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Whoever said that actresses cannot redefine themselves as they spend more years in the film industry ought to look at Tabu's phenomenal journey
The versatile Tabu has often been referred to as one of the finest actresses of Indian cinema. She has seen it all — success, national awards and critical appreciation. After her three decades in the industry, Tabu has resurrected herself as a major box office bonanza, delivering multiple hits and being cast in roles originally written for male actors. In a conversation with wknd. she talks about this intriguing phase of her life. Edited excerpts from an interview.
After almost three decades in the industry, do you think this is your best phase in the film industry? Varied roles, superb performances, and big blockbusters!
Yeah! I thank God. He has been very kind to me, Alhamdulillah. It’s a blessing. After working for so many years this is the phase where everything seems good at every level. Like you said, hit films, good roles, great characters, good positioning, and the performances being received well.
These are times when films are generally not working at the box office. And then last year, there were the two biggest hits of the year — Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 and Drishyam 2 — with one common name, Tabu? You’re referred to as the finest actress of our generation. Don’t you think you should also be known as the box office bonanza?
(Laughs) I just happened to be in two of the biggest hits of 2022. It felt good that at least I might be one of the reasons that these films have done well. I’ve always believed if a film is successful or even if it’s a flop, one person should not be held responsible for it. It’s a collaborative effort. But if your presence or your contribution worked for the film, it feels good.
So you also want the title of the ‘most modest star’?
(Laughs) Ab dekhiye jab log aapke baare main achcha bolte hain to aapko chup ho jana chahiye! (When people are raving about you, don’t praise yourself, just accept the compliments quietly).
Point taken! Let’s talk about Bholaa. You’re in your first full-blown action avatar. You played a cop in Drishyam and Kuttey and Kohram, which had Amitabh Bachchan and Nana Patekar. How is this cop character different?
They have been really different from each other. The stories and characters were of different shades. Like in Drishyam, it’s such a powerful character — she is a cop and she is a mother too. That dynamics set apart the character of Drishyam from all other police officer roles I’ve played. Kuttey was a different zone altogether. But Bholaa is distinct because the character I am playing was played by a male actor in the original film (Bholaa is a remake of the 2019 Tamil hit Kaithi).
That reminds me: your character in Kuttey was also written for a male actor. So, do you steal the roles from the men?
(Laughs) The industry has turned me into a male. On a serious note, I feel more than being male or female, it’s the character that is either interesting or not. Here, the relationship between the characters of Bholaa and the police officer is very interesting. At the beginning, it’s a transactional relationship. Then, as the story progresses, their relationship takes an intriguing arc. She is a tough officer who has made sacrifices in her personal life because for her, duty is the most important thing. Then there is Bholaa who can destroy everything to achieve his goal. So it’s a clash of two ideologies.
Ajay Devgn has been your co-actor in many films. But how is his approach different as a director?
He is an actor, a filmmaker and a close friend since many years. He doesn’t communicate much as a director, but his cinematic sense is really strong and sharp. He is so punctual and disciplined that you cannot reach the set at 6.15am for a 6am call time. Even I can’t take that liberty as a friend because he is so intensely involved that I want to give my best. He had casually mentioned, “You have to do action in the film.” I realised that it’s not going to be simple action scenes. I’ve never done such intense action scenes, but he always believed I’ll be able to do it. He designed every shot without a body double for me. And one of my hands was in a sling (my character was shot). So, I am seen doing most of the action scenes with only one hand. What an experience!
We talk about many onscreen Bollywood pairings, and your success average with Ajay Devgn makes it among the most hit pairs ever. What makes it special is that it started with typical Bollywood romantic roles, like Vijaypath and Haqeeqat and evolved to stronger performance-oriented roles like Drishyam and Bholaa. What makes the Ajay-Tabu pairing click?
I hope this goes on. This is such an asset to have a creative and successful partnership for so many years. It’s unique that one strikes a chemistry. And we are not always paired opposite each other in a traditional sense. We have done films according to the growth and graph of our careers. As we evolved as actors over the years, we selected our onscreen partnership based on that change. For example, when they came to me for Drishyam, they told me that we haven’t thought about anyone else for this character.
You’ve done all kind of roles. Films like Saajan Chale Sasural, Vijaypath, Biwi No 1 or Haider and Andhadhun. Which kind of films do you truly prefer?
It actually depends on the phase that I am in. But my approach has always been that the character must be engaging, the feeling that I’ll grow creatively as an actor or I’ll get a chance to work with a different filmmaker. Like much before I worked with Sriram Raghavan in Andhadhun, I admired his cinema and was really interested in working with him. Sometimes, it’s just the filmmaker’s mind you want to collaborate with. It’s an unusual combination and I want to see what he can bring out in me as an actor. In Haider, it was such an intense character with grey shades. But with each strong character, there has to be a director with whom you can enjoy exploring that character. You know, it’s important to feel what my experience has been in creating a character, what I learnt, what I created with the collaboration with the filmmakers and my co-actors. That journey is the most defining aspect. For an actor, it’s only the journey that remains in the end.
Which role or film is closest to your heart?
They say a mother loves all her children equally…
No, no! Not this answer, please!
Hu Tu Tu simply because it was the initial phase of my career and playing a female protagonist with shades of grey when such roles were not written for actresses. It was a really amazing experience. Then there was Maqbool, The Namesake, Chandni Bar, Haider, Drishyam, Astitva, there have been so many great experiences!
How do you look back at your journey in the film industry? You began as a child artiste and then signed your first film Prem, which took a long time to make. What were the thoughts back then? Did you ever feel stuck?
I was too young to understand anything. I was hardly 16-17 years old. Then Boney Kapoor made me do a Telugu film Coolie No 1. I got busy there. Then Pehla Pehla Pyaar started here. Then Vijaypath, followed by Prem. So, when you’re so young, you don’t really feel you’re stuck. You know that you have a lot of time.
But even in your wildest imagination, did you ever think that after 25 years, you’ll be in the two top blockbusters of the year?
You know it was beyond my imagination. We can’t really plan for even 25 days. We cannot ever foresee, especially not in this erratic, unpredictable field.
Now that you’re the obvious choice for even the action roles written for male actors, did you tell Ajay Devgn, ‘Beware! I am now going to take your roles’?
I’ve never seen an actor more secure than Ajay when it comes to his co-actors or the people he is directing. He is a rare actor and director who wants to give more space to other actors. He works really hard and takes a lot of joy in presenting his actors well.
So is this your debut as the angry young woman?
Yes, yes! I am being relaunched (laughs)
(Yasser is a film commentator and author based in London)
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