Enter the Recluse's Den

“Come in, come in. Are you coming all the way from town? Have you had lunch?” The interview seemed to have begun right at the door as Tabu welcomed me into her office. Except that there was an unexpected role reversal here, with me becoming the interviewee and she, the interviewer.

Looking her casual and pretty self in a top and pants, her hair tied up and ‘namesake’ make-up not targeted at concealing anything, Tabu revels in her natural beauty. Age is certainly not a concern for this actress, although she uses the age factor to her advantage to avoid any questions that she doesn’t want to answer. “I don’t have any sensational quotes to give you. I am older na, so my interview will be different,” she says diplomatically, when she sniffs controversy. Or brings out her scissorhands and goes “cut cut cut” to the question with her fingers.

In fact, there is no scope for the conversation to even veer towards current affairs as anything that requires her to give an opinion on or comment about something, becomes a big ‘cut cut’ for Tabu. Despite the fact that she has been an integral part of a parallel framework of films, which have delved into deeper issues concerning the socio-political fabric of India. She may have set a benchmark as an actress with important portrayals in films like Maachis, Chandni Bar or Haider, but she is no crusader who believes in making a difference by speaking up on issues. Naturally then, if you thought you could even mention the blackbuck case to her, you have undoubtedly harboured the greatest illusion of your life.

It is perhaps this squeaky-clean and elusive side of hers that has had journalists snub her as being ‘boring’. The media has officially baptised her a ‘recluse’. And although she is tired of the ‘recluse’ tag and would happily embrace another adjective, she wouldn’t make any efforts from her end to get rid of the label. Instead, she would rather live up to the reputation of being a recluse. Because unlike most of her contemporaries, Tabu cares less about interviews and publicity. Catering to the paparazzi was never a part of her agenda. So to say, being an actor too.

“I was the last person who could ever dream of being an actress. I was the studious type, the quiet type. This profession is contrary to my personality. My sister (Farah Naaz) was a movie buff, so she could still embrace it. But it took me some time to make this profession my own. I didn’t have the required personality,” Tabu reveals. Is it this personality trait that explains her continued discomfort of being in the public glare? I wonder, keeping the thought to myself. Going back to her reluctant beginnings, she admits that she had it easy by getting the biggest break with Boney Kapoor’s Prem (with Sanjay Kapoor as her first co-star) that any newcomer could ask for. “I didn’t have a struggle story. Instead, I saw the best side of it. Also, I came in as Farah’s sister. So all the leading actors knew me and there was a familiarity. My struggles have been more to do with adapting to a different culture. And that kind of a personal adjustment issue is always your own struggle. Nobody can help you in it,” she says nonchalantly.

Tabu started her innings with an out-an-out commercial film like Prem, during the eight-year-long production of which, she took up K Raghavendra Rao’s hit Telugu film Coolie No 1. This was her first release as an actress, in which she played a conventional glamorous role. What followed was the flop Pehla Pehla Pyar (her first Hindi release co-starring Rishi Kapoor) and then, Vijaypath (with Ajay Devgan), which shot her to fame with the song Ruk Ruk Ruk. She came to be known as the Ruk Ruk girl ever since. After a string of commercial releases for three years, Gulzar’s Maachis in 1996 established her as an actor with some mettle, earning her career’s first National Award. The sudden shift from a heroine to an actor happened as an unplanned, yet welcome move for Tabu.

(l-r) With Om Puri and Gulzar.
“In the first few years, you are just having fun, enjoying the glamour and wearing good clothes. But slowly, I wanted to do more than just what I was doing and I was looking for those platforms. And luckily when I worked with Gulzar saab and Priyadarshan, I found something that could hold me in this profession, something meaningful and true that would come from my heart. I found people who helped and supported me in my self-expression,” she recounts the transition from a superficial approach to a deeper process of acting. But there was no charting a career graph for her. “I got those roles at a very young age and I started portraying them sincerely. At that age, you cannot have these big intellectual thoughts about yourself or the industry. I didn’t even know the game. Aaj kal jo words use karte hain...perception, image, brand...aisa toh kuch tha nahin. One just did what appealed to them and what one thought would help them in their growth as a professional. For me, it was exciting to find my groove and I took it forward and kept improving myself,” she says thoughtfully.

