Single is not a bad word: Tabu reveals the unusual choices that have shaped her life
Just a day after my one-hour long conversation with filmmaker Vishal Bhardwaj at the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival in Guwahati, one statement went viral.
“I’d have replaced the leading man in Haider,” Bhardwaj had told me, referring to Shahid Kapoor in his much-acclaimed adaptation of Hamlet. “But I would never have been able to make the film without Tabu!”
Tabu played the protagonist’s mother, a casting decision that was much talked about at the time. How could a Bollywood actress still in her prime play a mother? Is her career faring so badly?
In the role, Tabu subtly showcased The Unspeakable between a mother and son, and gave Bollywood storytelling an edge of maturity.Did her career as a leading heroine spiral to an end? Was she the next Maa of Bollywood? Certainly not!
In 2017, she wowed the front benchers as part of the ensemble cast of the blockbuster, Golmaal Again. Then she surprised critics by playing a sassy, scheming murderer in the breakthrough film of 2018, Andhadhun. In this movie, she was cast opposite Ayushmann Khurrana, an actor a few years younger than “her son” Shahid Kapoor.
To resort to a convenient pun, breaking taboos has shaped Tabu’s career. Now 46, still single, but far more DTE and seemingly happy, the actress takes on an interview that focuses on the “wrong decisions” that have been the best ones she has ever made.
The taboo of being single
“I do not think single is a bad word. There may have been a stigma attached to being single in the past, but not anymore. Your happiness comes from many things unconnected with the status of your relationship. On your own, you can deal with your aloneness, but with a wrong partner, what could follow would be worse than any kind of loneliness.”
Wise words. But how willing is Tabu to talk about her own relationships?
“A man-woman relationship is a complicated thing. When we are young, we have an idea of love. Then we grow, have new experiences, get independent, and outgrow some things,” she says cryptically. “I was working and wanted to see the world on my own. If I’d have given it all up, it’d have been a disservice to me and my ability. An ideal relationship is when both individuals grow just by being in each other’s lives. Relationships are meant to liberate, not stifle.”
“I know my thinking is a bit different. For instance, I have never thought of men and women as different in a relationship. Does gender matter over the individual people you are?”
The taboo of playing mother
“Haider was a tricky decision for me,” Tabu confesses. “I took it on the merit of the role, the character and the script. I knew that as an actor, it was a very good thing. And, of course, there was Vishal [Bhardwaj]. I love him for what he said [to you]. I have the kind of synergy with him that one has with very few people. I believe that when I did Maqbool [with Vishal Bhardwaj], a mould inside me broke.”
The taboo of popular films
How does an actor whose subtlety is noticed in a full-blown Bollywood project also do senseless comedy? How does the National Award-winning actress of Maachis (1996) and Chandni Bar (2003), and the person who has done The Namesake (2006) and Cheeni Kum (2007), do a leave-your-brains behind films like the Golmaal series (2006, 2008, 2010 and 2017) and keep a straight face?
“I’ve done and I enjoy all kinds of films, there’s no judgment or bias, and Golmaal is such a big, attractive franchisee, ya,” she chides.
“Different faculties of your mind are at play when you do different films. Even watching a film depends on the mood I’m in: I’ve seen Angoor (1982) two dozen times, I remember watching Sadma (1983) and being hugely affected by it. Different films have a different effect on you. The deeper, more intense ones have a longer lasting effect.”
“What I am clear about,” Tabu adds, “is what I don’t want!”
Is it true, then, that Tabu refused Neena Gupta’s character in Badhaai Ho (2018)?
“Yes I did,” she says candidly. “I didn’t think I was right for the character. But I knew the movie was going to be a big hit.”
And that she is the one who recommended Neena to the director?
“Yes. I knew Neena ji would do a great job.”
The taboo of being a powerful woman
“They say I’m in a powerful position in my career today. It’s great to know that,” says Tabu.
“It helps me in a lot of ways. But inside, something remains unchanged. I’m in a position to explore anything that I want to do because of the people I have access to. I can choose work with more energy, deeper impact, something of meaning… I like being here.”
The taboo of awards and rewards
“The problem with awards is that price toh bilkul nahin badhta hai!” Tabu laughs with a carefree spirit that’d be more suited to a millennial. The recipient of two National Awards, innumerable popular award trophies, and even the Padma Shri, Tabu is nonchalant, but respectful.
“If you have attempted something against the odds and it gets appreciated, you feel validated,” she says. “When I got my first National Award, I was shooting with Kamal [Haasan] ji for Chachi 420. Gulzaar sahab called me at 7.30 in the morning and sounded so emotional. ‘You’ve got the National Award for best actress [for Maachis],’ he said, and I said ‘Ya? No, I can’t be deserving of this big an honour.’ I hadn’t won any of the popular awards for this role that year, and Gulzaar Sahab said, ‘I’m not sad about that. I knew you’d get the biggest one!’ Incidentally, the same year, Kamal ji got it for Indian, and we were shooting together!”
And the Padma Shri? Surely that must have meant even more?
“Will you believe me if I said I didn’t even know I was being considered? I was sitting at the salon doing my hair and saw the news on TV. Someone texted me, and I thought it was a joke. There had been no prior information. Then my friend Harneet [Singh, journalist] came to the parlour, and it sank in.
“I was headed to Pondicherry the next morning to shoot for Life of Pi, and coincidentally, Irrfaan, my co-star in that film, also won the National Award for best actor. So the entire team celebrated it together!”
How does Tabu deal with competition?
“We’re living in a world that feeds off each other,” she says. “Honestly, I don’t have the bandwidth to think of competition. I know it’ll wear me out. I’d rather focus on getting better. I also know that this attitude can be counterproductive: some people thrive when they have competition to nudge them. Not me. I acknowledge that the scenario today is very competitive and, more or less, you are replaceable. If you allow yourself to get bogged down, then that’s it!”
The taboo of ageing
“Growing up, looks pe itna significance nahin tha. Would you believe it if I said my mother had never used lipstick her entire life? She did so for a wedding after we were grown up, and we were laughing, saying she can’t open her lips!” she says.
“My definition of beauty has never been frantic. I understand that one’s appearance is currency. But I never thought beauty is the only thing; 80 or 90 per cent of your attractiveness comes from your personality,” explains Tabu.
“Till today, when something is not suiting me, why should I wear it? And on the other hand, if something is not trendy, but is comfortable and works for me, I am OK with it. Itna conscious bhi nahi hona chahiye.
It’s the same with age. There are some days you look like a mess, on others, you are glowing so much, you want to take selfies with everyone around. It’s also important to accept where you are at the moment. Do things that complement your maturity and experience appropriately,” she adds.
The taboo of being Tabu
Tabu’s jokes about herself are things that’d make any heroine terribly insecure. She refuses to surround herself by yes-men and managers, keeping herself just an SMS away from the rest of the world.
“My strongest relationship has to be with the work I do,” she says. “Work is my space and I don’t want to crowd it. My voice has been strong, persistent, relentless. I like to keep communication direct; I don’t like things to be lost in translation. I don’t like walls being created. I’ve always been like that.”
And beyond work? “I want to constantly widen my world. I’ve learnt Spanish and French. I cannot be pigeon-holed into one thing. Once a year, I must visit my sister and get my breather. It’s important for me to connect to the world that’s outside my world.”
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From HT Brunch, March 24, 2019
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