Promotions for Fitoor, Abhishek Kapoor’s upcoming adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel Great Expectations, are on in full earnest. But Tabu, who plays a version of Miss Havisham in the movie that stars Katrina Kaif and Aditya Roy Kapur, is on an extended holiday in Kolkata, with her mother.
The city of The Namesake is not new to Tabu, but it is a first visit for her mother, who wanted to see the Howrah Bridge “up close”. Evidently, Tabu is at ease playing tourist, guide, daughter and actress as well as star speaker at the Kolkata Literary Meet with one elegant sweep of her dupatta.
The actress sits cross-legged on a sofa in a five-star suite, occasionally glancing at the fuschia blooms on the window sill as she breaks into peals of school-girl laughter triggered by the “silliest of things”. Tabu talks about her dislike for labels, her love for the David Dhawan school of comedy, and her acceptance of a role that was originally written for and performed by Rekha before the veteran actress decided to leave the project.
You were on a panel on literary adaptations at the Kolkata Literary Meet. What was that like?
It was okay. My first time at an event like this. The rest is up to the audiences to judge. So what are you going to ask me? Please, no questions on intolerance.
Is it alright to talk about your craft?
It is quite boring. Just because I do certain roles, people think Tabu does cerebral roles, we need to ask her serious questions.
So you have problems with being associated with certain kinds of films?
I protest the one kind of perception created about anybody. It comes from a place of unawareness. Is it because I have done these serious films? How can you hope to understand what kind of a person I am through my acting? How much do you really know about me? The films I have acted in are not made by me, they were not my creations – so cerebral or giribral or gibberish – it is their vision, not mine. I just did my part. It’s so easy to label. Like the one label that I keep hearing all the time – reclusive, reclusive, reclusive!
Yes, that seems to have stuck somehow.
Most journalists who come to me with that label haven’t even looked up the meaning of the word. They think it is a tribe or a community from Hyderabad. Are you Hyderabadi? Jatt? Sindhi? Are you reclusive? I laugh at these things.
Is it because you are rarely seen in a certain kind of film environment?
What kind of environment do people want to see me in? I go to every party. I am out there. I go to nine out of ten parties and when I skip the tenth, people say, arrey, she is reclusive! I think it is a herd mentality. One person uses a word, the rest follow. Kuch to alag pucho? (Ask me something new.)
Are you excited about Fitoor?
Excited yes, but not anxious. I was the senior-most person on the sets. But it was a baggage-free experience for me because I have known Abhishek Kapoor as a teenager. He is an unusual person, all heart and extremely talented. I loved [his 2013 movie] Kai Po Che! Also, Katrina [Kaif], Aditya [Roy Kapur], they are all such lovely people that I genuinely want the film to do well.
After Rekha walked out of the project, how did Kapoor approach you?
He just called me and said, “Tabu, I want you to do the film.” I didn’t even ask him any questions. He said, we start shooting soon. I thought maybe he’ll start one or two months later. But we started 48 hours later.
You had two days to prep for the role?
Yes. There was a certain familiarity with the character. Three years ago, Gattu [Kapoor’s nickname] had actually called me for the same role of Miss Havisham. We had discussed it at that time but then something else happened and things fizzled out. But then it came back to me.
Were you destined to do the film?
Yes. But there’s more to it. I always knew how Gattu had drawn out the character. But we had very little time to do the fittings and the hair, which had to be a particular shade of red. But then I tried on Rekha’s costumes, designed by Manish [Malhotra] and fit into them as if they had been made for me. It was the most bizarre thing to have happened.
Given the different roles you have done, how do you select your projects?
It has always been different things about different projects. I have done films with completely new directors, with no clue about their vision. Chandni Bar, Maqbool – I am not sure what drives me.
With Chandni Bar, Madhur [Bhandarkar] met me with my photo attached to the script, saying he had written it for me. He narrated the first half and I was shaken. I asked him to stop and requested him to send me the script so that I could read it later. It was very dark. I thought that if I was so affected by simply listening to the narration of the first half by this person I didn’t even know, I must do this film. It really gripped me badly at an emotional level. That’s what I connect to.
That’s my trip. My EQ is higher than or equal to my IQ.
Also, I had no clue about this beer bar culture. This was 20 years back. We were much younger. We had been busy and seen the city in a different light because it was always work for us.
Also in cinema, you never really saw a bar girl or a dancer at the forefront. Here, she was the protagonist. I said to myself, I have to do this. I never thought of any social significance. Maybe at a subliminal level, but not consciously.
