There is no doubt about Tanuja being one of the top actresses of Indian cinema in the 60s and 70s. One of the greats, she’s played every role with the highest level of commitment, authenticity, and excitement. But, to this generation, she may just be the mother of an effervescent Kajol. Little do they know that Kajol inherits her bindaas and bohemian attitude from her mother, who has never been a conformist. Women of her time copied her looks and were inspired by her. Unlike her contemporaries, who were conscious about ‘duniya kya kahegi’ (what will people say), Tanuja never pretended to be goody-two-shoes.
“I’ve never done what I didn’t want to do. This is me, take it or leave it. If you criticise me, it’s your problem,” Tanuja told Filmfare during one of her interviews. This unrestrained behaviour is not something she has developed after making it big in the film industry. When her mother, another legendary star of Hindi cinema, Shobna Samarth, wanted her to play the role of the young Nutan in her home production, Hamari Beti (1950), the first question that came out of a five-year-old Tanuja was, “Does that mean no school?”
But once she saw the first rushes of the film, she found her voice to be squeaky and hated it. She told her mother, “Abhi merko kaam nahi karna hai, meri awaaz ek dum chuhiya jaisi hai (I don’t want to work for now. Listen to my choice, I sound like a mouse).” So, Shobhana had to get the rest of her shots done by agreeing to her condition of giving her a lemonade. After Hamari Beti, Tanuja only did one film as a child actor, Amber (1952), where she essayed the role of a young Nargis.
Tanuja, despite having “strict” parents, mother Shobna and father Kumar Singh, who never allowed their children to eat chocolates during weekdays, grew up into a complete “brat”. She said that she was never interested in studies and thus spent her time in school running around. She attended boarding school, St Joseph’s, Panchgani, where she was hesitant to go initially, but ended up making some of the fondest memories and best friends.
Her friend from school, Shikha Vohra, revealed during an episode of Jeena Issi Ka Naam Hai, “She was a madcap in school and still is. She was never a conformist in any way. She was always a bright student and had a great grasping power. Bubbly, effervescent, shining, scintillating, all these qualities made her very popular in school. And she always had to do something. Wherever there was a commotion in school, you would definitely find Tanu (Tanuja) there. We had dragonflies there and she used to tie threads to them and fly them like kites.”
At the age of 16, Tanuja’s mother packed her off to Switzerland. But unlike her elder sister Nutan, she wasn’t sent to a finishing school. Instead, she attended an English school since she had a flair for languages and wanted to be a communicator. But, her mother Shobna had to call her back to India, not because she was swarmed with film offers for Tanuja, like Nutan, but because, the family was under financial stress.
Revealing the reason behind becoming an actor, Tanuja shared during an old interview shared on Wild Films India’s YouTube channel, “When I finished school in 1960 and came home on holiday, I found that financial conditions were a little strained in the family. My sister had already got married, so it would not have been fair to sort of expect her to look after the family, and as I came next in line, it was on me to look after the family. That’s why I started work. I had a younger brother and sister, who were still in school and my mother wasn’t well. So, I just came into the profession, not by choice, but because of financial reasons.”
To launch her daughter, Shobna produced a film for her, Chhabili in 1960, which was directed by Nutan. However, the film failed to give wings to Tanuja’s career. Her next, Mem Didi (1961), by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, also couldn’t do any wonders. And, she had to wait until the release of Kidar Sharma’s Hamari Yaad Aayegi (1961) for the audience to notice her. Years later, she credited Sharma for training her to “speak Hindi and face the camera”. But she also didn’t forget being slapped by the director when she repeatedly laughed when she was supposed to cry during a scene.
As per Lehren Retro, Tanuja told Sharma, “I am not in a mood to cry today.” Her tantrum pissed the filmmaker off, and he slapped the actor. Tanuja left the set of the film crying and complained to mother Shobna, who after listening to the entire episode, gave another slap to Tanuja. She took her back to the set and told Sharma, “Now she is crying. You can resume the shoot.”
Though Humari Yaad Aayegi placed Tanuja on the map, the film failed to be a box office hit. Even the films that were released in the following years could hardly do anything substantial for Tanuja’s career. She was reduced to doing supporting roles in films like Aaj Aur Kal (a 1963 film that gave her a chance to showcase her vivacious personality on-screen); Benazir (1964), also starring Meena Kumari and Ashok Kumar; a role with Mehmood in Bhoot Bangla (1965), where of course the comedian stole the thunder, and a lead role in Chand Aur Suraj opposite Dharmendra also couldn’t do much. And, the Guru Dutt film Baharein Phir Bhi Aayegi, which could have been her claim to fame, couldn’t be made as he died before the film could be completed. The only film which brought her a little recognition was the 1967 film, Jewel Thief. Who can forget the scintillating Tanuja in a white gown trying to win over Dev Anand’s attention in the song “Raat Akeli Hai, Bujh Gaye Diye.”
