Happy Tabu Birthday Week! Here is a movie in which she is effortlessly incredibly charming, and helps the movie itself also be effortlessly incredibly charming.
This is another film of the genre that I have identified as “late 90s/early 2000s Nagarjuna movies that Niki recommends to me”. They all tend to have kind of crowded colorful yet slightly washed out filming style, a happy family based plot that just makes you smile, Nagarjuna being charming with a mustache, and an interesting heroine. Oh, and they are often kind of a pastiche of other films in a way that makes them feel soothingly familiar even if you are watching them for the first time.
Only this one is extra good because TABU!!!! No really, this isn’t just me fangirling, having such a strong memorable actress in the heroine’s role totally changes the film from “Aren’t Nagarjuna and his mustache awesome and wonderful?” to “I hope this heroine gets to meet Nagarjuna and his mustache because she deserves him and vice versa!” The film feels completely different, I don’t just want Nagarjuna and all the other good people in the film to be happy, I specifically want Nagarjuna and Tabu to get together and I don’t really care what happens to everyone else. Because they are both so clearly the best people.
And also because they have amazing chemistry! The Internet tells me that there were all kinds of rumors of a relationship between them, and I can see why. It isn’t like tormented sexy chemistry, more like “These people just fit together and always want to be touching and talking to each other” chemistry.
And this is despite Nagarjuna being dressed and styled as no human being on earth has ever deserved to be dressed and styled. How can hair be both ratty and too curly? Were fanny packs ever cool? Why did mullets exist? These are the questions that leap to mind while watching this song.
But Tabu is great! Start to finish, even her costuming. Which is part of what is so great about her, her character has perfect costuming. She wears practical clothes, jeans and t-shirts. And traditional, saris and stuff. But never anything in between, either she is wearing clothes that would please her family or be appropriate for temple, or she is wearing clothes that just make sense for what she is doing. And that’s part of her character, she is a happy girl who loves her family, but is not interested in pleasing anyone else but them and herself. If that makes sense. There is no concern for “I should put on make up and do more with my hair than just a ponytail because I am going out”.
It’s part of something generally different with her character, that I think is mostly in how Tabu plays her. This is not a girl who knows how to flirt and fall in love and all of that. Her romance comes a bit out of nowhere and surprises her, has happened before she even realizes it has happened. But it’s not because she is shy or afraid of boys or anything like that, like we would see in a normal heroine with this type of romance (Bhagyashree in Maine Pyar Kiya, Trisha in Nuvvostanante Nenoddantana , etc. etc.). She is someone out there in the world who just doesn’t have the kind of personality that would make her think love could happen, or notice exactly that it is happening. Not completely. A different heroine could play the exact same role as a dopey heartsick teenager, or as a childish innocent. But Tabu threads the needle between the two. She isn’t innocent, she knows what love is and thinks about it. But she also isn’t overcome right away, she keeps her balance and the relationship grows slowly without either of them necessarily naming it.
This is definitely one of those slow slow movies. We spend 10 minutes at the beginning with happening stuff, and 20 minutes at the end. And in between, we just spend time with these characters and watch Cricket games and happy family times and a very very slow romance. If that sounds like the kind of film for you, you should definitely watch it! If not, you can read on into SPOILERS.
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This is one of those “remember, it’s not incest in the South!” plots. So make sure you are cool with that before you watch it! We start 20 years ago. Lakshmi, who I know from Jeans and Hulchul, is happily rushing around arranging the wedding of her beloved younger sister-in-law (husband’s sister), Manju Bhargavi, who I know from her mother role in every third Telugu film. Lakshmi’s young son loves his aunt so much that he doesn’t want to leave her to let her get her make-up finished, but finally is dragged away. Manju takes the opportunity to rush off, running down the road in full wedding regalia, to a nearby small temple where she meets her boyfriend and his family for a hurried marriage. Her family interrupts just as the ceremony finishes, there is a fight between her new husband and his brothers and her brothers, which ends when she firmly sides with her husband.
