As Tabu celebrates her 48th birthday on November 4, I am once again reminded of the remarkable career this prodigiously talented actress has carved for herself in her 40s. I am also reminded of the unsure young girl who visited my office in the mid-90s when I was the editor of Movie magazine.
Slightly gangly in the way she carried her imposing height then, she seemed to recede into herself and a collapsing accordion came to my mind. Of late, whenever I have spoken to Tabu, it has been a mix of banter and philosophy but there is also an ingredient that was missing then — confidence.
Over the years, I have watched with affection and admiration as Tabu grew into an actress of consummate skill, indeed our parallel cinema's favourite muse. The trajectory was not simple. “No one dare call me Tubby Tabu anymore,” I recall the light of victory flashing in her eyes once she had shed her baby fat through strenuous self discipline. The change was more than just skin deep.
The metamorphosis from Ruk Ruk girl into an actress of note came with Maachis (1996). I recall putting her on the cover of my magazine with the headline ‘The Return of the Write-Offs’ and in subsequent years there has been no looking back for Tabu.
Astitva, Chandni Bar, Maqbool, The Namesake — the triumphs added up but she continued to speak of her craft in simple terms and remained easy-going and amiable (after receiving my bouquet for her performance in Chandni Bar, Tabu spontaneously called me back even before she said she had placed the flowers in a vase). Sure she is a sensitive actress, but what also worked for her was the willingness to regularly attempt something new and untried.
For this column, I wanted to specifically explore what I find most remarkable — the efflorescence of Tabu’s career after she hit her 40s in the 2010s. She is going through one of the best phases in her career currently! Talk about shattering the carapace of age-old taboos. Vishal Bharadwaj’s Haider (2014) was a significant turning point in Tabu’s career. As the deeply conflicted mother of the titular character (played by Shahid Kapoor), torn between her beloved son and a new husband, Tabu’s superlative performance bagged her a Filmfare award.
Thereafter, she began a three-film partnership with her childhood friend, Ajay Devgn — Drishyam (2015), Golmaal Again (2017) and De De Pyaar De (2019). These mainstream films have served the purpose of keeping her continuously in the public eye even if they weren’t exactly conventional romantic leads.
In Drishyam, she is the steel-eyed antagonist to Ajay’s concerned father. In Golmaal Again, she is the mysterious medium who is key to unravelling the puzzle in the horror comedy. And in De De Pyaar De, she and Ajay Devgn play a separated couple who still strike romantic sparks off each other though he has a young girlfriend now. Tabu lent an air of gravitas to these star vehicles and made sure you also remembered her when you left the theatre.
Tabu scored her biggest triumph in recent years with a tour de force performance as the femme most fatale in director Sriram Raghavan’s acclaimed film noir, Andhadhun (2018), which was a box office success not only in India but also surprisingly in China.
She oozed sensuality and danger as a duplicitous wife (to veteran actor Anil Dhawan, separated from her by at least a couple of generations!) who draws leading man Ayushmann Khurrana into an intricately woven web of deceit. Tabu’s scalpel sharp performance is a delight.
Today, she has rendered irrelevant the question of why Tabu has not been paired romantically opposite some major heroes. She can do a cameo as Salman Khan’s sister in Bharat (2019) and turn in an affecting performance. She will next be seen in Jawaani Jaaneman alongside Saif Ali Khan and Pooja Bedi’s attractive daughter, Alaia Furniturewala.
What is significant is that Tabu is that rare actress in her 40s who is not only working regularly in the Hindi film industry but she is also winning raves for a marked variety of roles. Tabu’s words, “I have never wanted to be like everybody else,” have proved prophetic.
Stars are known to reach out to their audience and play to their preferences. Tabu triumph lies in that she continued to make different choices and has successfully let the audience reach out to her!