Two decades as an actor, two National Film Awards (Maachis and Chandni Bar), two major international movies (The Namesake; Life of Pi), two of Shakespeare’s most iconic characters (Lady Macbeth; Gertrude), and numerous other films in Hindi, Telugu, Bengali and other languages stand out in Tabu’s remarkable career. Few Indian actors have been able to straddle commercial cinema, middle-of-the-road, Hollywood, regional and arthouse, with her kind of sure-footedness. Before the release of her next film Haider—director Vishal Bhardwaj’s interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet—Tabu shares how her instincts have always served her best. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Considering your eclectic filmography, by what parameters do you choose a film?

All that has happened to me has always been unplanned and organic. I have taken many chances, and gone with my instinct, but deciding things on the spur of the moment has made it possible for me to have a fulfilling life. How I choose a film depends on my priorities at that point in time. For example, am I going to decide according to the money, or the kind of project. And if it’s something horrible, then I don’t want to compromise. The parameters keep changing, but the role and the importance of the character are primary and then, the director. Now I want to do good projects with bankable people that give me a well-rounded experience. For an actor to do a film means a commitment of six months to one year of shooting and all that comes before and after that. It’s easy to take snap decisions but I have always gone with my instincts.

This year you were seen in the mainstream Salman Khan film ‘Jai Ho’ and now it’s ‘Haider’.

Tabu and Kay Kay Menon in Haider.

You say you have never read any Shakespeare, yet you have acted in ‘Maqbool’, which is an adaptation of ‘Macbeth’ and now ‘Haider’.

Yes, I have never read any Shakespeare. Literature has never been my subject and my only knowledge or introduction to Shakespeare has been via Vishal. I think whether you know the text or not, the director and the script are going to guide the character and tell you all about her. Okay, so it may be nice to know the character traits and characteristics, but it also depends on how true you want to be to that interpretation. So many films have been made on these characters but each time the actor has to bring out what they can offer. For me the script is important and if I need to refer to history or books I would do so, but otherwise I go with the screenplay. I have not read The Namesake or Life of Pi either. The film is the film; the story is the story; it’s you and the director. I choose a film based on the script and director, not based on the author of a book.

How did you prepare for your role in ‘Haider’?

My character is very conflicted and torn between the men in her life. She is unable to form an ideology because her own safety, home and insecurity take over her life and relationships. Because of the political scenario things are also going haywire. I don’t know how you can prepare for a character that is so conflicted. At some subliminal level you live those feelings and relationships, because when you are acting that is your world, that is real for that time, especially when you are shooting on location in Kashmir in minus 12 degrees (Celsius).

You acted in your first Hindi film in 1994 (‘Pehla Pehla Pyar’). What would you say have been your most challenging roles in these two decades?

I have always been lucky to get challenging roles. Over the years, I have had consistent, quality work. Most of my roles have been very challenging because the characters were difficult with complex graphs and a lot of alleys and layers. There could have been difficult moments, certainly, such as doing action scenes and jumping from the 10th floor in Maa Tujhe Salaam (2002). Nimmi from Maqbool was also very difficult to crack. Even Haider is quite complex, but as an actor you have to do your job and interpret it the way you want to as that is what people will relate to—because there is nothing before that. I find it easier to assess my films by the experiences and platforms they offered. Pehla Pehla Pyar because it was my first film, Vijaypath (people got to know me after the song Ruk ruk), Virasat and Maachis were layered characters which I enjoyed and people related to me. Hu Tu Tu has one of my favourite characters. Vishal is one director who has given me the platform, freedom and chance to push myself with the two best characters of my career.

Considering the long gaps between your releases, how do you stay connected to your craft when you are not working?

I think craft is inside you and you are always connected to it. Personally, I have a very boring life. I don’t have many interesting hobbies and pursuits, though I often think I should cultivate some. I travel a little bit. I don’t like to read. I write a little bit, mainly personal notes about various topics. I don’t watch TV or movies though I like going to the theatre as recreation, to eat popcorn and hang out with my friends. I am trying to figure out what my true passion is and that should be interesting to unearth.

Are you toying with the idea of directing a film?

As an idea or concept, it is great for me to think about, but it takes a lot to make a film. You need a nice story; you have to want to tell it; then there have to be people around who are also convinced about that—there are so many things involved. I am always amazed when I look at my friends, like Farah Khan, for example. She is so driven and knows the game so well. Whenever I toy with the idea of directing and producing, my friends say “Are you mad—not you". Acting is a much easier job. And it’s such a personal journey. You go through so much, including facing your personal demons.

What are your future projects? Any more Hollywood projects in the offing?

I have finished shooting a psychological thriller with Manoj Bajpai. We are working together again after 15 years. He’s an old friend and it’s been a pleasure to work together after Ghaath and Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar!!. I am also doing a special appearance in Meghna Gulzar’s Talwar. No, no Hollywood for now. I want to be home for sometime. I did grow a lot with Life of Pi. Working on such films, with directors like Ang Lee, opens up your mind and a whole new world. But it takes you very far from home.

Haider releases in theatres on 2 October.

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