Her childhood was truly golden having shared the screen with stalwarts like Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Nargis. The song Bachpan ke din bhoola na dena (Deedar, 1952) filmed on her remains a reminder of the era when as Baby Tabassum she reigned the marquee. While the industry is celebrating its centenary, the actor is proud to have spent 65 years in it. Tabassum, true to her name, continues to spread smiles across the miles.
In her own words:
“Zindagi ko samjho to khushiyan, warna gham ka dariya hai,
Sukh or dukh kuch bhi nahin, apna apna nazariya hai.”
I worked in Kidar Sharma’s Jogan (1950) with Nargis apa and Dilip bhaiyya (Kumar). At first I used to call him Dilip uncle. Later, he too became ‘bhaiyya’. I remember we were once shooting at Apte river in Maharashtra. Dilip bhaiyya always had a lock of hair falling on his forehead. He didn’t like anyone touching his hair. So Kedarji asked me to push it back. And I did it saying, “Babuji balon ka style theek karlo or else the boys in the streets will begin imitating you!”. As a child I couldn’t pronounce ‘r’. So when Kedarji would ask me to say, ‘Om Prabhu Shanti’ I’d say, ‘Om Palbhu Shanti’. He kept asking for retakes. I broke down and said, “Ab hum ‘mal’ (mar) jaayenge.” Dilip bhaiyya laughed and said, “Why should you die? Marna chahiye Shalmaji (Sharmaji) ko!” I was part of Mughal-E-Azam (1960) but my scenes were edited out. It was Dilip saab who first insisted that artistes be served ethnic cuisine instead of that which was served to everyone. So there was Mughlai food for him and Madhubala, Maharashtrian fare for Durga Khote, Punjabi dishes for Prithvirajji (Kapoor) Parsi food like patra ni machchi (fish steamed in leaves) for Shapoorji Palonji (financier).
I learnt early that the road to someone’s heart is through the stomach.
Raj Kapoor called me Badibi because I spoke like an adult. Rajji would say, “Khabardar Kinni, don’t reveal your age! People can gauge mine by yours.” For PL Santoshi’s Sangram (1950), we were shooting the song Mera naam bheem palasi for a dance competition. Santoshiji told Rajji and me to keep dancing non-stop. Rajji, who was tired, pinched me to stop but I went on and on until both of us fainted. Once Rajji told my parents that he had signed a new girl, named Nawab Bano, as the second lead for Barsaat (1949). He also said he’d be naming her Kinni (my pet name). I threw a fit, started banging my feet on the floor and said, “Please, please don’t give my name to your heroine.” So he called her Nimmi instead! Rajji would often ask me who’s your favourite from us three – Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar. I’d reply ‘you’. I’d do the same when Dilip bhaiyya asked me the same question. But one day both of them held my hand and asked me, “Who do you like more from the two of us?” I got nervous and was about to say Dilip bhaiyya, when Rajji showed me a chocolate. I ended up saying, “Raj uncle!”
“Baccha ho yake budha
Sab ka karaar tu hai,
Jisko fiza na aaye
Aisi bahar tu hai”
I dedicate this verse written by me to him. I used to do a lot of stage shows with Amitji and Kalyanji-Anandji during the ’80s-’90s. Once I had fractured my leg and was hosting the show on a wheel chair. Suddenly, there was chaos. A fire had broken out. I panicked and began screaming, ‘Bachao, I can’t move!’ when I felt two hands on my shoulders leading my chair to safety. It was Amitji. That day I realised that he’s truly a superstar.
He’d always perform to Mere angnein mein (Lawaris) in the shows. When he sang the lines Jiski biwi moti, he’d pull me on stage. Once he said, “If you lose a bit of weight I could even carry you.” Jaya (Bachchan) and he make a beautiful pair. But something she said in one of my interviews will always pull at my heart. She said, “Mujhe is baat ka bilkul andaza nahin tha ke mere haath mein koi aisi rekha hai jo Amitji aur mere beech mein faasle badha degi.” I loved the way she said nothing, yet revealed all.
I worked with Madhu apa in Aaram (1951) among other films. Once I asked her what kept her so beautiful. She said, “Don’t ever resort to beauty treatment, it’s temporary and cosmetics spoil the skin. Also, have as much cucumber as possible, drink its juice and apply it on your face.”
I nursed ambitions of becoming a heroine but wasn’t successful. Madhu apa would say, “As long as your parents are with you, you’ll never become a heroine.” She referred to the tendency of parents being ‘overprotective’. Also, she once cautioned me, “Never return to films after marriage, yeh lal mitti (make-up) is addictive, it’s like sharab (wine). Youth and career are temporary. Your personal life is your destination.”
Madhu apa always kept her head covered with a white dupatta. When she had grown frail during her illness (Madhubala suffered from heart disease) and was told that she still looked beautiful, she’d smirk sarcastically.
When she passed away, OP Ralhan, Nargis apa and I were the first to reach her place. Her face was as angelic but her body had shrunk. Nargis apa shut her eyes, tied her toes together and pulled the chadar over her.
My first film as a child artiste was Nargis (1946). It was Nargis apa’s second. I played her younger sister. I was just two then. Later, I played Nargis apa’s childhood in Deedar (1951). Years later, during my interview with her in Phool Khile… I asked her what made her marry Sunil Dutt. She laughed and said, “Tabassum, who sat on my lap as a child and often left it wet, has the cheek to ask me this question today.” She added, “Dutt saab risked his life to save mine from the fire on the set of Mother India. Who could be a better life partner than him?” Incidentally, Nargis apa’s mother Jaddanbai had wanted her to marry Dilip Kumar. She was upset with her involvement with Raj Kapoor and prayed that her daughter be blessed with a good husband. Her prayers were answered. Once, Jogan was to be aired on DD. Nargis apa called me up and said, “Kinni I’m coming over. We’ll cook, eat dinner and watch the film together.” I remember the first time I met Dutt saab after their marriage, he pronounced my name as ‘Tabassam’. I said, “I am Tabassum, not Tabassam.” Nargis apa immediately said, “That’s why I call her Nani amma!” On hearing that, Dutt saab literally bent down to take my aashirwad! When Nargis apa passed away, her body was embellished as a Hindu bride with complete shringar – zevar, teeka, sindoor and buried according to Muslim rites. It was admirable! Later, Dutt saab too appeared on Phool Khile… He broke down when we screened the song Duniya mein aaye hain to (Mother India) filmed on Nargis apa.Amitabh Bachchan Dev Anand Dilip Kumar Interviews Jaya Bachchan Madhubala Mother India Nargis Raj Kapoor Rekha Sunil Dutt Tabassum