And while she made the most of character driven roles in films like Priyadarshan’s Virasat, Mahesh Manjrekar’s Astitva, Madhur Bhandarkar’s Chandni Bar and Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool, she also starred in potboilers like David Dhawan’s Saajan Chale Sasural and Biwi No 1 and the recent, Rohit Shetty’s Golmaal Again. Coincidentally, after her recent film, the psychological thriller Missing with Manoj Bajpayee – which bombed at the box-office – her upcoming films are Sriram Raghavan’s supposed rom-com with Ayushmann Khuranna and a Luv Ranjan film with her favourite co-star Ajay Devgan. Tabu’s kitty of films has been a balanced mix of masala entertainers and realistic films. And surprisingly, keeping this balance has been quite the calculative and thought out decision on the Ruk Ruk girl’s part. “My beginning has been big commercial cinema. That’s where I am coming from. I got noticed because of a Ruk Ruk and Vijaypath. That will always be my claim to fame. I feel that the platform that commercial cinema gives any actor is something that we can’t deny. Even today, people come up to me and tell me that they listen to Ruk Ruk and it’s their favourite song. So you understand the kind of reach commercial cinema has and it gives you the freedom to experiment with other stuff. It makes it that much more interesting for the viewers to watch. Plus, I haven’t discriminated between films. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to do a Maachis or a Chandni Bar. Also, most of my parallel films became commercially successful. So one doesn’t know where to define that line, especially now. Today, there is no difference between parallel and commercial because everything is commercial. There is a burst of relevant stories and interesting characters for both men and women. There isn’t that much gap between the lead actors and the other actors in the film. Interesting characters have become quite the norm now,” she observes. Then she lets me in on a little secret. “My mother likes the regular masala commercial entertaining films and she is very clear about it. She will watch every movie first day first show,” she laughs.

With mother Rizwana.
For Tabu, her mother Rizwana has been the most influential factor in her life…her window to the world, quite literally. “She is always watching news. She will give me all the information on what’s happening in the world every morning,” she says proudly. The actress also depends on her mother’s opinion for clothes. “She has fine taste. She will be able to tell even if a simple black top is stylish enough. I discuss films with her too sometimes. But she has very strong opinions on what I should not do. In some ways, she is typical. Especially with films,” she shares, adding, “Consciously unconsciously, whether we acknowledge it or no, I think for most women, their mothers will continue to be influential all through their lives. We learn from our mothers and as much as we don’t want certain traits of theirs, we invariably end up having the same traits. I think I am so much like my mother. The fact that she is so truthful, honest, she doesn’t care about what people think and she is very intelligent.”

Apart from her mother, there’s another woman, from whom she derives inspiration. “I admire Oprah Winfrey to the core. Since 1999. I remember her magazine had come out in May 2000. I was in the US and I had gotten the first issue of the Oprah magazine and I would subscribe to it thereafter. She has been one of the hugest inspirations and not just as a woman, but as a person. Looking at the kind of work she has done and where she is coming from and the kind of work she continues to do, irrespective of anything,” the fangirl speaks.

Talking about fabulous women, there have been a number of fiery trendsetters in the Hindi film industry as well, who have carried films on their shoulders in a male-dominated industry. Like her, there has been a battalion of female actors across eras with names like Madhubala, Meena Kumari, Waheeda Rehman, Rekha, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Vidya Balan and others, holding their own with their presence on screen. Women-centric roles have always existed. Yet, there suddenly is a feminist surge, with a lot of brouhaha about women being at the forefront in Hindi films. Tabu rolls her eyes at this and says, “Ab kisike bhi bare mein baat zyada hoti hain na, because there are so many platforms. More media space is being given to anything, not just this.”

In a still from Chandni Bar.
Gaining prominence is also the spotlight on women’s rights with pay parity and the works. But Tabu insists she has not experienced any discrimination with respect to payments. “I must say that whether it was a big budget film or a small budget film, people were fair to me. Going by what the markets were at that time, I always got enough. And if I decided to let go off something for a film, that was my choice. Not that I was being fooled into doing something for less money,” she states. “In Chandni Bar, I don’t think anybody got paid,” she laughs out loud. Then she realises she might have said something which could probably become an inappropriate headline for the article. So she quickly corrects herself. “What I meant is Chandni Bar was a film that we wanted to make at any cost. We knew we had no budget. We had no big hero or songs that would sell. It was a very experimental film,” she explains.

In a still from Life of Pi.
Like feminism, Hollywood too seems to be the taste of the season. Whether it’s Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone or Aishwarya Rai, actresses now are more eager than ever to make a mark in the West. And they make sure their slightest movement there makes the biggest of waves in terms of news. Recently, Priyanka Chopra spoke about the discrimination against South Asian actors in the West. She revealed how she didn’t land a role during an auditioning process on the basis of her race and colour. On the other hand, Tabu has already been there, done that with two major Hollywood projects to her credit – Ang Lee’s Life of Pi and Mira Nair’s The Namesake – without much fanfare.

