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Celebrating ‘India’s Meryl Streep’: “Tabu Is So Gifted, She’s Like A National Treasure” 

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There are very few actors in India for whom competition and the box-office numbers are immaterial because their sheer talent in acting is a powerful force to reckon with in the first place. Meet Tabu.

Tabu is one such actor – a living institution, a museum in acting. She stands tall, apart from the rest in a distinct class of her own.

Tabassum Hatshmi or Tabu was born on November 4, 1971, in Kolkata, to Jamal Hashmi and Rizwana. After her parents divorced, Tabu lived most of her childhood in Hyderabad with her maternal aunt while her elder sister Farha stayed with their mother in Mumbai. She is the younger sister of Farha Naaz, Hindi actress, niece of veteran actress Shabana Azmi and Baba Azmi, Indian film cinematographer.

Photo: Instagram/File

Talking Films

“I am not a part of any rat race. I am happy to be myself.” – Tabu

With a filmography that is as diverse and envious as it could get, Tabu has proven from time to time that there are no limits and boundaries to her immense range in acting.

Having stepped into Bollywood with Dev Anand’s Hum Naujawan at the age of 14, Tabu came into Bollywood in the ’90s when it was at its worst. She still managed to carve a niche position in the industry by being a successful actress in mainstream cinema and shining in serious, off-beat, or alternative cinema. What makes her success remarkable is not only the fact that she was running simultaneously on the two parallel tracks of mainstream and alternative cinema, but that she pulled off this feat in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Bengali, and English films. I cannot think of any actor, male or female, who has achieved this feat.

Let’s take a look at some of Tabu’s finest performances to date.

Maachis

In many ways, Gulzar’s directorial Maachis turned out to be the turning point in Tabu’s career. The movie dealt with the 1984 Operation Blue-Star, which saw Tabu as a Punjabi woman who suffered the aftermath of 1984 Operation Blue-Star or Sikh insurgency. Her decision to act in Maachis was lauded as a brave one because it was unusual for a commercially successful actress to change tracks to art cinema suddenly. Her risk paid off when she bagged her first National Film Award for Best Actress for her performance in Maachis.

A still from Maachis.

Astitva

Going several steps ahead of Maachis was Tabu’s decision to give her nod to Astitiva. Her acceptance to play the role of a middle-aged mother in the prime of her youth was seen as a step that amounted to career suicide. She was advised that she wouldn’t remain in the league of mainstream heroines anymore.

Tabu went ahead to act in one of her most memorable roles as Aditi, a sexually frustrated wife who seeks and finds her identity after twenty-seven long, drab years in her marriage. She gets into a physical relationship outside her marriage with Malhar, her music teacher played by Mohnish Behl, and bears an illegitimate child with him.

Aditi is unapologetic for her sexual desires and questions her husband, Shrikant, played by Sachin Khedekar, about why the marriage rules are different for a man and woman. Why pleasure is the domain of a man while duty that of a woman? She gives a reality check to Shrikant when she points out his failings as a husband and how skewed his notion of a happy marriage is.

Tabu nailed the role with her brilliant performance, which showcased her extraordinary range of emotions. She lends a subtle, quiet dignity to Aditi’s character. Tabu received her Filmfare Critics Award for Best Performance for Astitva in 2000.

Chandni Bar

This movie, which catapulted Madhur Bhandarkar’s success in Bollywood, has a lot to thank Tabu for.

Mumtaz Ali Ansari is easily one of the most influential female characters in Hindi cinema and Tabu’s memorable roles. The movie shows the underworld’s dark, gritty underbelly, gun crimes, dance bars, and prostitution in Mumbai. Tabu single-handedly carried the film on her shoulders, and she stunned the viewers, deftly balancing beauty and character in her performance. She won the National Awards for Best Actress for her performance in Chandni Bar.

Maqbool

Maqbool is another feather in the cap for Tabu, which showcased what a stellar actress she truly is. Cast opposite veteran actors like Pankaj Kapur and Irrfan Khan, Tabu didn’t merely get noticed, but her flamboyant performance proved to be a tough competition to the lead actors.

While the movie was a box-office failure, it won huge critical acclaim. Tabu essayed the compelling character of Nimmi, inspired by Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth. She was mindblowing in a dark character, making bad seem like her second skin. She was effortlessly seductive, menacing, all the while as she maintains an innocent look on her exquisite face, making her even viler. Her dialogue delivery and expressions every time she taunts are perfect. Her slow digression to insanity is painful to watch, and her outburst in the climax is the highlight of the movie. Nimmi’s character is one of the most complex and layered roles written in Hindi cinema, and Tabu nails it effortlessly.

A still from Maqbool.

Cheeni Kum

In Cheeni Kum, Tabu plays 34-year-old Nina Verma, who is in love with 64-year-old Buddhadev Gupta played by Amitabh Bachchan. Even though she was pitted against a charismatic and veteran actor like Amitabh Bachchan, Tabu stole the show with her bewitching performance.

While this romantic comedy didn’t do well in India, it was a hit overseas, especially in the USA and UK. The mature love story is refreshing to watch as the couple breaks all rules to be together. It’s amusing to watch Amitabh Bachchan ask Tabu’s father, Paresh Rawal, for Tabu’s hand in marriage. It’s even funnier to watch the lengths to which Paresh Rawal goes to stop his daughter from marrying a ‘Budhao’ (old man). The onscreen chemistry between Tabu and Amitabh Bachchan is sizzling as each one tries to up the other in the flirting game. Then there’s the 10-year-old girl battling with cancer and the chilled grandma, played by Zohra Sehgal, who stays with her ‘Budhao’ son, Amitabh Bachchan.

