film, much like this scene is the visual manifestation of the perhaps-ness of Hamlet, one of Shakespeare’s most dense play.
8. Haider (2014)
This film, one of Tabu’s most celebrated, is so iconic that I could not possibly just pick one moment. Here is another moment from the film that had me whole.
You are afraid your son is going to join the militancy movement. He is growing into his principles, and you, as a mother are growing into your fear for his life. You want him to live, you don’t care much for principles, for you see life as far more valuable. You are Shakespeare’s creation. How do you convince your son to leave the state for calmer pastures?
9. Fitoor (2016)
She is the vicious, and rich, ageing, heartbroken heiress; Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. She adopts a beautiful girl, and seeing that a young boy finds himself infatuated with her, tries to orchestrate his devastation. She succeeds, or so she thinks.
What a marvelously hideous woman.
10. Fitoor (2016)
This scene takes place after the previous one. Here, she is delicate, protective, almost suffocatingly adoring. Look at the extremes she expresses; but you buy into this character without any doubt, even if the world of this film is fraying at the edges.
It’s the same emotion she is expressing in both scenes. That love only begets destruction. But look at how vastly different the body language is.
11. Andhadhun (2018)
Sriram Raghavan’s film is a delightful take on evil that elicits not just anger and sympathy like Fitoor, but also shock. Tabu had already orchestrated her first murder. To cover up her tracks, she is gearing up for her second. There’s an ease and believability such that the audience never once asks ‘How does someone like this exist?’ She exists and we have bought into it.
12. Andhadhun (2018)
This film is a landmark study of vamp-hood. She plays a murderess, lusting, loving, murdering, covering up, and then murdering some more. She plays someone without a conscience, but then she slips up, as the beauty of the piano lilts with a realization of the murder she just orchestrated, and the love she lost, perhaps.
No one is immune to beauty, or bloodshed. Macbeth tells us that too.
13. Maqbool (2003)
A lot about this film, Vishal Bhardwaj’s first attempt at adapting Shakespeare, an adaptation of Macbeth, hinges on how lust for power, and lust as a function of love can make you act in ways that self destruct. She is able to move Irrfan Khan, Macbeth here, to murder by invoking the power he feels when he makes love to her, making him realize how good it would feel to then wield the same kind of power over more people.
14. Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities (2004)
What would Tabu be like as a Bhansali heroine? While watching this massively forgettable but tastefully curated film, directed by the late MF Hussain, this is the thought I kept having. Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai, one of A.R.Rahman’s most beautiful but largely forgotten tunes weaves music onto Hussain’s painting-like frames.
15. Biwi Number 1 (1999)
She is just as memorable as the classic dramebaaz, the hot headed panjaban. Here she is convinced her husband is having an affair, and is driving away to the gurudwara in a car without brakes. Madness ensues, and Tabu crackles.
16. Talvar (2015)
She is in this film for all of two scenes. Kaafi hai. She plays part of a portrait of two people who are out of love. She is first seen filing for divorce. There is no malice, just the desire to break away from something that doesn’t help you grow.
She goes on to say that there wasn’t a moment or an act that triggered this. It is just who they became over time. “Humara rishta kai saal pehle mar chuka hai. Aur hum uske laash ke boo mein sadh rahe hai, bewaja hi.”
17. Chachi 420 (1997)
For much of this film, she alternates between the weepy and the annoyed, playing a career woman still somewhere in love with her ex-husband with whom she has a daughter. Which is probably why, in the end when she is finally happy, and closure is given, her infectious, almost child-like joy is felt by the viewer. Kamal Haasan in drag, unclothed is an added bonus, if we can call it that.
18. Hu Tu Tu (1999)
Tabu is walking on the airport runway, in a butch haircut, dad jeans, chewing gum, listening to music, while a plane on the runway is gearing for take off. This is Tabu in peak counter-culture.
The fact that she ends up as a Marxist revolutionary in this film, with both lives enacted with equal brilliance and believability is testament to the Tabu-ness of this portrayal.
19. The Namesake (2006)
When Irrfan asks her why she said yes to his proposal all those years ago, she becomes Tabu the tease. She knows what he wants her to say, but she won’t say it.
In the end, she looks at him asking “You want me to say I Love You, like those Americans?”, holding his shoulders, knocking her forehead against it in affection. She implied everything he wanted her to say. Words have no business here. A whirlwind story of immigration and children who gradually distance themselves await her. But her restraint will guide her through.
20. Chandni Bar (2001)
This is the second time she is going to perform as a bar dancer. The first time, there was only shame, she could barely move. Now, there is that too, but there is also a sense of joy in finding family, humour, and self-respect amidst the moral muck of this industry. New to the city, new to the circumstances of orphanhood and dire poverty, she is building up through the movie. This is is the inflection.
21. Chandni Bar (2001)
When Atul Kulkarni walks into the room and asks Tabu, “Soti kya hai mere saath?”, she gives him this glare and walks away.
That’s it, diva Tabu is established- unwavering to any higher power, unless she wants to submit to it on her own volition. It is no surprise she won her second National Film Award for Best Actress for this movie.
22. Saajan Chale Sasural (1996)
Of course Tabu also plays the glamorous and ineffective, almost hair-brained David Dhawan heroine with panache too. Here, she sees her husband with another woman. She doesn’t register the shock in decibels expected. She is confronted with the idea that this might be her husband’s look alike. She scoffs and heads to his office to prove that he is indeed at work as he told. She finds him there and all doubts dispelled goes back to the needy, loving wife.
I mean, it’s silly, and she hams through the role in the way most Dhawan heroines do, but there’s a sense of heft she brings. At the end of the day, you want her to be happy. You also want her to not be with a jerk. What gives?
23. Virasat (1997)
She once said in an interview that though her role isn’t long, this “one scene marks the entire character of the girl and you can just remember that.” And this is true. Most people, including myself, had first heard the song, Payali Chunmun before watching the film. Tabu plays a village belle, who through a whirlwind of circumstances finds herself married to a man who is in love with another, more educated woman. This is the song towards the end when they finally reconcile as a couple. She is finally coming into her own in this vastly unequal relationship.
24. Astitva (2000)
Tabu is married, her husband is often away stuck in his regime of fame and womanizing. She is alone, the biological urgency for desire piquing as her music teacher Mohnish Bahl sings in the rain. She is consumed, yet cautioned. Should she submit to her carnal instincts? What of fidelity?
25. Astitva (2000)
It was back in 2000 that Tabu spoke of a feminist retelling of desire. In this final climactic take-down scene, she lays bare all her thoughts she couldn’t express otherwise before she leaves the house and the ingrates that inhabit it. The shackles have cracked and disappeared. She makes it known.
With a take down and a character worthy of one who weeps with heft, honour and indignity, vamp and camp, the murderer and the murdered, she has housed a filmography that betrays her spirit- an actress who just wants to act. To 25 more years and many more such moments. Here’s to you Tabu.