We meet on a Monday morning when she has some time off work. Tabu is in Hyderabad shooting for director Trivikram Srinivas’ Ala Vaikuntapuramlo (In Vaikuntapuram) starring Allu Arjun and Pooja Hegde. She is also a few days away from joining Mira Nair’s sets for the six-part BBC One series based on Vikram Seth’s book, A Suitable Boy. Adapted by Welsh writer Andrew Davies (Les Misérables, War & Peace), it will be filmed in several locations in India, including Lucknow and Maheshwar, and she will play the courtesan, Saaeda Bai.
In the course of our conversation, Tabu, 47, reveals an uncanny similarity of situations. She had shot for the Telugu film Andarivaadu (2005, Chiranjeevi-starrer) just before she flew to New York for Nair’s The Namesake. “It is going to be similar this time. I’ll wrap up Ala Vaikuntapuramlo and join Mira for A Suitable Boy,” she tells me.
The hotel suite is a picture of calm. The fragrance of a scented candle fills the room. Drawing her feet up to make herself comfortable on the sofa, Tabu settles down to talk, reminding me that she cannot discuss A Suitable Boy. She speaks, however, at length about Hyderabad, her hometown, and taking up a Telugu film after 11 years. The actor has kept up with the changes in the industry in recent years — the ambitious pan-India films like Saaho and Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy in the post-Baahubali era, and the smaller, indie-spirited films like Care of Kancharapalem and Mallesham. “Telugu cinema was in a state of flux a few years ago. Now, I feel the transition is more or less complete, the way it happened in Hindi films, with scope for different genres and stories,” she says.
Beyond leading lady
The word in film circles is that she and Malayalam actor Jayaram have been cast as Allu Arjun’s parents. Tabu smiles evasively, but shares that the two of them were supposed to work together in a Malayalam film earlier this year. However, their dates didn’t match. “He comes with a rich experience of Malayalam and Tamil cinema, and luckily, I get to work with him in this film. Ala… also has Sachin Khedekar. And I’ve known Allu Aravind, Bunny [Allu Arjun] and Sushanth (who has a supporting part) for years. All this shared experience makes it interesting for me,” she says, adding that she is game to reconnect with Tamil and Malayalam films, too. “There’s a lot of space for characters today. The stories are no longer only about the leading man or leading lady.”
Meanwhile, working in a Telugu film gives her a sense of homecoming. “When I was shooting for Golmaal Again in Ramoji Film City, I’d think it would be lovely to do a Telugu film again. When this project came, I was ready for it and had the time. Trivikram’s strength as a writer and director is known.”
She also loves that film units in Hyderabad work from 9 am to 6 pm, as opposed to the 9 to 9 shifts in Mumbai. “A lot of work gets done through the day, and I have time for friends and family in the evening. It is recuperative, which I haven’t experienced in Bombay in many years.”
Small screen success
I go back to her use of the word ‘recuperative’. Does this phase help before a newer assignment? “Yes,” she says. “Being a part of such diverse projects helps me understand and appreciate the space for each.”
Though she cannot talk about A Suitable Boy, Tabu does share her thoughts on OTT platforms. She has watched and loved The Crown, Narcos and Downton Abbey. She doesn’t binge; if she likes something, she watches it over a few months. “It is a world of its own,” she says, talking about new possibilities for the craft thanks to streaming platforms. “The lack of censorship and the freedom to develop stories and characters over 10 episodes or so, is pushing writers, directors and actors to do what it takes to keep the audience engaged.” While a few offers for web series did come her way before A Suitable Boy, the prospect of working with Nair for BBC One made her agree to television instead.
Holding on to power
As she gazes out the large window, gathering her thoughts, I notice how stunning she looks with minimal make-up, dressed in a floor-length blue dress. She chooses her words carefully, but speaks with an easy candour that hasn’t changed over the years. We’d first met when she was shooting in Hyderabad’s Old City for MF Husain’s Meenaxi – A Tale of Three Cities, and then, over the next few years, at various film studios and her friend’s house. Leave a text message and she’d call, game for a chat or to honestly state that she doesn’t have anything new to add on a particular topic. When I told her I was getting married, she sent a heartfelt wish and added, ‘You will continue to work, no? It is important to have your professional identity’.
