In her 20-plus-year Bollywood career, Tabu has featured in countless mainstream films that did well at the box office. But at the same time she has managed to make good use of every opportunity she got to experiment as an actor, by taking up challenging roles that allowed her to break the mould of commercial cinema and develop a more serious, substantive body of work. She speaks to Bulbul Sharma.
Q. As an actor, you have always pushed the boundaries of traditional cinema. One look at your filmography makes it evident how you have routinely chosen films and roles that took you out of your comfort zone. What are your criteria for signing a project?
A. We have to choose from whatever is available. And luckily I always get to do good work. I think that’s mostly because of the kind of work I have done in the past…. There are many factors based on which I select the projects. First of all, my character has to be interesting and then it has to fit into the story beautifully. That character has to be important to the story, irrespective of the screen time it will be given. I seek answers to questions like, “What is her identity?” “Does she matter to the story?” and so on. If I am given convincing answers to these questions and if I have faith in the director, then I sign the film.
Also, every film is different. And so there are different parameters and factors that I consider before saying yes to an acting project. You cannot apply the same criteria to every film. Every film will give you something new, and your expectation from every film will be different too. I can’t expect De De Pyar De [her latest film] to be Haider or Haider to be Golmaal. So when you know what kind of project it is and if you plan to do it, you need to be clear about what you want to take from it and what you want to give it. I and the script should progress in the same direction and should be able to add something to each other professionally.
Q. Is it important for you to be a part of serious cinema to prove your mettle as an actor?
A. I am not sure if it is important… It depends on the kinds of roles you play in the films. It also depends on how you perform those roles. You can’t achieve anything by doing serious cinema if your work is not good. I think the kinds of roles you have done and how you have done them help establish you as a particular kind of actor in the industry. A role may be offered to 20 different people and each of them is capable of bringing something new and different to it. But what you can contribute to the role and how important it is to the script is all that counts. So, I think how you fare as an actor is a combination of many things.
Q. You are among the few Hindi film actors who have managed to strike a balance in terms of their involvement in commercial and art cinema. How have you excelled in both?
A. I have been very confident in my choices. I was very clear from the very beginning about what I wanted to do and the projects that I wanted to be a part of. It wasn’t just true to the serious cinema that I was doing, but also to the commercial films. Like Biwi No. 1, Saajan Chale Sasural  and others. Biwi No. 1 came to me when another actress couldn’t do it and there were just 15 days left for the shoot to begin. I was very sure back then as well that I wanted to do this film. I knew that it would be very good, that it would be fun. I was convinced that if I did the film, it would work. Maybe some people weren’t very convinced with the choices I was making back then, but those choices have all worked for me.
Q. From signing multiple simultaneous projects at the beginning of your career in the ’90s, you now limit yourself to doing one film a year. Is that part of some strategy?
A. It is the same for every actor now. It is because actors have started to take a lot of time preparing for their roles. Doing promotions for films has also become time-consuming. So making a film now takes a lot of time. This wasn’t the case earlier… But for a long time, I have consciously been doing one film a year. I fully concentrate on one project at a time, complete it and only then move on to another. I started doing this after films like Maqbool(2001) and Meenaxi (2004)…
And of course, when you are younger, you are starting to explore new things. You must do everything then. And I have done that too. I enjoyed that phase as well. But there are some films that need your entire focus. For example, Maqbool needed to be shot in a month and I couldn’t fit any other project with it. So it depends on the films as well and not just on the choices you make as an actor.
Q. Ageist discrimination is common in Bollywood. And yet, it never seems to have posed any hurdles for you…
A. It has been a combination of luck and the choices I have made. Age has never limited me as an actor. I have done good films and justified the roles I have played… A large part of the audience has accepted me in different, non-stereotypical roles; the fraternity has accepted me too. I got my position and identity by doing what I was doing. I am also thankful to the directors who have put so much faith in me and have come to me with every kind of role. When directors and writers trust you so much, you also want to give your hundred percent.
Q. You started your acting career as a child artiste, with films like Hum Naujawan(1985). And despite being offered the lead role inPrem, by producer Boney Kapoor in 1987, you were only able to make your Hindi film debut in 1994, with Pehla Pehla Pyar. What kept you going as an actor during those initial years?
A. I went back to school after my roles as a child actor. And I never thought I wanted to do only acting. I was stuck with acting because of the delay of Prem. Then I did a Telugu film. After that, I did Pehla Pehla Pyar. Ajay [Devgn] got me into Vijaypath. Then I got Maachis. Then I worked with Mani Ratnam and soon just about everything started to fall in place. I started working on my craft and started to enjoy acting. I worked with these brilliant people around me who gave me an opportunity and the confidence to discover myself. They gave me a platform where I could establish my identity as an actor, where I could work on projects, characters and emotions that really appealed and spoke to me. So acting became my pehchan [identity].
Q. You and Ajay Devgn have given some big hits, like Vijaypath(1994), Drishyam(2015) and Golmaal Again (2017) among others. What’s the secret behind this consistently successful on-screen collaboration?
A. We have been friends since childhood. We have always been together and are like family now. I hope I can always work with him. He knows me very well. In fact, he is one of the very few people who know everything about me. I can depend on him; I trust him. It is a beautiful relationship and it has only become stronger over the years… However, when we are working together, we are very professional. He is a very sincere actor and he has never been late to the sets. He has never caused any sort of problem to anyone while shooting… We complement each other’s working style, because we really value our work.