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25 November 2022

  And she smiles no more…  

09.07.1944 - 18.11.2022

Last week, I got up to the news that Tabassum, the chirpy, ever-smiling host of the iconic Doordarshan talk show, Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan was no more. For people of a certain generation, she was their connection to celebrities. Thanks to her, people we had only read of, or watched on screen, entered our living rooms. Her friendly, conversational style put them at ease, and therefore made them more accessible to us, the viewers. It was first, and the longest-running talk show in India, and brought almost every actor, director, music directors, singers, lyricists, etc., from the 40s onwards to have a tete-a-tete with its effervescent host. 

Tabassum had a lovely story to share about her name – her father, Ayodhyanath Sachdev was a Hindu; her mother, Asghari Begum, a Muslim. When their little girl was born, her father named her Tabassum (meaning 'smile' in Urdu) to honour her mother’s heritage; her mother named her Kiran Bala to honour her father’s. Tabassum herself didn’t identify as either Hindu or Muslim – just human. So while her screen name became Tabassum, her name on all official documents remained Kiran Bala Sachdev. 

Her parents were erstwhile freedom fighters, and later, journalists. Their home filled with poets, litterateurs, lyricists and film directors. And inevitably, the precocious toddler with immaculate Urdu diction, was offered roles in films. 

After her first film, Nargis (1946), her parents were reluctant to have her continue, so when noted director Sohrab Modi came calling, they demanded what was, to them, an outrageous sum of money, sure he would refuse. However, Modi promptly offered them more and ‘Baby’ Tabassum’s career was in full swing. At her peak, she was earning Rs7-8 lakh per film. However, as she grew older, the roles began to dry up. Her last film as a child artiste was in Bimal Roy’s Baap Beti. 

Baap Beti (1954)

When she returned after completing her studies, she soon realized that her success as a child star was not translating into good roles as an adult. Perhaps no one could visualise ‘Baby Tabassum’ as a lead heroine? 

Marriage followed, and so did stage and radio shows. She edited Grihalaxmi, a very popular women’s magazine for over 17 years. Thanks to Ameen Sayani, she also hosted a show on Radio Ceylon called Maratha Darbar ki Mehakti Baatein for years. However, it was Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan that made her became a household name. ‘Baby Tabassum’ disappeared and ‘Tabassum’ the cheery, dimpled, exquisitely made-up woman with her trademark single rose in her hair became a regular visitor to our homes. It was a one-woman show; she called the celebrities, she did the research, she wrote the script. 

But what enlivened the show was her vast knowledge of cinema, her command over Urdu and Urdu shaairi, her eloquence, her vivacity, and her comfort with her guests. She was a charming interviewer, but was known for asking pointed questions which her guests felt incumbent upon them to answer, so affectionate was her demeanour. The show itself had all the charm of candid, fireside chats with friends. 

Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan was also the rare film-based show which brought on the 'lesser' members of the film fraternity - technicians, stunt artistes, character artistes, and within the format of a casual conversation, discussed why the songs of the Golden Age were still popular, the difference between stage and screen, and about actors' processes.

As years went by, Tabassum reinvented herself, with a channel on YouTube called Tabassum Talkies. She delved into her most interesting interviews to bring snippets of information about the stars, known and unknown, celebrated and forgotten, often adding her own personal memories of the person she was talking about. That gentle empathy with which she treated her subjects was rare then, and altogether missing in current media interactions. 

For all the hours of entertainment that you gave us, for the grace and graciousness with which you conducted your show, for showing us how one can conduct in-depth and fun interviews but still respect a person’s privacy… thank you.

I hope you are renewing your acquaintance with many of your colleagues and friends – who knows, perhaps there might be another edition of Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan up there!

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