Sometimes you want to be a part of a good project. Sometimes you need something light and frothy and fun and it comes to you. You change, life changes, your priorities change.
Most of your recent films, however, are dark and twisted.
I don’t know what is it about me that gets me these roles or makes people think I am like that! I must ask Vishal (Bhardwaj).
Given the complex roles you have portrayed in your recent films, is it easy or difficult to get in and out of character?
We didn’t have the time earlier to linger on any role because we were doing so many films. You didn’t even know you were getting into the character, so forget getting out of it. As you grow older and gain experience, the process becomes quicker. You don’t get completely consumed by anything in life.
Someone was telling me that Maachis [by Gulzar, made in 1996] was the beginning of the dark characters. I was so young, 22 years old then. We now know that these are dark characters. There are so many labels that you start thinking, okay, so is this what I have done?
Maachis did not feel like a dark film because Gulzaarsaab made it easy for us. We sat around with our hot water bags. He gave us chocolates after a good shot. We were having a picnic. We were unaware of the political relevance of what we are doing and the baggage it carried. For most actors, most of the time, it is only the role and the people you are working with.
Ideology is the writer’s or the director’s. I can choose to be a part of it or not.
Do you think of yourself as more of a conduit?
Just yesterday in the plane I thought of this word… vessel. An actor is the vessel for the storyteller or writer to tell the story. How well he does it is up to him. The director can tell you what he wants, but you have to do it.
So the actor is more of a medium?
You are the face of the director’s vision. It is a double-edged sword. You become what you are actually not.
What kind of a film would you make?
Drama, action drama… So unlike me, isn’t it?
As a viewer I must enjoy the experience of watching a film. So drama, action and music are important to me. I cannot make a comedy.
But you are quite good at it.
Yes, but to make somebody act in a comedy is not my cup of tea. I watched David Dhawan, Govinda. It was so much about getting people together and letting them do what they wanted.
Priyadarshan is different. He gets impatient with retakes. On his sets, it feels more like a torture cell than a comedy shoot.
Will your action drama have a female protagonist?
Oh god! You are getting there! Now you will ask me about pay parity and feminism!
Nothing wrong with a woman cracking the whip, is there?
You want a whip? Okay, you will get one. But both men and women will wield it. They look good together. That’s how nature has designed things to be.
So the film has to be short and entertaining, otherwise I will lose patience.
Many of your films are adaptations of literary classics. What was your first point of contact with these stories? Was it the script or the book?
I studied till my 12th. I have not read Shakespeare because it was not in our syllabus in Hyderabad. For me it was the script. I had to enact the script, not the book.
Life of Pi was very difficult beyond 15 pages. You needed someone like Ang Lee to visualise that book the way he did. Much before the film was made, I tried to read The Namesake, but could not finish it.
Which was the most fun you had on the set?
Saajan Chale Sasural, Biwi No.1, my Telugu film Ninne Pelladata. It was the right kind of people coming together to make the atmosphere really light. Also because I knew David [Dhawan] and Govinda.
Surprisingly, Chandni Bar was also great fun. Madhur is one of the funniest people I know. He just cracks me up with his one-liners. We had to ask him to stop making us laugh before every shot.
What is working with Vishal Bhardwaj like?
With Vishal, the fewest words are exchanged. I cannot remember any line of instruction or anything he has told me other than his funny lines. He laughs a lot. I like to prod him to give me some gossip, but he’s a man of few words.
He will encapsulate everything in one line. You process it the way you do. I keep asking him, what to do? He will say, Tum karlo, and then say, are you pulling my leg by asking me this question? We will both start laughing.
Vishal wrote both the films [Maqbool and Haider] for me, and there cannot be a bigger compliment for an actress.
What kind of a space are you in personally?
I think I am in the best space ever. It can get better. But I have come a long way. I am better at handling situations and understanding them with some objectivity. I have been able to remain outside situations. I watch, I observe.
So you don’t react as quickly to things and people?
The idea is to experience everything, even if you are not reacting to it. Contentment is a fantastic virtue. But the idea is to be in a state of contentment and work from there. Happiness, euphoria, elation don’t last.
What makes you laugh?
Anything… I am terrible that way. A slip of tongue, someone saying something funny... the unlikeliest, silliest stuff. I loved Kapil and Guthi’s comedy [on Comedy Nights with Kapil] for instance. David and Govinda.
What are you really passionate about?
I have not really found something to be really passionate about. That something that is bigger than me. Work is there, but it is no longer that big thing that you want to be a part of. You already belong there. Now what? There is a subliminal search for that passion now and I know I am very close to finding it. Once I do, I know it is for keeps.