- Mira Nair: “The Namesake was life-changing; I could never go back to being the same person, personally or professionally. The whole experience of working with Mira made me step up as a person and my world become richer. It opened up New York for me; I made some great friends there. I met filmmakers, photographers, actors… and worked with some brilliant minds. The movie was also instrumental in me getting to work in Life of Pi. Ang Lee saw me in it and cast me.”
- Ang Lee: “He would try different takes for a scene, to see what more you can do as an actor, until he feels you can deliver the exact nuance he wants to convey through a dialogue or a scene. There was so much technique involved in filming Life of Pi — three huge 3D cameras and so on. Technical and creative experience went hand in hand [on the set].”
- Vishal Bhardwaj: “I’ve known him since his debut as a music composer for Gulzar saab’s Maachis. I am so grateful Vishal had only me in mind for Nimmi in Maqbool. Even after so many years, people talk about the film. I cannot express the rapport I share with Vishal in words; there’s trust and a lot of respect. I can be uninhibited in his presence. With him, I don’t ask for the script; I know he has something special if he has chosen me. Haider was my introduction to Kashmir and also marked my reunion with my family in Kashmir.”
- MF Husain: “Working with Husain saab was a completely different experience. He made movies for the joy of it; he didn’t care about the box office. When a group protested, he pulled Meenaxi from the theatres! He loved beauty and movies, and he put forth what he liked. I was young and couldn’t grasp his world. But I had a good time working with him, his son, and Santosh Sivan. It helped me see the world in a different way.”
Years later, though we haven’t met frequently, the easy rapport remains. Today, she’s still one of the most exciting actors around. I remind her that it has been 25 years since she starred as the leading lady in Coolie No. 1 (Telugu, co-starring Venkatesh) and 34 years since she played a teen in Dev Anand’s Hum Naujawan (1985). “Don’t even write these things,” she chides me. More than the mere longevity of her career, it is the relevance and intrigue she brings with each new project that sets her apart. And her ability to navigate even the most vapid scripts to find magic within.
Even as stars began to be propped up by PR machinery, she’d have none of it. “I don’t like complications around my work. People should be able to get in touch with me for projects, and I revert. I have my own filters,” says the two-time National Award winner (for Maachis and Chandni Bar). No manager will shortlist projects for her. “I will never give anybody that kind of power,” she laughs, adding, “When I’ve done it for so long, I can make my own decisions. I want to make my mistakes and not other people’s. If something works, I take credit; if it doesn’t, I’ll blame myself.”
All challenges welcome
Reflecting on her choices, like Maqbool and Haider among other films, she says, “I’ve never been stereotyped. People know that I will consider different characters.” After all, the ‘risk-taker’ has comfortably forged a multilingual career, be it in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali or Malayalam. Now, with Sriram Raghavan’s Andhadhun being lauded at film festivals abroad and collecting ₹330 crore in China, she says it has further opened new doors.
Blog posts are still being written, with theories dissecting the climax. “We discussed many endings while making the film, but Sriram was sure he wanted to keep it open-ended and allow the audience to become detectives,” she shares. “It is a genre-agnostic film that kept growing bigger and bigger without a marketing push. It is a rare phenomenon that a non-formula film is still being discussed a year after its release.”
Tabu is also contemplating an autobiography. She shared with scroll.in that while she’d love to, she doesn’t know what to write about. “Should the book be about myself, or maybe [my] observations…”.
Apart from the bigger projects, she is doing a comic cameo for director Nitin Kakkar’s Jawaani Jaaneman starring Saif Ali Khan. “The producer (Jay Shewakramani) is a good friend. I was asked to do a fun cameo and shot for a week. Not every film needs to consume me in a big way. Sometimes it is nice to do roles like these, too,” she concludes.