She’s just finished watching People Like Us on television and found the 2012 American drama thoroughly engaging. The 70-plus Tanuja is a picture of elegance — dressed as she is in white cotton trousers, a satin blue top with a string of pearls around her neck— in her home tucked away in a quiet lane in the otherwise bustling suburbs of Mumbai. The walls of her home are graced with family photographs of daughters Kajol and Tanishaa Mukherjee.
A loud whistle from her breaks the idyllic moment— that’s her signal to the servant when she wants her cup of chai. It’s my first brush with the Bollywood lore around the actress—that there is no one quite like the vibrant and fiesty Tanuja when it comes to forthrightness. Chuckling at my surprise, she tells you this is exactly the way she has been since the age of 10.
In an instant she transports back from her past. “Except that I have a little more aches and pains in the bones and am not able to do exactly what I did when I was a child. I was naughty, but always listened to what my mother (legendary actress Shobhana Samarth) said. I never told a lie because she once twisted my ear and slapped me silly when I told her a lie,” she guffaws.
After a long hiatus, Tanuja did a Marathi film Pitruroon, that instantly brought her recognition and earned her the Screen Best Actress Award this year. The grim character that she portrayed in actor Nitish Bharadwaj’s directorial debut was a far cry from Tanuja’s vibrant persona — she played a widow, who had an air of tragedy around her.
“It’s always good to be acknowledged,” says the actress about winning the best actress award, adding further, “but I still find it strange because in the 60-odd years that I have been in the industry, I have never received an award in the best actress category. It’s always been as an supporting actress. But frankly, I am not enamoured by awards. It’s an award for me when a fan comes up to me and tells me that I have done a good job in a film. It matters when people hug me and tell me that I brought joy into their lives. So in that way, I have already received thousands and millions of awards.”
Recalling a recent incident, Tanuja narrates, “I just went to Vaishno Devi some time back. People of that place and Katara said that, ‘Hum pehle aap ke fan hai, uske baad inke’. I felt good. They kept talking to me about all my films. I was surprised (and felt good) to see that 20-year-olds had seen my films like Jewel Thief and Haathi Mere Saathi and enjoyed the songs. They said I looked so sexy.” The eyes twinkle, lending an impish aura that she was famous for.
A look at Tanuja’s career graph takes us to the time she started as a child actress in a film called Hamari Beti as Baby Tanuja; the film also featured her elder sister, the legendary Nutan. Her first movie as an adult was Chhakili, which again had Nutan in the lead. It was family friend and director Kidar Sharma, who gave her the first lead role in the family drama, Hamari Yaad Aayegi and Hrishikesh Mukherjee in Mem Didi. Films like Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi, Jeene Ki Raah, Haathi Mere Saathi, Mere Jeevan Saathi, Ek Baar Muskara Do, Pavitra Paai, Bhoot Bangla, Jewel Thief and Anubhav stand out in the 100-odd films that she has worked in.
“I don’t really remember the details of the films I’ve worked in, but I don’t regret any because I enjoyed every one of them. Today I choose not to do too many films, but I am still open to good work. If the first 10-minutes of the story, during a narration, touches me, I know that the film’s for me. I am not interested in my role. I want to hear the director narrate the subject to me, because he’s the one who is going to direct the film. If he has a clear vision, my vision clears up automatically. I was very fortunate that I had Nitish Bharadwaj as a director and Sachin Khedekar as my co-star in Pitruroon. He’s an amazing actor, who works straight from the heart. Once you establish a rapport with an actor like him, you have to match the performance and work straight from the heart too,” says the actress with admiration in her voice.
Ironically, the actress, who is lauded for her spontaneous and sensitive performances never wanted to become an actress. Good with languages, Tanuja wanted to be in the Indian Foreign Service. Her mother sent her to Switzerland for further studies. “I came back because we had some financial problems. I did the only thing that came easily to me — acting. But given a choice, I wanted to travel the world and communicate with people, which I kind of fulfilled in an oblique way through films, which is all about communication. As for the language part of it, I went on to do regional films in Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi and Malayalam .”