Haider

Yet another unusual movie, Tabu, plays the interesting character of Ghazala Meer, who is caught between her pursuit of happiness and her physical intrigue towards her son, played by Shahid Kapoor.

Haider is loosely based on Shakespeare’s play ‘Hamlet’ where Ghazala is sketched from the character Gertrude. Tabu lends her Midas touch to this layered character as her melancholic eyes do all the talking. With immense depth and mystery, she overshadows the other strong actors in the movie, Irrfan Khan, Kay Kay Menon, and Shahid Kapoor. Haider was supposed to be Shahid’s movie where he plays the protagonist, but Tabu stole the limelight.

So much so that the New York Times said that the movie should have been named Ghazala for Tabu’s convincing acting and not Haider.

Tabu draws you in the minute you lay your eyes on her. You are caught up with her inner turmoil and intrigued to know what she is thinking or her next course of action.

The movie is centred around the mother-son relationship, but this is an unusual one laced with eroticism and power play.

A still from Haider.

Namesake

Mira Nair’s Namesake is based on Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel by the same name. Tabu plays Ashima, the quintessential NRI woman trying to find her sense of belonging and own bearings in a foreign land. Interestingly, when Tabu, an avid reader herself, read Jhumpa Lahiri’s short story collection, she pictured herself as Ashima. So, it was surreal when Mira Nair called her to cast her as Ashima in the Namesake. Cast alongside fine actors like Irrfan Khan and Kal Penn, Tabu’s presence in the movie is truly indelible.

Viraasat

Alongside playing dark roles, Tabu excels in vulnerable characters such as Gehna in Viraasat. She played a simple village girl who stands by her husband like a solid rock even when she knows that he was forced to marry her and is in love with someone else. Her innocent, realistic, and stunning portrayal won over her husband, played by Anil Kapoor, and the audiences over too. Priyadarshan’s movie did well both commercially and critically, which won Tabu the Filmfare Critics Choice Award for Best Actress that year.

Tabu has acted in numerous movies in varied genres and memorable roles that it is hard to talk about them in one single article alone. For sure, Tabu has come a long way from her ‘Ruk!Ruk!Ruk!’ song days to acting in mainstream Hollywood movies such as Life of Pi.

Andhadun

Tabu’s brilliant performance in Andhadhun reminds us yet again what a fine, natural and instinctive actress she really is. That should come as no surprise. Tabu remains a true goddess of beauty, glamour, oomph, and acting! Totally smouldering in every aspect. None of the current actresses can hold a candle next to her. Personally, I felt Tabu delivered the strongest performance in the movie and deserved the National Award for this role.

I’m yet to watch and review Tabu’s performance in The Suitable Boy, and will be updating this blog once I do so.

A still from Andhadhun

On The Personal Front

Tabu is happily single at 47, and she does not know any other way to be. While she has been in long-term relationships, marriage is not a priority for her.

“My needs are small. So is my lifestyle. I come from a simple middle-class background, where my mother was a teacher, and my grandparents were lecturers. My needs since then haven’t soared much higher. I don’t party. Nor is my friend circle such that I feel left out. I am very content.”

She loves literature (Jane Austen, Paulo Coelho, and the likes), travelling, and discovering. She says, if not an actor, she would have made a great sleuth. Tabu is one free-spirited woman who is both fiercely modern and like the woman of the yesteryears. A paradox!

Is Bollywood Doing Her Justice?

Tabu indeed has some rare gems in her filmography, but there is still a nagging question of whether Bollywood is doing justice to her talent. Typecast as the sister or ‘bhabhi’ to her peers such as Salman Khan in plain vanilla roles, you cannot help wonder if Tabu is too good for Bollywood.

Very few actors can boast of the diversity of roles and movies like Tabu. Tabu is drawn towards such characters, and she attributes both her personality and sensitive performances to her upbringing. Tabu was just 3 when her parents divorced, and she was raised by her mother, grandmother, and maternal aunts.

“I have grown up around very self-assured and secure women. I haven’t seen rivalry or bitchiness… they were very large-hearted women who didn’t belittle anyone. So I don’t understand the power game and the struggle to outdo each other. Such people are rare to find, but I have gravitated towards women like that in my life, too,” she says.

She is the director’s delight and the clear favourite of the best in the industry from Gulzar, Zoya Akhtar, to Mira Nair.

What Do Bollywood Stalwarts Say About Her?

“The minute you have a character which has layers that need a certain depth of performance, more often than not, hers is the first and perhaps the only name that crops up.” – Meghna Gulzar

“She is India’s Meryl Streep. She is an independent-minded, great actress who is not worried about not looking glamorous” – Mira Nair.

“Tabu should’ve won a National Award for Haider. I am surprised why Tabu did not get a National Award. Her performance in Haider was one of the best performances by any Indian actress in Hindi cinema. Awards should be for people who bring new elements and give new dimensions.” – Irrfan Khan.

Aseem Chhabra sums it up best when he rightly says that Bollywood does not know what to do with Tabu. “Tabu is so gifted, she is like a national treasure,” he says.

Truly, Tabu is one of a kind. That rare combination of exquisite beauty, delicate smile, intense eyes, unique voice texture, that old-world aura, and the mystery of an actor along with serious acting chops is impossible to find in the current crop of actors. She has always been a delicate balance between chilled-out and focussed. She was never on a mad chase to get to the top and be on every magazine cover. She doesn’t link success or fame to happiness.

In her own words, “I don’t know if you can keep chasing happiness. I want to feel completely content but not so content that I stop striving. For me, growth is the most important factor that drives me and my life.”

In her birthday week, here’s wishing Tabu many more memorable performances along with a happy, fulfilled life doing what she loves best.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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