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


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 Hashmi 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.

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.


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.


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 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.

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.


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


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.


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.


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 smoldering 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 II do so.

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 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), traveling, 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 ‘bhabi’ 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 favorite of the best in the industry from Gulzar, Zoya Akhtar, or Mira Nair.

“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.”

On her birthday today, I wish her many more memorable performances along with a happy, fulfilled life doing what she loves best.

* Originally published on Women’s Web.

* Published on YouthKiAwaaz.

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Tina Sequeira
Tina Sequeira is a marketer and moonlighting writer. She is passionate about tech, creativity, and social justice—dabbling in and writing about the same.

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    • Thank you so much for reading and appreciating the article, Ruchi! This took a lot of time in research, drafting, and editing it. Tabu’s openness to essay diverse roles is commendable.

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