Tabu was born in Hyderabad to Jamal Hashmi and Rizwana in 1971. Soon after, her parents divorced. Her mother was a school teacher and her maternal grandparents were retired professors who ran a school. Her grandfather, Mohammed Ahsan was a professor of Mathematics and her grandmother was a professor of English Literature. She went to St. Anns high school in Hyderabad. Tabu moved to Mumbai in 1983 and studied at St. Xavier’s College for two years. She is the niece of Shabana Azmi and the younger sister of actress Farah Naaz. She has homes in Mumbai and Hyderabad.
Tabassum “Tabu” Hashmi did a small appearance in the film “Bazaar” in 1980, and later in the film Hum Naujawan (1985) at the age of fifteen; she played Dev Anand’s daughter in the film. Her first role as an actress was in the Telugu film Coolie No.1 co-starred with Venkatesh. In December 1987, Boney Kapoor launch two Big Films, Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja and Prem. In Prem, Tabu was signed opposite Sanjay Kapoor. The film took eight years in making. Her first release in Hindi as a leading lady was Pehla Pehla Pyar which went un-noticed. She came into prominence with her role in Vijaypath (1994) opposite Ajay Devgan for which she received the Filmfare Best Female Debut Award. This was followed by many films that did not do well at the box office.
In 1996, Tabu had eight releases. Two films Saajan Chale Sasural and Jeet went on to be hits; both were within the top five films of that year. Her other significant film, Maachis, was critically acclaimed. Her role as a Punjabi woman caught in the rise of Sikh insurgency was acclaimed; she went on to win her first National Film Award for Best Actress for her performance. The same year saw her major blockbuster films down south. Critically acclaimed Malayalam patriotic film Kalapani directed by Priyadarshan with Mohan Lal and Prabhu Ganesan in the lead roles, brought her laurels for her acting from all across South India. She also featured in the highly successful Tamil film Kadhal Desam directed by Kathir with Abbas and Vineeth.
Tabu’s first release of 1997 was Border. The movie was about the real life events surrounding the Battle of Longewala during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. She played the role of Sunny Deol’s wife. Her role was small but the film went on to be the biggest hit of 1997. That year, she also starred in the critically acclaimed film Virasat. The film was a success at the box office; Tabu won the Filmfare Critics Award for Best Performance. In 1999, she starred in two successful multi-starrer films Biwi No.1 and Hum Saath-Saath Hain: We Stand United. They were the first and second biggest hits of that year respectively.
In 2000, the actress starred in Hera Pheri and Astitva. The former was a box office success whilst the latter was critically acclaimed. Hindustan Times critic Arnab Banerjee wrote of her performance, “Tabu is brilliant and once again proves her mettle as an actress. The mind-blowing range of emotions she displays, her exquisite face and her subtle quiet dignity with which she handles her character, will take her far in her film career.” She received her third Filmfare Critics Award for Best Performance for Astitva. 2001 saw her star in Chandni Bar directed by Madhur Bhandarkar. Her portrayal of a bar dancer met with unanimous praise, and she won her second National Film Award for Best Actress for her performance. Critic, Taran Adarsh said, “Chandni Bar is Tabu’s film all the way and there are no two opinions on that. Her performance deserves the highest marks and of course, all the awards. Her work is flawless and the impact her character makes on the minds of the viewer is also due to a tailor-made role”. Another critic mentioned, “if there is one actress who can carry a film on her shoulders, it is Tabu. As usual, she sparkles”. She has acted in a number of Telugu movies, many of them very successful, such as Coolie No. 1 and Ninne Pelladutha, the latter being one of her most famous and popular movies.
In 2003, Tabu starred in an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The actress played Nimmi based on the character Lady Macbeth. The film titled Maqbool was directed by Vishal Bharadwaj and premiered at the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival. Maqbool was a box office failure but was met with huge acclaim. Tabu’s performance opened to much appreciation; critic Ron Ahluwalia said, “Tabu shines in a dark role. The most versatile actress in Bollywood takes to villainy like a second nature. She is menacing and seductive, but keeps an innocent look on her face, making her even viler. The way Tabu delivers her taunts simply perfect. Her gradual insanity is heart-wrenching and her final outburst is easily the highlight of the film.” Another critic said, “Tabu is fantastic in a complex role. Her performance in the film is worthy of awards. After Chandni Bar, this is another role that will be remembered for a long, long time.” She had a supporting role in Fanaa (2006), with Aamir Khan and Kajol. The film went on to become the fourth biggest hit of that year. In 2007, Tabu starred in her first Hollywood film, The Namesake, directed by Mira Nair. The film was a big hit overseas. She also starred in Cheeni Kum in which she played a 34 year-old woman who falls in love with a 64 year-old played by Amitabh Bachchan. Critics were generally positive towards the film; Taran Adarsh said, “Tabu stands on her feet despite a formidable co-star’s domineering presence. She’s excellent.” Though the film did not do as well domestically, it performed well overseas, especially in UK and US. She started off 2009 by being featured on the cover of Vogue India’s January 2009 issue.
In 1998, Tabu was charged with poaching two blackbucks in Kankani during the filming of Hum Saath Saath Hain along with co-stars Salman Khan, Saif Ali Khan, Sonali Bendre and Neelam Kothari. The charges were dropped soon after and Tabu was acquitted.