What I find really interesting is how careful they are to clarify why this is “wrong”. It’s not that she is marrying for love, it is that she is running away from her wedding, permanently damaging the respect her family will have, insulting them and their guests, all of that. The criticism is that she waited until now, didn’t tell them how she felt, didn’t let this play out in a better way. That’s the original anger. And then the subsequent anger is over her the two groups of men trying to kill each other. Her brother isn’t angry because her husband “stole” her away, he is angry because her husband tried to hit him. And vice versa, her husband isn’t angry because he feels like he has to “fight” for her against her brothers, it is because her brothers hit him. And ultimately the blame rests on how Manju did this, keeping it secret and so on, not on the actual act itself.
Anyway, 20 years later everything is great in the two households. Manju and her love marriage worked out great, she has 3 daughters that she loves, the oldest being Tabu. Who was named after Lakshmi, a sign that Manju does still miss her family a little. But that’s the only sign. Her husband and brother-in-law and everyone else in her family-by-marriage love her and each other and are very happy together. No punishment for a love marriage, not even a lifestyle that is noticeably poorer than the family she was born into, it all worked out almost perfect, and would have been completely perfect if she had just been brave enough to speak up and let her family know how she felt so her marriage wouldn’t be such an embarrassment to them.
Lakshmi’s family is happy too. Her son has grown up to be Nagarjuna (duh), her husband and her husband’s best friend (or brother? Confused) all dote on Nagarjuna and her. Her husband is still so in love with her, in fact, that it is a running joke how often he tries to hug or kiss her. And next door in an attached house with a shared yard, there is another happy family that is always running in and out of their house.
The originally bringing together of Nagarjuna and Tabu could have been a huge conflict thing, like it was in DDLJ, but it’s not because Tabu is a different kind of heroine and has a different kind of family. She wants to go to Hyderabad to study flying. A very unfeminine kind of thing! It’s even clarified that she would be one of the first female students at the flying school. But it’s what she wants to do, and her mother supports her, and her father is okay with it. And Tabu is okay with the understanding that she will study for a year while they find a boy for her, and then she will get married. It’s not the scary awful thing it is for Kajol in DDLJ, she knows marriage is her future and it’s not going to be forced on her before she is ready or with a guy she doesn’t like. This is just such a healthy happy family! Tabu isn’t a rebel because she never had to rebel, her family gave her the freedom she wanted. And her parents aren’t draconian monsters, because they never needed to enforce strict rules, they knew they could trust their daughter. The only concern with her flight school plan is to make sure she isn’t lonely and unsafe, so they arrange for her to stay with a friend of her uncles while she is studying, instead of at a hostel.
(She’s confident enough to do her own item song!)
And of course, that friend is the next door neighbor of Nagarjuna’s family! But that’s not their first meeting, their first meeting is delightfully undramatic. She arrives at the train station and he runs into her (literally) while trying to catch a train himself. It’s not slow motion and dramatic and romantic and perfect, it’s just a half a second of them seeing each other and noticing each other and then moving on.
Their second meeting is equally undramatic. Nagarjuna rushes into the living room in a towel looking for shampoo while his family is meeting Tabu, she doesn’t fully look at him or vice versa because of modesty. Even their third meeting, him designated to drive her to the airport to register for school, there is no shyness or drama over it, they just hop in the car together.
It is at the airport, when they are talking, that I start to notice something different. They are touching each other like, a lot!!!! And maybe it’s partly the actors (again, those affair rumors!), but it also works really well for the characters. Unlike other young couples where it is massive sexual tension that makes every touch electric, or massive modesty that makes every touch forbidden, they are just too people who subconsciously need to be in constant physical contact. Even though they just met, even though they don’t know each other at all really, even though there is no logical reason for it.
And constant mental contact as well, or mental intimacy, something like that. Right from the start, they don’t have casual conversations. And again, it’s partly the actors. You could play this scene as him giving wise wisdom to her and her being charmingly grateful. But instead it feels like two people who don’t feel like they need to make small talk, who rush right in to talking about real things, having “intimate” conversations.
