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A talented actress and TV host with an ever cheery smile

Tabassum passed away peacefully in her sleep after a cardiac arrest she had suffered in a Mumbai hospital in November this year. Shoma A. Chatterji recalls the career of the popular actress and talk show host

Many years into her weekly programme aptly named Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan, I learnt that the word tabassum translated from Urdu, meant ‘smile’. Many would be glued to the talk show on Doordarshan, with Tabassum the anchor, her ad-libbing, puckish humour and effervescent charm during the black-and-ehite days of television still vivid.

I met Tabassum as a teenager when she was one of the outstanding child actors of Hindi cinema at the annaprashan ceremony of Bimal Roy’s son Joy. She was plump, had a head of curls framing her round face, and a never-ceasing smile that spoke more than a hundred words. We made friends easily but never kept in touch – we did not have a phone children were not allowed to make ‘phone friends’ like they are today.

Tabassum had evolved her own distinct way of interviewing film personalities when the term, Bollywood, was yet to come into being. She did her homework thoroughly and asked her subjects directly. None would object as she infused her questions with her infectious charm. She even added a bit of drama with moist eyes, often wiping her tears when the subject was narrating some sad incident to her. Tabassum, born Kiran Bala, possessed the distinction of hosting the longest-running show, Phool Khile Hain Gulshan, from 1972 to 1993.

The audience could easily identify with Tabassum and that was the secret of her show. She seemed to be on the same wavelength as others. Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan,meaning ‘flowers are blooming in every garden’, came many years after she had bid goodbye to her successful career as a child artiste in several films. Her father was the freedom fighter, Ayodyanath Sachdev, her mother was Ashghari Begum. Her screen name, it is reported, was coined by Dilip Kumar, who was extremely fond of the actress, calling her Baby Tabassum.

Tabassum achieved fame from the black-and-whit film, Deedar,which was a big hit – the song Bachpan ke dil bhula na dena (rendered by Shamshad Begum and Lata Mangeshkar), with Dilip Kumar and Nargis, playing a major part. To me, her most outstanding performance as a child star was in Bimal Roy’s Baap Beti, in which she played a fatherless girl looking for her missing father because her friends in school would taunt and tease her as she could not say who her father was and where he had gone. Baby Tabassum was the protagonist and played a memorable role though she was in her teens.

Tabassum made her debut as a child actor when she was only three years old, in three films, Nargis, Mera Suhaag and Majhdar, all in 1947. Then followed Badi Behen (1949), Jogan (1950), Deedar, Baharand Afsana (1951), and Baiju Bawra (1952), which more or less ended her career as a child star.  She continued to do supporting roles as she grew out of her teens into a lovely but slightly buxom lady in films like Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Dharamputra (1961), Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon (1963), Gawar, Bachpan, Heer Ranjha and Johnny Mera Naam (all in 1970) and some others which hardly justified her talent or quenched her desire to do leads. So, when Doordarshan arrived, she began her talk show which went on for 21 years, turning her into a cult figure with a spunky, cheerful and smiling personality to match, flower-decked hair and beautiful saris to match.

When finally Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan episodes ended, Tabassum began her own show on YouTube called Tabassum Talkies, which highlighted the back stories of actors who rose but then fell by the wayside or died untimely deaths.  In 1985, Tabassum decided to step into production and direction with Tum Par Hum Qurbaan to launch her son Hoshang Govil in films. She also  penned her autobiography though not much is heard of it.

October – December 2022