Reel Life: Tabu the enigmatic, charismatic superstar

When celebrityhood is mostly to do with sound and fury, Tabu’s charisma tiptoes quietly yet envelopes intensely. She is indeed delicious when she is wicked or kooky or both

Reel Life: Tabu the enigmatic, charismatic superstar

Namrata Joshi

Tabu is very good at throwing people down a building. Believe it or not, this was an odd thought that struck my mind while watching her play the twins Anjulika/Manjulika in Anees Bazmee’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2. Perhaps because it took me back to another one of my recent Tabu favourites in which she does something similar: the Lady Macbeth like ruthless and strong-willed Simi, executing killings in the wink of an eye in Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun.

To cut the chase short, Tabu is all that has stayed with me of the recent horror-comedy that has proven to be quite a success at the turnstiles. This isn’t something new. She has a way with managing to own a film, without making a hullaballoo about it, even though she might have the smallest of role in a gigantic cast.

She held the viewers enthralled in Abhishek Roy Kapur’s Fitoor, as Begum Hazrat, the mother of the heroine Katrina Kaif, a role no actor as young as Tabu would have dared to pick up. She played it with her characteristic poise and self-possession, and Fitoor eventually became her film than Kaif’s.

All caked up and ashen as a restless spirit in Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2, Tabu, rather than the youth favourite Kartik Aryan, gives the film its moments, be it killing her father and then talking to his corpse about how she felt neglected in comparison to the twin sister or next to the sister on the bed, laughing the devil’s laugh and warning her that she would make her suffer and wouldn’t allow her to die easily.

But this is not to say that the performance is some major thespian act. It’s a silly film and Tabu seems to be having a good time with its essential giddiness. She brings dignity even to the utterly illogical without losing her individuality and credibility. Hanging on a tree in an all-black costume with black crows for company; talking deliberately in bad Bangla—porishrom, nosht; the ‘O’s overdone and tongue rolled on and on, but I am certainly not complaining.

Instead, an odd film like this makes me think admiringly once again about Tabu’s unique stardom and how it has evolved over the years. Few films, mostly done one at a time, they seem to arrive in theatres without much fanfare. Even if they are talked about, she herself doesn’t seem to be around to aid and abet any puffery or propaganda. In fact, she hates pre-film interviews, even wondering what the journos would ask without having seen the film.

Reel Life: Tabu the enigmatic, charismatic superstar

At a time when stars are in your face with their presence on the various screens and print media alike, she has valued privacy away from the limelight, when celebrityhood is mostly to do with sound and fury, her charisma tiptoes quietly yet envelopes intensely. She has often spoken about how it’s to do with the way she is, that she wouldn’t have been any different in another profession; it’s just that cinema draws more attention towards this trait of hers.

It’s a model of success that I have always found worth emulating. Driven by equanimity and a sense of security. One that seems centred in one’s own expectations of oneself than proving anything to the world. About competing with oneself than being in the rat race with others. Success that is not about numbers but something more profound and rewarding.

In an interview to me she said that it is not about perceptions others have of her so much as “my own internal dialogue with myself ”. She likes the fact that cinema has exposed her to new experiences, places and people. These are the motivating factors for her than the call of the box office.

What she likes is that her stint in cinema has taken her places, given her experiences that she wouldn’t have otherwise been able to encapsulate in one life. “It’s about opening the doors in my mind to a new world,” she had said in the interview.

A consummate actor that she is, there’s a baggage of seriousness that she always gets associated with. Films like Life of Pi, Namesake, Maachis, Maqbool, Cheeni Kum, Chandni Bar, Virasat, Astitva, Haider. Anything that she is in that lacks gravitas and doesn’t feel weighty enough gets dismissed as a “waste of her talent”.

But there’s another Tabu to like and adore. The one who appears to be deliberately doing these films for the fun of it. There were Saajan Chale Sasural and Biwi No. 1 earlier and there have been quite a few of late. Her cameo as the middle-aged, hippie mom Ananya in Nitin Kakkar’s Jawaani Jaaneman is a hoot what with her talk of “hashish (hash), meditation, inner peace and punarjanam (rebirth) calendar”.

Reel Life: Tabu the enigmatic, charismatic superstar

Tabu plays fabulously to the gallery with her deadpan act. There’s something similarly hilarious in the way she speaks inane mumbo jumbo like “Heem Bhreem Cold Cream” in Rohit Shetty’s Golmaal Again, calm, composed and poker-faced.

Tabu is indeed delicious when she is wicked or kooky or both. A wickedness which is so wonderfully matter of fact. But has never been given its due.

It’s also interesting how the whole age factor has not weighed so heavy on her as it is conventionally seen to for other heroines. She graduated to playing older roles much earlier on in her career, is comfortable being her own age on screen. So, no one bats an eyelid when they see her as a Saeeda Bi romancing a much younger man in Mira Nair’s A Suitable Boy.

Her films might fare well at the box office. Like Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 did recently or Golmaal Again a few years back. But very little ever gets attributed to Tabu and she doesn’t seem to care much about it either.

All she wants is lots of time for herself, to eat good food, watch movies with a big tub of popcorn by the side, travel and to be able to just laze around and live in the moment.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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