Article Hindi

8 unconventional roles Tabu performed with poise – Birthday special

As the actress turns 47 today (she was born on 4 November 1971), we look back at some of her finest performances in Hindi cinema.

Mayur Lookhar

The patriarchal Hindi cinema has rarely given us strong and layered female characters. The great heroines in the golden era of Hindi cinema, too, often treaded along traditional lines.

Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, and a few others though didn’t fall much for the bread and butter roles, and instead carved a name for themselves with outstanding performances in films categorized as parallel cinema. This film genre was always considered to be niche and by the 1990’s its presence had sadly faded. Most actresses had no choice but toe the conventional line — love the hero and be happy to play second fiddle.

Tabassum Fatima Hashmi, better known as Tabu, has had an interesting career so far. She is the niece of Shabana Azmi, but unlike the veteran actress, Tabu cannot be labelled as a character artiste, or be seen as belonging to a niche cinema. Tabu began her acting career with commercial films, most of which were disasters.

She debuted as a child artiste in Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar (1982) and then acted in Dev Anand’s Hum Naujawan (1985). Later in 1991, she made her debut as a leading actress with the Telugu film Coolie No.1. But it was only five years later that her career in Hindi cinema really took off. The film that brought her to the limelight was Gulzar’s Maachis (1996).

Having been around for nearly three decades now Tabu has also worked in English, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Marathi and Bengali films. Throughout her career, the actress has given some fine performances in between the conventional roles in mainstream films.

She might not be a Madhuri Dixit or a Madhubala, but Tabu sure can boast of more talent and more hard-hitting performances. Over the years, Tabu has proven that all that is needed is the ability to act and the courage to choose scripts that are unconventional.

As the actress turns 47 today (she was born on 4 November 1971), we look back at some of her finest performances in Hindi cinema.

1. Maachis  (1996) 

Set in one of the darkest episodes of Indian history, Gulzar’s much acclaimed political-thriller shed light on the Sikh insurgency following the anti-Sikh riots, an offshoot of the assassination of former prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.

Gulzar’s protagonist Kripal Singh Pali (Chandrachur Singh) was a boy-next-door whose thirst for revenge leads him to a dark path. While such youths are lost to terrorism, their dear ones suffer too. Tabu played Veeran, who loses her heart to the young Kripal. Blinded by love, Veeran stuns Kripal when she joins the terror group.  

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After struggling to make a mark with the clichéd commercial films, Tabu found a career-defining role in Veeran. Women had raised arms before in cinema, but Veeran was not about guns and explosives. She still remained the naive, village-girl, who is not driven by revenge, but the need to be with her beloved and save his life.

Tabu’s intense and emotionally riveting performance was the hallmark of Maachis. This role transformed her career and also won her the National Award for Best Actress.

2. Astitva (2000)

A patriarchal society would readily forgive a man for infidelity, but when a woman is accused of adultery, the rules it abides by are quite on the contrary.

At a time when her contemporaries were happy playing second fiddle to macho men on the big screen, Tabu decided to take up a different route. In Mahesh Manjrekar's film Astitva, she played a demure housewife who has a brief relationship with her music teacher.

Manjrekar didn’t create any lust story. His protagonist, Aditi, was a naive housewife, domineered by her chauvinist husband Shrikant Pandit (Sachin Khedekar). Aditi could barely utter a word and her confidence is shattered by Shrikant.

As the title suggests, Aditi truly has no existence independent of family. The sole saving grace in her life is music. For a brief period, Malhar Kamat (Mohnish Bahl), a classical vocalist, infuses some life into her barren soul. Aditi's one odd moment of physical intimacy with Malhar is not due to any emotional connect with him. It would be wrong to even call it an act of indiscretion. It was just a moment when she was unrestrained, breathing freely and not some one's wife. Interestingly, Manjrekar does not focus as much on the affair as he does on the way the society, particularly Aditi's husband and son, react to the knowledge of the affair years later.

Tabu’s emotionally subdued performance in the film earned her critical acclaim. All of this wouldn’t have been possible if Madhuri Dixit Nene hadn’t turned down the role.

3. Chandni Bar (2001)

The glitzy dance bars of Mumbai carry their own tales of despair. Tabu took the bold move of playing one in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Chandni Bar, and it paid rich dividends.

Riot and poverty lead Mumtaz (Tabu) to make some tough decisions in life. She does the dirty dancing, before finding true love in the company of a gangster Potiya (Atul Kulkarni). They marry, have children, and Mumtaz hopes life would be smooth from here, but destiny pulls her back into hell again.

