Jawaani Jaaneman: How Haider, Drishyam, Andhadhun brought powerhouse performer Tabu back into limelight
In the last 20 years in Bollywood, few actors have shown consummate skill as actors as Tabu has. The actor will be seen on the big screen when Jawaani Jaaneman releases later this week. Before that, here’s a look at what separates Tabu from the rest.
Tabu has never been the conventional Bollywood heroine — too tall, pretty but hardly a stunner and not blessed with good dancing skills. Yet, few actors have had a grip on the collective consciousness of the nation as she has had.
Starting her career as a child actor, she started her innings as a lead heroine with films like Coolie No 1 (with Govinda) and later Vijaypath, opposite Ajay Devgn, actors she would go on to star with in many films. While the latter, a regular potboiler, did little to advance her career, it was a modest hit. She followed it up with many forgettable films before Gulzar’s Maachis came her way. Tabu gave a stellar performance as the beloved of a militant. The pathos she projected were moving; it showed what conflict did to innocence. The year was 1996. It isn’t surprising that it fetched her a National Award.
She followed it up with two commercial successes — Saajan Chale Sasural (with Govinda and Karisma Kapoor) and the more nuanced Viraasat, with Anil Kapoor and Pooja Batra. While the films showed her acting abilities, she couldn’t really seal her position as a bankable commercial heroine. In the years to follow, her status as the most hard-hitting actor of the left-of-centre films would be cast in stone.
With stellar performances in films like Astitva, Madhur Bhandarkar’s Chandni Bar and Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, India didn’t know what hit it. The emotional strength with which she powered these roles, no other actor could come close. In Astitva, she played a housewife who has an affair with her music teacher and gets pregnant. On her husband’s return (from tour) she tries to tell him the truth but can’t. Several years later, when her son is a grown-up man, it is revealed that her music teacher has willed his entire property to her. What follows is humiliation, both from her husband and her son. Her husband, even after he is reminded of his own sins, refuses to accept his wife’s indiscretion. Her son too shockingly displays male chauvinism in admonishing his mother. Finally, Tabu’s character, aptly aided by her son’s fiance (who breaks off her engagement with him) walks out on both her husband and her son.
In Chandni Bar, Tabu’s portrayal of Mumtaz, a woman from rural India and a communal riot victim, was absolutely compelling. As a young woman, we see her escape communal riots and is brought by her uncle to Mumbai. Struggling to find work, she eventually joins a dance bar. It is in the dance bar that she meets a client and future lover, a don (played by Atul Kulkarni). Despite opposition, she being a Muslim and he a Hindu, they marry. But there is never a kind moment for Mumtaz as she suddenly finds her life turning into a living hell when he gets killed. Now, she has additional responsibility of two children, a son and daughter. Through all this, it is her job at the dance bar that helps her survive and fend for her children. With exceptional courage, she managed to give her children a modicum of decent upbringing by keep them away from the world of crime. Just when she begins to think that while her life had been pathetic, her children’s won’t be, the predictable happens — like her husband, her teenage son gets sucked into the world of crime and her daughter ends up becoming a bar dancer, like her. Needless to say, it brought her another National Award.
In Vishal Bhardwaj directorial Maqbool, a retelling of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Tabu was cast in the role of Nimmi (Lady Macbeth), the mistress of don Jahangir Khan who is secretly in love with his right hand man, Maqbool (Macbeth), played by Irrfan Khan. Playing the guilt-ridden Nimmi who instigates Maqbool to murder his father-figure (Jehangir Khan), Tabu was captivating. Clearly evil yet tossing in guilt and self doubt, only Tabu could have pulled off a role like that.
These three significant films fell into her lap in the period of 2000 to 2003. Soon, it was time for Tabu to go international — she starred in Mira Nair’s adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake in 2006. While the film didn’t do well in India, it did win her international recognition. At the home front, she starred in a quirky romantic comedy, R Balki’s Cheeni Kum in 2007. Playing a young woman who falls in love with a much older man, played by Amitabh Bachchan, Tabu was refreshing in this rather light-hearted romance. Given her proclivity to intense roles, this film certainly showcased another side of her personality.
It is not that Tabu hadn’t done comedies and rom coms —Sanjan Chale Sasural, Biwi No 1 and Hum Saath Saath Hain, Hera Pheri —easily fall in these brackets. However, these films didn’t little even to showcase the lighter side of her personality. Barring the last film, the others were too loud or too mushy for her sensibilities. From 2007 onwards, Tabu briefly disappeared from the horizon. Yes, she did appear in a bit role in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012) but she had to wait till Haider arrived in 2014, to get fresh start. Forming the third part of his Shakespeare trilogy (Maqbool , Omkara and Haider inspired from Macbeth, Othello and Hamlet), Vishal Bhardhwaj cast her as Gertrude (Ghazal Meer) to Shahid Kapoor’s Hamlet (Haider). Her Ghazala Meer is easily the heart and soul of the film; reflecting a conundrum of emotions, the complexity of the ground realities and the tragedy of Kashmir. Tabu was revetting; not once could one take one’s eyes off her. However, this too was cast in the stereotype she had come to associated with — intense and complex.
In 2015, the actor returned in the Hindi remake of Malayalam director Jeethu Joseph’s Drishyam. A taut crime drama, it pitted Ajay Devgn as a deceiving cable TV owner in a small village in Goa, content in life but caught in a tricky situation, against a tough-to-crack female cop, played by Tabu. As a cop, ironically investigating her own son’s disappearance and with Ajay and his family as the prime suspects, the duo was perfectly cast in a cat-and-mouse game. Tabu plays her tough cookie role to the hilt — recall the scene where she looks on as her deputies torture Ajay’s wife and daughter to psychologically influence his younger daughter to relent and you will know. Tabu’s cop is bereft of any compassion in her pursuance of the truth.
The film, in many ways, paved the way for Ayushmann Khurrana starrer Andhadhun. Yet again, Tabu was excellent as a morally dubious woman, who will kill at the drop of a hat to further her cause.
Not just thriller, the Tabu version 2.0 has been a revelation, even in comedies and rom-coms. What changed? Well, simply that she is now using her serious image to tell both comic and romantic stories. In Golmaal Again, Tabu is Anna Matthew, with a unique gift of seeing ghosts. Tabu used her deadpan expressions to make the all matters ‘ghost-like’ eerier.
In last year’s De De Pyaar De, Tabu was cast as the ex-wife of Ajay Devgn, with the latter in love with a young woman. Tabu plays it tough, when Ajay’s character returns home to seek approval from his family, comprising Tabu, a grownup daughter, a teenaged son and aging parents. The comedy of errors works only as Tabu aces as an unrelenting ex-wife to a hapless Ajay, trying hard to win his family’s approval.
In Jaawani Jaaneman, Tabu will be seen in the role of a mother of a teenage daughter, who is out to seek her biological father, played by Saif Ali Khan. While little is known of the plot, what one sees in the trailer is an unconventional woman — who breaks every stereotype of a mother — she doesn’t even think it important to tell Saif’s character that they have a daughter. Reason? Well, as she says, “She hates phone calls.” Playing what Saif dubs as ‘hippy’, Tabu will surely be in a very different zone with this film. From what we gather watching the trailer, neither of the parents know that the girl is their offspring; it is the daughter who gets a DNA test done to ascertain her biological parents!
Given how Tabu is capable of making her characters believable, irrespective of the film’s fortunes, do expect a credible performance from this acting ace.
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