“Every actor, every personality, every person has a different voice, has a different temperament, has a different way of expressing themselves. You have to see the space they are in, how old they are, etc. Also, people can choose what they want to talk about and everyone has their own priorities, you have to pick your own battles I guess. My experience in Hollywood has been of the films and the work. I don’t even know if I was thinking about discrimination at that point. I just know that I did two great films and worked with two fantastic directors in America,” she says. Getting a tad pensive, she adds, “As a complete experience, Life of Pi is a very big landmark in my career. It was a very different kind of…kya bolte hain… there is so much happening around you and you are just a part of it. The vision of the film, the message of the story, the graphics, the bigness of the subject and the thought…it’s so huge and it’s all encompassing. It made me feel like ‘Oh my God, I was a part of something that is so universal’. Of course, the fact that it has reached all over the world and it has been received with the same amount of love and respect, with people being in awe, trying to break it down, understand it…the kind of effect it had was really amazing for me to see and experience. It was about being a part of something that was so much bigger than me.”

A shy and pensive actress.
Whether it’s Hollywood, Kollywood, Mollywood or Tollywood, Tabu has dabbled in drastically different film industries, catering to a wide variety of cultures and set of values through films, especially covering the spectrum down South. She has worked with the most prominent Southern stars, from Venkatesh and Nagarjuna to Mohanlal and Chiranjeevi. Her debut film – K Raghavendra Rao’s Telugu film Coolie No 1, co-starring Venkatesh – being the strongest foundation of her career, according to her. “I learnt so much on that film about everything, from punctuality, sincerity, being financially independent to respecting the director’s vision and working within the framework of the director’s vision. Yet, maintaining your own style. All these things have really been imprinted in my mind by Raghavendra Rao,” she says with much gratitude. She has also been most at home with Telugu films as she is well-versed with the language, owing to her Hyderabadi origins. “Tamil was tough as a language and Malayalam was the most difficult to act in. But I made the greatest and everlasting friends while doing Tamil and Malayalam films,” she informs.

Interestingly, Telugu films have projected Tabu in a largely glamorous avatar. When you watch her in those films, including a Vijaypath for that matter, where she is dancing away gleefully to Ruk Ruk Ruk, you can’t miss the prominent glimpse of a ‘potboiler heroine’ in her, a complete contrast to her otherwise intellectual and serious persona that she has been known for on screen. She may have carved a niche for herself with intense, packed-with-emotions, character roles... but you can’t overlook the fact that she enjoys the masala entertainment just as much.

In fact, the more she gets comfortable talking to you, it’s not hard to see the raw, giggly, fun side of her personality completely taking over her poised frame. She laughs loudly at the silliest of things, gets super enthusiastic while talking about going to the movies, simply because she gets to pass idiotic remarks in between scenes with a tub of popcorn as an exciting incentive. “I enjoy the whole experience of going to the theatre and watching a movie. The larger-than-life impact of the big screen just takes me in. Then there are other attractions, like the popcorn, commenting on scenes, saying silly things...I enjoy that entire package,” she says playfully. If not for the theatre, watching movies or television at home is nothing short of a constant long-drawn struggle for her, which she is yet to overcome. “Binge watch?” she looks at you like you are totally bonkers to mention the term. “I have Netflix and there’s a lot of interesting stuff out there. But I haven’t got into the habit of all this. If I have to watch something, I have to plan it. Then, when I get on to watching it, I will keep checking, kitna khatam hua...23 mins aur? Arre yaar. That way I end up watching one show or movie in a year or something,” she says, her laughter echoing in the room.

When you casually ask her if she has ever given a thought to doing theatre, since she has worked in Vishal’s Shakespearean adaptations, she dismisses the idea instantly, letting out a screech, “No way! Who will remember all those lines on stage?” She laughs again. The size of books put her off, so much so that reading scripts also becomes a tedious affair at times. But we do know that she loves penning down her thoughts in her free time and singing is another hobby she is actively pursuing. So if not an actor, would she have been a writer or a singer then? Not really. “Hmmm, I would have been an anthropologist maybe. History, nature, places…they have always inspired me, made me curious. The world in general actually, understanding cultures and experiencing nature is what I love. Or maybe, I would have had an organic farm on some hill. I think that’s my dream…,” she discovers suddenly, “…having a resort in the mountains and living there for the rest of my life.” She gets lost in visualising the mountains as she speaks.

You can see the dreamer in Tabu. You can also see the entertainer. With a fierce will, she has learnt to play the game well over the last 30 years in an industry she was convinced she didn’t belong to at one point. But now, she plays it exactly on her own terms and conditions. Then even if she is labelled a ‘recluse’ for life, so be it.


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