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Happy endings in films are a regularity but for women like Mumtaz, life can never be a bed of roses. Chandni Bar was a hard-hitting film and Tabu simply revelled in the despair of Mumtaz. She didn’t play the character, but lived it. There are only few artistes who could have exhibited the vulnerabilities of this character as naturally as Tabu did.

Chandni Bar bagged four National Awards, with Tabu taking home her second Best Actress trophy.

4. Maqbool (2004)

By the early 2000s, Tabu had already explored characters trapped in the dark underbelly of the metros, yet there was something eerily refreshing about her Lady Macbeth in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool.

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Nimmi (Tabu) is the mistress of the underworld don Jahangir Khan a.k.a Abbaji (Pankaj Kapur). She is a caged bird wanting to break free and pins her hopes on Abbaji’s right-hand man Maqbool (Irrfan Khan). The greed for power though only leaves them with haunting images, and sets them on the path of self-destruction.

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Nimmi is a well-layered character: she is conniving and cold to begin with, but the sense of guilt transforms her into a sullen, decaying soul. Tabu exhibited the two facets of Nimmi to a nicety.

5. The Namesake (2007)

A good artiste is one who is versatile. Having done her share of the dark films, Tabu played the traditional housewife in Mira Nair’s American film The Namesake.

While the film largely revolves around Ashok Ganguli (Irrfan Khan), Tabu played the doting wife Ashima to the T. She is a shy Bengali girl, who happily settles for the groom that her parents select for her. Ashok's fortune changes as he lands himself a coveted job in the US. Though strangers, Ashima and Ashok ease into their relationship and build a beautiful nest.

Nair’s film was a father-son story, but it told all green card obsessed Indians that grass is always greener on the other side. For most of the film, the character of Ashima is a tad bit underplayed, leaving Tabu with not much room to manoeuvre. However, the overtake the big screen when Irrfan's Ashok passes away.

The news of Ashok's demise is sudden and Ashima is too shocked to react. It takes a few days for the loss to sink in, and Tabu's moves you with her emotional breakdown. Though not path-breaking role, it was good to see the demure, traditional side of Tabu again.

6. Cheeni Kum (2007) 

Unconventional love stories have not been explored much in Hindi cinema. The Hindi cinema audience was not considered to one that approved a romantic relationship between a man in his 60s and a woman in her 30s.

Filmmaker R Balki proved us wrong with Cheeni Kum. Buddhadev Gupta (Amitabh Bachchan) is a single, arrogant and blunt 64-year-old man who direly needs needs some sugar in life. Enters Nina Verma (Tabu), a calm, collected and independent 34-year-old woman walks into his life and slowly changes him for the better. The relationship begins on a spicy note, with Gupta and Verma having a difference of opinion on most things. As they say, opposites attract and eventually, sweet and the spicy individuals realise they were made for each other.

In the past, we had often seen Tabu playing restrained characters, Nina, though, was very confident, well-spoken and opposed to the traditional norms, took lead in the relationship. While putting forth a beautiful film, Bachchan and Tabu didn’t let the age gap spill onto the screenplay.

7. Haider (2014)

Post Cheeni Kum, Tabu cut down on her work. Save for a few odd films like Life Of Pi (2012), she mostly waited to get roles befitting her talent and experience.

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Never the one who liked to be in the spotlight, it was feared that one of the finest actresses of Hindi cinema was perhaps done with acting. Seven long years after Cheeni Kum, Tabu reunited with Vishal Bhardwaj for a desi version of Shakespeare's Hamlet.  

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Bhardwaj used the unrest in Kashmir as the backdrop for his film Haider. This time around Tabu played Ghazala Meer, Bhardwaj's counterpart of Shakespeare’s Gertrude. Ghazala played the victim of a corrupt and violent system, but herself possessed a few grey shades. At times, she even appears dispassionate, only caring for the well being of herself and her beloved son Haider (Shahid Kapoor). She shows no regret over her contribution to the death of her husband Dr Hilal Meer (Narendra Jha), but then neither does Ghazala give an impression of being overly fond of Hilal's evil brother Khurram Meer (Kay Kay Menon).

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The sheer grim intensity of Tabu in Haider was mind-numbing. Ghazala Meer is arguably one of the finest characters essayed by the actress.

8. Andhadhun (2018)


Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun, a rough adaptation of Olivier Treiner’s short film L'Accordeur (2010) or The Piano Tuner has won critical acclaim and also pleased the masses.

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Not since Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2003) have we seen Tabu in a Lady Macbeth-like avatar. While Maqbool's Nimmi was a more emotionally draining and intense character, Andhadhun's Simi rarely showed any genuine emotion. She is cold as ice, a femme fatale. Simi is not funny, but her acts evoke a sense of humour that is dark yet amusing.

Tabu intimidated and entertained the audiences with this remorseless act.