COMPLEMENT:Drishyam's marketing relied on Ajay Devgnand Tabu appearing together
She may be the thinking man's actress, but Tabu has not been able to keep pace with the commercial side of the industry thanks to her image of being too strong to be a typical Bollywood heroine... and her reclusive nature
She was neither at her best nor worst. In a police officer's uniform, which seemed to be spray painted on her, at best Tabu was professionalism personified in the lately released Drishyam - the Hindi remake of a Malayalam film which toplined Mohanlal. Kamal Haasan played the male lead in the Tamil remake. Ajay Devgn took over as the beleaguered common man in the Bollywood version.
The publicity for Drishyam focused on Devgn and Tabu - in the posters, trailers, as well as the nationwide press meets in the course of which both emphasised that it felt wonderful to be teamed together again, ever since their younger days in Vijaypath, Haqeeqat and Takshak. Tabu performing a street dance to the song Ruk ruk ruk was one of the more entertaining elements of the formulaic action flick Vijaypath, released way back in 1994
Which brings me to the question: is the infinitely gifted Tabu truly cut out for the fantasy-crammed potboilers? She is, but I can't help feeling she missed the bus during the initial phase of her career. Neither Aamir nor Shah Rukh ever paired up with her since she's at least two inches taller than both of them. The short-statured Salman Khan also shied away from her till last year's Jai Ho, but not as what is called his 'romantic interest'. No fears.
I suspect Tabu could have become a major 'commercial' force but for the fact that, besides Ajay Devgn and Sunny Deol, other heroes have preferred their leading ladies to be diminutive and docile. That Tabu isn't.
Quite clearly, her screen presence is that of a woman of spleen and substance. Moreover, she has taken the kind of risks few actresses have, portraying a greying mother in Astitva, a grungy dancer in Chandni Bar, a discontented NRI housewife in The Namesake and a mother buffeted by a sea-storm in The Life of Pi. These roles fetched her an armload of awards and hosannas from the critics, but she could never make the transition to the A-list of heroines in the top banner extravaganzas. More's the pity.
SHABANA'S FLIP FLOPS: She had to contend with the likes of Arth and Mandi
To a degree, her commercial ratings are comparable to her real-life aunt Shabana Azmi. Despite toting success as the mandatory heroine in Fakira, Amar Akbar Anthony and Thodisi Bewafaai, to cite a few random examples, Azmi has been at the peak of form in the unconventional, socially concerned Ankur, Mandi, Arth, Paar, Khandhar and The Godmother. Curiously, aunt and niece have never come together to make sparks fly on screen. Projects were designed for them but Tabu is known to have abruptly nixed the offers.
In retrospect, Azmi has scored over Tabu as an actor, also because of her stage performances in the long-running plays Tumhari Amrita and Broken Images.
Doubtless, Tabu, too, would draw house full shows on the theatre circuit, but has chosen not to, excusing herself with the unconvincing argument that she suffers from stage-fright.
Does she? I don't think so. Indeed, Tabu could extend her craft on stage quite effortlessly. But offer her Jean Cocteau's The Human Voice or Ibsen's A Doll's House, and she responds, "I don't think so. I wouldn't be able to face a 'live' audience." Again, that's a pity. Ask any B-town sound technician and they are unanimous in their opinion that Tabu's dialogue pitch and expressiveness are the best they have recorded in their lifetime. Tabu's is the kind of nuanced voice that is perfect for stage performances. Needless to add, so is her confidence in handling any role, whether commensurate to her age (43) or not.
For close to half a decade, Tabu's Garbo-esque reclusiveness had become an issue with the Bollywood-wallahs. From her apartment, where she lives with her mother, she thumbed down projects by the dozen and appeared to be miffed by the treatment accorded to her in the Yashraj banner produced Fanaa, in which she was seen in a thankless cameo.
And although she has asserted her flair for comedy in Biwi No 1 and Hera Pheri, she hasn't exactly been allowed to have a blast in front of the camera. Confined to the zone of a 'serious actor', she has most often been viewed by filmmakers and viewers as a woman who must confront the most harrowing odds, like she did as a young woman tackling the scourge of terrorism in Maachis and Hu Tu Tu, both piloted by her mentor Gulzar.
If her first batch of films - Prem and Pehla Pehla Pyaar, which did present her in a glamorous light - had succeeded, Tabu's story would have been entirely different. For sure, she would have been seen in many more films with frontline actors.
Yet, it isn't Tabu who botched up her career; no way. She is held in high esteem and will always be in the pantheon of Indian cinema. It's just that when I see her as the stock-in-trade tough cop (in that awfully designed uniform) of Drishyam, my heart sinks. Tabu deserves a better deal, she always did.