Interview: Tabu / by Tara Kaushal

April 2013: Tabu embodies the best of the Indian film industry. Here she talks about her long and unexpected journey from Hyderabad to Hollywood.

The cover of  Harper's Bazaar .

The cover of Harper's Bazaar.

It is mid-afternoon when I get to Tabassum Hashmi’s home in a leafy building society in Lokhandwala, Mumbai. As I wait, I take in the unpretentious Indo-fusion decor in warm earthy tones, dominated by a large, unmistakable Husain. Soon, Tabu emerges from her bedroom wearing a big smile, and promptly starts fussing over me: "Nimbu pani? Chai? Are you hot; should I turn on the AC?"

In a maroon kurta on a white churidar, Tabu is comfortable in her simple style. “When I’m not working, I wear casual Indians, dresses with classic lines and, most often, jeans—a lazy person’s dressing! Even when I dress up, the more I put on myself, the worse I feel.” Priyadarshini Rao has styled her look for over 10 years, even when she received the Padma Shri. She is also in a mutual admiration society with her go-to designer duo Abu-Sandeep, whose clothes she carries with great élan. Says Sandeep, “Tabu gets in to the skin of clothes; it’s almost like she enacts them.”

As we settle down, I tell her why we at Harper’s Bazaar believe she’s the ideal cover girl for this issue that celebrates a hundred years of Indian cinema: while most of her contemporaries have taken career breaks to settle down, she’s continued adding to her prestigious body of work; where many bemoan the lack of meaty roles for older women actors, she continues to get better, stronger roles that garner international attention, making her one of the most successful crossover actors; she’s worked in films across many Indian languages and in Hollywood, apart from Bollywood… “I don’t like the terms Bollywood, Tollywood, Kollywood,” she interjects passionately. “I know they’re accepted, even in the dictionary, But I feel they trivialise the Indian film industry. Why should we make our industry sound like a cheap imitation of Hollywood, when we have long before established an identity of our own?”

Point taken. I will soon find that Tabu holds strong opinions about the industry she entered reluctantly and by chance. “For my older sister, ['80s leading lady] Farah and I, growing up in a typical household in Hyderabad, there was no aspiration to be in films. We went to convent school, and both of us wore churidars beneath our uniforms. We were taught that girls didn’t laugh showing all their teeth.” At a birthday party in Bombay, while visiting their mum’s cinematographer brother, director Vijay Anand’s wife saw the 11-year-old and thought she’d be perfect as Dev Anand’s daughter in Hum Naujawan. “We thought: ‘Why not go? We’ll get to meet a hero.’”

Not only did he like and convince her to do the role, working for a few days every few months, he also screen tested Farah who had accompanied her. “Back in Hyderabad, Yashji called on our neighbour’s phone—we didn’t even have a phone at home—saying he wanted to cast Farah. Mum was like, ‘Yash Chopra who?’ That’s how little we knew about the industry!”

The  Harper's Bazaar  cover story.

The Harper's Bazaar cover story.

It was a big decision, and the Hashmi family didn’t realise how life would change. Tabu visited Farah in Bombay, often accompanying her on outdoor schedules, before moving here for college. It was Shekhar Kapur who convinced her to do “just one film” before studying further: Dushmani, with Sunny Deol, which never materialised, and then Prem, with Sanjay Kapur that was six years in the making. “If films hadn’t happened, don't think I would have been a professional. I’d be married to a nice boy in Hyderabad or London, with two-three kids,” she laughs.  

Has the Indian film industry changed since she started? “Cinema and the industry reflect the society we live in, and the social, generational and technological changes that are in all walks of life. People communicate more openly and freely now; there are more specialisations and designations; and budgets are much bigger. But, I don't see many changes in the power structure and hierarchy.” In fact, she says, there are just a few degrees of difference between the Indian and Hollywood industries: “Ultimately, it’s a business.” It is with this that she brushes away a question about film dynasties. “In every industry, there are people who run family businesses, so too in films. Also, if you’ve grown up in a family that acts or directs, it’s in your nature and nurture. Doctors’ children often become doctors; my mother is a teacher like my grandparents, I might have been one too—it’s okay if people want to carry on their families’ legacies. I don’t see it as a problem and don’t judge it. Ultimately, it is your personal journey, and only work will become your identity.”

Tabu is uniquely qualified to talk about Hollywood, with two major films, Mira Nair’s The Namesake and, recently, Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning Life of Pi to her credit, both with Irrfan Khan, who says she has a special place in his life. “Tabu and I have a great work connection; we even won the Padma Shri in the same year!” When I ask Tabu about this pairing, she laughs, “Maybe we are easy to cast.” I chide her for being modest, so she adds, “I think The Namesake has given us international recall.” Life of Pi is special because its universal message has touched so many people. “Some pieces of work use you for a greater purpose that consumes you. Every human being has existentialist questions, and Pi’s journey is common to all races, religions, countries and nationalities. I am honoured that the director chose an Indian family to be the vessel for this message.”

Consciously or not, she’s become the poster child for art-house cinema, an actor instead of a ‘heroine’. “Images and perceptions are made in retrospect. I chose from the projects that were being offered to me. I was just working, I was not thinking about working. I’m fortunate I’ve made such a strong and significant place for myself.” She wishes she had a life plan, but has long since realised that going with the flow, following her heart is the only way for her. “I live life from my feelings, and happiness comes from personal satisfaction from my work, love and respect from my peers and audiences, my relationships, and my friends.” She counts Vishal Bhardwaj’s 2003 film Maqbool as the one that has given her the most creative satisfaction.

She’s met most of her friends through work, and feels a “connection, comfort and camaraderie”, with others who work in films. And this begs the question: does this mean she’s going to end up with someone from the film industry?

Tabu mock balks at this “perennial question”, then says she doesn’t know. “When there is no one on the horizon, what’s the point in dissecting what he’s like, which industry he’s from? What can I say about a relationship, especially if it doesn’t exist!” Does she aspire to children? “That’s very hypothetical,” she exclaims. “There’s no man, no marriage, where’s the question of children...!”

Over the course of our conversation, Tabu has mentioned wanting to study abroad for six months, maybe teach acting, and her upcoming film Mental in which she plays Salman Khan’s sister. "What’s next?" I ask as I prepare to wrap up. “I don’t plan, and my life is unpredictable. If you read this interview a year later, things will be so different that you’ll probably laugh.” 

An edited version of this interview was the cover story of Harper's Bazaar in April 2013.