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Tabu: The queen of quiet intensity

In a rare interview, Tabu delves into the world of A Suitable Boy, her love of handloom and how she spent lockdown listening to story narrations over Zoom

October 30, 2020 04:10 pm | Updated 05:14 pm IST



Two years ago, in January, filmmaker Mira Nair told Tabu over dinner that she was planning to adapt Vikram Seth’s novel, A Suitable Boy , as a series for BBC One. “I was taken in by [courtesan] Saeeda Bai’s character and said if Mira is directing, I’d blindly agree,” she recalls, over the phone from Mumbai. Despite the mixed reactions the series garnered since it premiered in the UK, and recently on Netflix India (for its forced dialogue and deviation from the original), Tabu has been receiving appreciation for her nuanced portrayal. Then again, when has she ever made a role seem anything but effortless?

The actor has made it a habit to impress us with her on-screen performances before disappearing into her own world — more so now, in the age of social media and clickbait headlines. As we chat, I’m reminded of the many conversations we’ve had since the early 2000s. Her disarming candour hasn’t changed. But while She is game to talk at length about her creative universe, she will not comment on things beyond her work.

Tabu with director Mira Nair (far left) on the sets of A Suitable Boy

Tabu with director Mira Nair (far left) on the sets of A Suitable Boy

A courtesan’s life

Published 27 years ago and weighing in at 1,349 pages, Vikram Seth’s landmark novel narrates the story of Rupa Mehra’s hunt for a ‘suitable boy’ for her daughter Lata in a newly-Independent India that is preparing for its first elections. Tabu says she has not read it. For Nair’s series, Welsh screenwriter Andrew Davies condensed it into eight (later six) episodes. Interestingly, for someone who has played several powerful female characters from classical literature — be it in the Shakespeare adaptations Maqbool and Haider , or Rajiv Menon’s take on Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility , Kandukondain Kandukondain — Tabu has often gone with the script and the director’s vision rather than read the original. For Saeeda, the actor met Seth personally, to understand how he wanted her to be portrayed on screen. “I wanted to see her from the writer’s mind — her emotional graph, as he sees it. Then I tried to do it my way,” she explains.

Working with Mira
  • Tabu and Nair first collaborated for The Namesake (2006), the film adaptation of Jhumpa Lahiri’s book of the same name. “It was the first big international production I worked for,” she recalls. “Mira was our nucleus. She has a great zest for cinema, arts, life... you have to just flow with that energy.” The filming experience was no different from a feature project. “We had as many retakes as we did during The Namesake. Mira has insane energy on set. She’s a brilliant creator and also very helpful.”

Saeeda’s world is mostly confined to the four walls of her house, but the changing societal dynamics have a bearing on her. “It was a time when the courtesan culture was fading. Saeeda inherited her line of work from her grandmother and mother. However, the arts and literature enriched her views,” says Tabu, going into how she approached her character. Though the overarching inspiration for Saeeda was Begum Akhtar, she says there isn’t enough documentation of courtesans’ lives to draw references from. “I don’t know if movies showed their lives [truthfully] or if they glamorised them. But I did not want to stereotype her.” Wanting to portray her role with authenticity, the actor also learned to play the tanpura and the harmonium. “The tanpura was relatively easier to learn,” she says, adding that a tutor was present during the shooting. “I didn’t want to press the wrong keys!”

Tabu in the much-talked-about red sari with badla work

Tabu in the much-talked-about red sari with badla work

For the love of handloom

The physicality of Saeeda, the way she dressed, also appealed to Tabu, who loves her Chanderis, Maheshwaris, jamdanis , muslins from Bengal, and pherans from Kashmir. On her visits to her hometown, Hyderabad, she is known to shop for handlooms — a love that comes from her grandmother, who used to wear starched Kota cottons, and her mother (she recalls a yellow kataan silk sari her mother wore for years). She picked up chikankari while shooting in Lucknow, and sourced Pochampally ikat masks from weavers in Telangana during lockdown.

“The red sari for Saeeda’s opening scene was a last-minute decision. We thought she should wear a striking colour. [Costume designer] Arjun Bhasin picked a sari with exquisite hand embroidery and badla [beaten metal work],” she says.

Dressing Saeeda
  • “Saeeda Bai was equal parts challenging and thrilling to design,” says Bhasin. “There was almost no direct research to be done for the private world of a courtesan of that the period. There were several images of public gatherings, but not much in terms of personal life.” The designer wanted the character to always be shrouded in mystery, so he’s used layers of diaphanous fabric over silks and brocades for richness and texture. “I wanted to create the illusion that she had secrets and that there was more to her than first meets the eye.”