Meanwhile, Tanuja moved to Calcutta and delivered a hit in Bengali cinema with the 1963 film Deya Neya. “I got recognition as an artist when I started doing Bengali films in 1962. I got a stature there, which made me feel I am a good actress, and not bad. Bengali films opened the doors for me. I got my true appreciation for my craft there,” Tanuja told Prasar Bharti.
Things changed for good with the 1969 film, Jeene Ki Raah, where Tanuja was cast opposite Jeetendra. And, the film’s director LV Prasad had offered the film to Tanuja in 1966, when nobody was casting her in their movies. Reason? There were chances of her going to jail.
Tanuja narrated to Prasar Bharti, “Jeene Ki Raah is a film which is very special for me. In 1966, during an accident, a man died. Kaafi din case chala (the matter was subjudice for a while). I paid what I had to pay at that time. At that time, no producer came to me as they were doubtful if I would go to jail or not. That is when LV Prasad Ji came to me and said, ‘Tanu, I want you to work in my film.’ I am so grateful to that man because he came at a time when I had lost my confidence since no filmmaker was approaching me, even the films I had in hand were not shooting. I didn’t even know if they would be made or not. He had that confidence in me and started shooting for the film immediately in 1967. In 1968, I was cleared from the case. For me, he was an amazing man.”
In 1971, came Tanuja’s career-defining film, as she led Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav, a tale of two who rediscover their love for each other after undergoing a difficult phase. For the film, Tanuja ditched her bubbly self to portray the role of a neglected wife Meeta. The 1970s proved fruitful for the actress as starred opposite Rajesh Khanna in Haathi Mere Saathi and Mere Jeewan Saathi. Do Chor with Dharmendra established her place as a successful commercial artist.
But the actor never took credit for her success. She told Filmfare, “It’s all about the director. I never interfered even if I had to give 40 retakes. I’ve never worked with a director who didn’t know what he was doing. And if I happened to, then I’d end up doing my own thing.” At another moment she noted, “My Hindi film career was never too hot.”
Known for not going by the rules, Tanuja also didn’t think twice before marrying filmmaker Shomu Mukherjee, whom she met on the set of Ek Baar Muskura Do, at the peak of her career in 1973. However, the marriage didn’t work out, and the two decided to separate after the birth of their two daughters, Kajol and Tanisha. And, the actor felt that they were “never meant” to be together. But the parents of the two daughters made sure to not let the negativity in their relationship trickle down to their kids. Tanuja told the Times of India, “Shomu and I never argued in front of them and, when they went to boarding school, we visited them as parents each month.”
However, after their separation, Tanuja slowed down on the career front. And, as she aged, she started getting roles of mother, sister and sister-in-law. The actors who she once romanced, either called her ‘Maa’ (Jeetendra in Suhaagan) or ‘Bhabhi’ (Amitabh Bachchan in Khuddar). But Tanuja didn’t mind. She took this also as a challenge. “I thought now that I am doing the role of mother, so be it Jeetendra or anyone else, how does it matter? People warned me against it since I was Jeetendra’s heroine at one point. But then I thought, as an artist, it is a challenge for me to make people believe that I am his mother,” Tanuja told veteran actor Tabassum on her talk show.
Now, the veteran star is enjoying her time away from the limelight. She is enjoying her time as a doting grandmother to Kajol’s kids, Nysa and Yug. Over the years, her equation with her daughters has also changed. She is no more the “strict” mother.
Describing her relationship with them, Tanuja told Filmfare, “One is my mother, the other my grandmother. They look after me and even scold me. They’ve taught me to be patient. Like when I lose my temper, Kajol says, ‘Why don’t you lose it forever?’ My girls are like me.”
Tanuja remains a respected name in the Hindi film industry. And, if today, like her contemporaries, she is not making her presence felt to this generation, that is because she doesn’t want to be boxed into roles of just grandmother. She believes if good roles can be written for the men of her age, the same can be done for actresses of her age too.
So, when you look at her trajectory in the world of cinema, her words to Filmfare, “I had no ambitions of becoming No 1. But I’ve carved my own niche. I’m not run of the mill,” will ring true.
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