Though obviously not planned as a birthday gift for Tabu, Mira Nair's sprawling web series based on Vikram Seth's book, ‘A Suitable Boy’, could well be one. As she inches towards the closing years of her forties on November 4, the actress is once again being inundated by raves for her performance as the courtesan Sayeeda Bai wooed by Ishaan Khatter in this venture recently released on Netflix. It's not difficult to understand Ishaan's character's fascination for the much older actress...there is a certain timeless quality about Tabu.
The past few years have been a gold mine for Tabu, professionally. She has triumphantly thumbed her nose at age-related taboos and bagged prize roles in her forties (Haider, Andhadhun, Drishyam) which merit as much attention (if not more) as her best work in her 20s and 30s (Astitiva, Chaandni Bar, Maqbool, Maachis, The Namesake.) Grey haired characters or grey-shaded roles, Tabu sinks her teeth into both with equal relish.
I have known the actress over 25 years and am fascinated by her metamorphosis from a gangly, unsure newcomer to the polished diva of today.
My conversations and interviews with Tabu somehow always veer to the spiritual and esoteric and then segue seamlessly to the everyday and the regular. But talking to her is never banal or inane. When her film Life Of Pi was due for release, she told me about how she likes the sound and feel of the ‘God moment’ and explained. “Director Ang Lee spoke about the ‘God Moment’ as the unique moment of realisation that you are close to death and your life force, the desire to survive comes to the fore.”
Another favourite topic of conversation with her is food. She loves Mishti doi and Indian sweets. “I am not into crème brulee and tiramisu etc. I enjoy pani puri and pao bhaji.”
She is a desi at heart despite working in foreign productions. She observed, “I can’t imagine a world without Hindi films. When the directors give me instructions in English, it takes a lot of time for me to absorb and understand. I think in Hindi. And my language and self-expression are inter-connected.”
Tabu’s personal growth is important to her. She even took a sabbatical from films to design her house in Hyderabad. When I met her for an interview at her house, I ribbed her about her disappearing acts. She smiled languorously, “Waqt toh guzar hi jaata. I travel a lot. I feel travelling really opens up your mind.” She elaborated, “My routine is very boring. I wake in the morning and do yoga followed by my workout. I go out with friends. I am very active on the Internet, though I don't tweet. I write but I don’t read as much as I did once, now.”
Eventually, she did open a Facebook account and became friends with me but our online communication is mostly restricted to Eid and Diwali greetings. She once quizzed me rhetorically, “I never hankered for the spotlight. Don’t you think so?”
I reminded her that she always excited about her films. She clarified, “I never aspired to be in films. My sister Farah was a big movie buff, not me. I wanted to go abroad for further studies. Shekhar (Kapur) uncle told me, ‘Do one film with me and then I will oversee your admission in college.’ But after my first movie, chashka lag gaya. The appreciation encouraged me.”
Today, she likes the attention but remains rooted. She attributes this to her upbringing in Hyderabad. Her childhood memories comprise simple pleasures. She revealed, “Once in a while after school my mom would take my sister Farha and me to Taj restaurant to eat dosa. It was a big outing for us.” Films are a passion, but not an obsession for her. She said her pragmatic ex secretary Shanti advised her to accept fewer assignments. He reasoned, “It’s not in your temperament to do too much work.”
And marriage? Tabu's rationale is clear: “Nothing is stopping me from marrying but nothing is pushing me either, I am very happy in my space. I am very close to my nephew, Fateh.”
Tabu may be partial to off-beat films but as a viewer she loves Hindi films of all genres including mainstream. She laughed, “My mom ribs me, “Do you watch movies to eat popcorn?” While watching a film, mere dimaag mein ek hi baat chalti hai: Popcorn, popcorn, popcorn.” Not surprisingly, the canteen staff in cinema halls bring her a tray containing popcorn unasked for.