For Bhasin — who dressed all 105 members of the cast and the hundreds of extras — it is his third time working with Tabu. “We’ve become good friends in the course of our three collaborations [ The Namesake , Life of Pi, and now A Suitable Boy ]. It is amazing to me how she slips into character so beautifully and yet brings such elegance and gravitas to each performance,” he says, adding that she understands the importance of how to use costume to highlight elements of her characters. “She wears clothes with such ease, never allowing the design to consume the performance. It is the best kind of compliment for me.”

Tanya Maniktala, who plays the protagonist Lata, in a still from A Suitable Boy

Tanya Maniktala, who plays the protagonist Lata, in a still from A Suitable Boy

Laughter and relevance

Tabu is still one of the most exciting actors of today. There is an aura of mystery around her, perhaps because she is guarded about her personal life. More than the longevity of her multilingual career — which spans Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali and Malayalam — it is the relevance and intrigue she brings with each new project that sets her apart. No matter how vapid the script, she elevates it. Her co-stars talk about her wit and comic timing. “I connect better with those who have a sense of humour. In fact, the women in my family are known for theirs. Why take things seriously all the time? It is good to laugh, but not trivialise things,” says Tabu, who enjoys watching comedies (Gulzar’s Angoor is her favourite).

Needless to say, those who meet her, love her. Be it late artist-director MF Husain, who called her his muse and worked with her in the 2004 film, Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities , or fashion designer Gaurang Shah, for whom Tabu turned showstopper in February, at Lakmé Fashion Week. “I prefer that my models walk barefoot on the runway. During the last show, Tabu came in wearing an anarkali and heels, but quickly removed her footwear when she noticed that the models were barefoot. She has no hangups,” says Shah, who also worked with her on a short film (she did the voiceover). “She completed it in five minutes; she is very professional. She’s also offered to sing for me the next time.”

Ishaan Khatter and Tabu in a still from A Suitable Boy

Ishaan Khatter and Tabu in a still from A Suitable Boy

On her own terms

A Suitable Boy marks Tabu’s first collaboration with Ishaan Khatter, actor Shahid Kapoor’s younger brother who plays her love interest Maan. The script readings were an ice breaker, she says, sharing that “Ishaan is intelligent and extremely talented. He’s also a badmash and a good photographer”. Over the years, her younger co-stars have admitted how much in awe they are of her — one of the rare one-name actors, much like Rekha or Sridevi. In an interview with entertainment website Bollywood Hungama, Khatter called her “one of the legends of our time”, while Ayushmann Khurrana, who co-starred with her in Andhadhun , admitted on Hindustan Times ’ show Aur Batao, that he and his dad jointly crush over the 49-year-old. Does she see herself mentoring newer actors? “Me? A mentor? I am still learning,” Tabu laughs.

The Telugu superhit
  • Director Trivikram Srinivas’s Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo (January 2020) marked Tabu’s Telugu comeback, after 11 years. The Allu Arjun and Pooja Hegde starrer was a blockbuster, but a section of the audience wondered why she had chosen a multi-starrer where she had a brief part. “I knew what I was getting into,” says Tabu, adding that she had wanted to work with Srinivas, who is often hailed for his writing. “Yashoda [Tabu’s character] is not an easy person to like; she can come across as arrogant. When Trivikram narrated the crucial scene between me and [actor] Jayaram — where he admits to straying because he couldn’t match his wife’s strength and wealth — I knew it was worth it. You don’t come across such admissions often in Indian cinema.”

Meanwhile, acting offers for OTT projects are coming her way. Tabu spent lockdown listening to story narrations over Zoom. “Apart from the story and my role, the director is important to me. I’ve been lucky to have worked with directors who have become long-standing friends,” she says, hastening to add that video sessions aren’t her thing. “The increased time in front of the computer left me with headaches; I’ve begun requesting audio narrations.”

After back-to-back projects for two years, including Andhadhun , Telugu flick Ala Vaikunthapurramuloo and Jawaani Jaaneman , she looked at lockdown as an opportunity to slow down. “I managed to do some writing, though nothing specific,” she says, adding that on the work front she has the Bhool Bhulaiyaa sequel for now. Is she ready for her biography? After all, Saif Ali Khan, Priyanka Chopra Jonas and others have made headlines recently for their upcoming memoirs. “Publishing houses have approached me, but I don’t think I’ve led an Earth-shattering life to have a biography. It is too early. Whatever I have to say about my work, I do that in interviews. What else is there to reveal?” she concludes.

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