I am trying really hard to set aside the incest part of this whole thing, but it really feels related (ha! Pun!). They were raised the same way in similar households, because they come from the same family. They feel an immediate connection, because her mother is his beloved aunt. She is even named for his mother!
And maybe it’s supposed to be related (Pun! Again!)? Isn’t part of the reason cousin marriages are encouraged because they will naturally get along since they come from similar households? Not too similar, but close. The same way it would be easy to marry someone who grew up next door to you. And so they are a perfect couple because they were raised to be perfect together.
Anyway, the romance is adorable. From their first real conversation, minutes after they meet, they are leaning on each other and touching each other and laughing and making eyes and sharing personal philosophies they wouldn’t tell anyone else. And Tabu begins to start wondering if maybe he is the “Greek Warrior” she is dreaming of. And Nagarjuna’s parents start thinking maybe she would make a good daughter-in-law. And Nagarjuna starts thinking maybe he is in love. But what is delightful is the whole time these people are slowly thinking about maybe this couple is in love, the childish teasing and the fighting and all of that, their body language is telling us that they are in love, have been in love since the very beginning. This “maybe we are in love” discovery is super cute because it just shows how innocent they are, and how deep down their feelings are that, they haven’t even noticed they are already in love.
These are good people, so there is no conflict in this part or expectation of conflict. Which is very refreshing. Tabu knows her parents will be supportive and happy of her love marriage. Nagarjuna knows his parents will be as well. And, most important, Tabu knows that she is completely safe with Nagarjuna and he will obviously be happy to marry her, because she knows that he knows that that is the kind of person she is. And she’s right! They run all over the house together, even flirt on a bed together, and it never crosses a line beyond what they both want. There isn’t even the slightest hint of pressure from him. So nice, not the usual “pursuit-avoidance” kind of romance, especially when she is set up as a “good girl” and he is set up as a “bad boy”. But a “good girl” who likes the guy she likes and doesn’t pretend not to. And a “bad boy” who likes going at the speed the girl he likes enjoys.
And then after all of this “good people doing good things” stuff, we get conflict! Just to round out the last 20 minutes. Tabu’s parents show up, all happy to meet the man their daughter loves, only to discover that he is their nephew and his parents’ are their enemies. Tabu is dragged away and brought back home where her father insists that he will not give permission for this marriage. Nagarjuna’s family is all upset and worried about him, he seems fine. And he explains that he isn’t worried because he knows that Tabu and he are meant to be married. It’s close to a meta statement, why should he worry? The hero always ends up married to the heroine in this situation!
But then the meta goes away and it just goes back to the usual. Nagarjuna bursts in to Tabu’s wedding and drags her away, he is chased by her family, his family has followed and fights off her family so the couple can get away, and in the middle of it Tabu finally gets his attention when she vomits blood and has to explain that she didn’t think Nagarjuna was coming and so took poison. And then the family is reunited!!!! Of course.
I guess it kind of works, they established that the two women Lakshmi and Manju never really had a problem with each other, it was just male pride. And everyone loves Tabu, she was a bright memorable interesting person in Nagarjuna’s household, not just a “nice enough” young woman. They love her for herself. So sure, everyone will be sad when she is in the hospital.
Except, just like THIS MORNING, her father was all “you will marry the one I want you to marry and I don’t care how you feel”. But now he is all “I just want her to live!!!!” What exactly did they think was going to happen if they were chasing her with swords and all? That she would just be fine?
But, whatever, they had to stick conflict on their somehow. So we have ten minutes of fairly standard “elopement which causes family rift” at the beginning, and twenty minutes of “crazy chase/fight scene followed by happy ending in hospital”, but the real meat of the film is that slow build unique romance. Really, worth watching!
Now, tell me in the comments all about Tabu and Nagarjuna’s doomed love affair!
(I guess it’s all cool now, here she is with his son)