Tanuja could do practically anything on screen, applauds Subhash K Jha, as he salutes the actor on her 80th birthday on September 23.
There is something about Tanuja.
A vivacity that her daughter Kajol couldn’t hope to equal.
Tanuja could do practically anything on screen.
She could seduce Dev Anand with Raat Akeli Hai in Jewel Thief and she could be a natural-born scene-stealer to the imposing Mala Sinha in Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi and Paisa Ya Pyar.
The sky is not the limit for Tanuja’s range as an actress.
In Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav (1971), Tanuja was such a natural as Mita, the neglected wife of Amar (Sanjeev Kumar) that it didn’t feel like a performance at all. This is easily the cornerstone of her career in Hindi cinema.
If you see the film now, you will realise how uninhibited and spontaneous she was.
After doing the first part of his marital trilogy, why did the director shift to Sharmila Tagore in Aavishkar and Grihapravesh?
Tanuja made an endearing and enlightened screen pair with the great Sanjeev Kumar in Uss Raat Ke Baad, Bachpan and Priya. Sanjeev apart, Tanuja never sought or got a hit pair with any A-list hero.
In Jeene Ki Raah (1969), one of Tanuja’s biggest hits in Hindi cinema, she played an emotional wreck who finds solace in Jeetendra’s arms.
It was a tender performance, quite effortless and removed from the tomboyish bindaas image she had cultivated through roles that didn’t require her to play the typical Hindi film heroine, probably because she wasn’t one.
Guru Dutt’s Baharen Phir Bhi Ayengi (1966) was about two sisters in love with the same man (Dharmendra) but it revolved almost entirely around Mala Sinha’s character. Tanuja, as the younger sister, more than held her own and complemented the sobriety of her screen sister with an infectious impishness.
Three years later, Tanuja gave Mala Sinha a run for her money once again in Paisa Ya Pyar.
Rapidly acquiring the reputation of a scene-stealer, several topnotch heroines were hesitant to have Tanuja around in a supporting role.
Dharmendra, who did several films with Tanuja, (Chand Aur Suraj, Do Chor, Izaat) considers her as one of his favourite co-stars.
Many of Tanuja’s biggest hits are in Bengali cinema.
In Tapan Sinha’s Adalat O Ekti Meye (1982), an ahead-of-its-times study of rape and its aftermath, Tanuja was cast as Urmila, a Bengali working-girl who gets gang-raped during a vacation at the seaside. No, she won’t hush it.
She takes on the powerful goons in the court.
Tapanda once said he couldn’t have made this hard-hitting drama without Tanuja. But he never cast her again.
One of Tanuja’s career-defining performance is in Pitruroon (2013).
In this Marathi gem, Tanuja is cast as a rural widow, Bhagirathi, who challenges the decadent rules of a patriarchal society and emerges a heroine in ways that cannot be defined by societal yardsticks.
Actor-turned-director Nitish Bhardwaj told me he wouldn’t have made this film without Tanuja.
In recent times, actor-turned-director Parambrata Chattopadhyay was lucky to get Tanuja at her cantankerous best in the Bengali film, Shonar Pahar.
Tanuja is the perfect fit as Upama, a grumpy old woman who retains her sense of pride and dignity in spite of being abandoned by her son.
Into Upama’s lonely existence — she has only a bustling sanctimonious maid for company — enters the seven-year old ‘wise’ orphan Bitlu (newcomer Srijato Bandyopadhyay), who is everything the old abandoned woman thinks she doesn’t need at this stage of her life.
Precocious, inquisitive, restless and affectionate, Bitlu effortlessly fills that emotional vacuum in Upama’s life.
The scenes building the bond between these two unlikely friends — their shared lunch at a luxury hotel is a treat — is done up in life’s most precious colours.
Their shared time together when the old woman reads self-written stories to the attentive child and the way the child effortlessly takes over the authoritarian matriarch’s life are put forward with a gently persuasive nudge that tilts us completely in favour of the film’s simple, uncluttered, narrative.
Watching Tanuja in Shonar Pahar made me very melancholic.
She brings so much gravitas and simmering discontent to the surface without allowing the inherently-schmaltzy theme to bubble over with emotions.
Then there is the legendary Soumitra Chatterjee, who makes a guest appearance as Tanuja’s old admirer.
There is history in their reunion.
Tanuja and Soumitra were paired in memorable Bengali films Teen Bhuvaner Parey and Prothom Kadam Phool.
She was also paired with that other Bengali legend Uttam Kumar in Deya Neya, Anthony Firingee and Rajkumari.
Tanuja has done films with every actor worth talking about, from Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan to Parikshit Sahni (with whom she did the memorable Pavitra Paapi and not so memorable Preet Ki Dori) and Randhir Kapoor with whom she did the hit comedy Humrahi.
She featured in some of the biggest hits of the 1970s including Haathi Mere Saathi, Do Chor, Jeena Ki Raah and Imtihaan.
She gave one of her finest performances in Govinda Saraiya’s Priya (1970).
Saraiya had worked with Tanuja’s elder sister, the great Nutan, two years earlier in the historic Saraswatichandra which was one of the biggest hits of the 1960s.
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