When asked if there was any role that she identified with, she says that she enjoyed doing every role even though she took on everything and anything. “I needed the money at that time and had to run the family because of a financial crisis. Besides, I had had enough of education by then. The first two films were from Hrishikesh Mukherjee and family friend, Kidar Sharma. I was quite comfortable doing movies, and the film industry was like my family. It’s as simple as that,” smiles the actress, who was known for her elfin charms.
Tanuja’s always known to call a spade, a spade. However, it’s also a quality that’s not exactly popular in the film industry, where diplomacy is the name of the game. So did her outspoken ways get her into trouble at any time?
“No, I think everybody knew me! And I got along well with all my co-stars like Shashi Kapoor, Vinod Khanna and Jeetendra. Dharmendra is an amazing person; he’s the only actor whom I call my brother. I remember he had come with his entire family to the shooting of Chand Aur Sooraj. His father said that I was a part of the family and should consider Dharamji my brother. I know for a fact that if I ever need anything, I just have to pick up the phone and tell him, ‘Bhai, I need you’ and he will be there. In that way, Devsaab was also amazing and we were friends for the longest. He was well-read and intelligent, but for him the whole world revolved around himself. It was interesting to see the way he got his finance together for a film and how dedicated he was to his work. We were in constant touch with each other. He would say, ‘Come Tanu, do a role for me. How much do you want?’ He would write the dialogues in English, and translate them literally in Hindi, which I could not understand at times,” she reminisces with a smile.
Though she is her own person, Tanuja confesses that she has been influenced majorly by her mother, her grandmother, her father, poet Kumarsen Samarth and the renowned actor, Motilal, who was her mother’s friend.
“Though my father was always there for us children, Moti kaka was like a father to me as well. My father taught me when to speak my mind and when to keep quiet. My parents were born on the same day, four years apart, but their personalities were so different. My father was a very calm human being and never got angry or shouted, while my mother was just the opposite, very volatile. My uncles and cousins were, and still are like one big family. Family, to me, is very important,” states the actress.
Tanuja recently came in the spotlight when her youngest daughter Tanishaa was seen getting close to her Bigg Boss co-contestant, actor Armaan Kohli with stories speculating about the pair tying the knot. So has she given the go-ahead for their marriage?
“My children and I are friends. There is no barrier between us. We discuss everything under the sun,” says Tanuja, adding, “But Tanishaa hasn’t told me anything about getting married. Kajol and Ajay (actor Ajay Devgn) went around for four years and then they gave me one month’s time to arrange their wedding. Similarly Tanishaa has the liberty to come and tell me whenever she wants to get married. There is no such thing that she needs to tell me in advance. It’s her life and I allow her to lead it the way she wants to, like I did mine. I have brought up my children well, and instilled in them the right values. I was a strict disciplinarian, while their father (the late Shomu Mukherjee) used to spoil them. Tanishaa is very sorted, and knows what she wants. Having a relationship with a person is not a big deal. But a person should think ten times before tying the knot because it has to be forever.”
True to her vibrant nature, Tanuja says that every moment in her life has been a high point because she chooses to enjoy it. She considers life as the greatest gift— she is a voracious reader, who loves to potter around her garden and watch films, preferably on television! The actress, who spends a lot of time at her Lonavala farmhouse, keeps herself busy as the President of the Lonavala Citizen’s Forum. “My goal as the President is to make the hill station garbage free. And I want to tell everyone who visits Lonavala to carry their garbage back with them,” she frowns, looking very annoyed.
Changing the topic, I point to the several rings with different stones on her finger — a pearl stone, a moonstone, a jade among others. So is she superstitious? “You really think I believe in all these grahas? No! I wear them because I just like the colours. People tell me that I will get affected by all these grahas and be beaten by somebody, but I just laugh it off,” concurs Tanuja with a chuckle.