There’s a lot more to Tanuja than being the mother of Kajol and Tanisha, or the lady with occasional dialogues in SON OF SARDAAR. Rachana Parekh meets with the veteran actress to bring out the essence of the sassy and straight-speaking septuagenarian.
For today’s generation, Tanuja is Kajol’s and Tanisha’s mom and Ajay Devgn’s mom-in-law, who has been occasionally seen onscreen in films like SON OF SARDAAR, KHAKHEE, SAATHIYA et al. But for those who grew up on movies made in the glorious ’70s and the clichéd ’80s, she was, as a senior journalist had quoted, “Sparkling Spitfire”! Not to forget, she is also daughter of the original firebrand actress, Shobhna Samarth, and younger sister of fine actress, Nutan.
The 70-year-old charmed her audience onscreen with her versatile performances (a not so coy love-struck girl in JEWEL THIEF, a romantic with grey shades in HAATHI MERE SAATHI, a comic role in DO DOONI CHAAR), and off screen, with her care-a-damn-as-long-as-I-am-right attitude (That explains her daughters’ similar demeanour!). Much of it is still present in the frail-looking granny of two (Kajol’s kids, Nysa and Yug), when I land up at her late husband Shomu Mukherjee’s bungalow in the quiet by-lanes of a Mumbai western suburb. Also, even today she makes a picture as pretty as she did in her heyday. Dressed in white kurta and trousers, a short-haired Tanuja is sipping her afternoon chai as darling daughter Kajol is endearingly watching her. But the young yummy mummy isn’t the only one around – Lord Krishna of BR Chopra’s ‘Mahabharat’ aka Nitish Bhardwaj, is giving them company too. And with good reason. Recently, the ’70s star actress played a prominent and pivotal role in Nitish’s directorial debut, a Marathi film, PITRUROON. For those not in the know, Tanuja has acted in Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati and Marathi films.
As tea time draws to a close and Kajol bids her adieu, the septuagenarian’s famed bindaas behaviour comes to the fore. For someone who has only heard stories of the veteran’s vivacious personality, it is enchanting to listen on and watch the lady in action. Her whistling skills can put a man to shame and her steadfast opinions can shake one’s beliefs.
For instance, common perception is that a woman, especially once she crosses the imaginary hill, would treasure her tresses and cherish her cosmetics more than ever. But not Tanuja! She shaved off her head and discarded the greasepaint for the widow’s role in PITRUROON. “I needed an excuse because I had wanted to shave off my hair as I was badly losing hair. Nothing was working. But every time I suggested it, my daughters, son-in-law and grandchildren were like, ‘Mom, Nani, don’t be stupid you can’t be ganja.’” Yet, she did the deed and left no choice for her family, but to accept her new look. And didn’t she dread showing off the wrinkles and crinkles on the big screen? “I am beautiful in my own light. And I know that I am,” says she with a whiff of confidence that can make the picture-perfect petites look pale.
Interestingly, Bhardwaj spotted his Bhagirathi (the character Tanuja plays in the film) at filmmaker Yash Chopra’s funeral, and it was the thespian’s wide range as a performer that told him he had found his actor. The director recalls, “Bhagirathi demanded a certain kind of chirpiness. And she has suffered a hell of a lot in her life too. But she kept the suffering in one corner of her heart, and lived her life in a full, glorious way. I thought she (Tanuja) could deliver that. She has got that bubbly element, which is in her character. And being an experienced actress, I knew she would give me that pathos too.”
SON OF SARDAAR was the latest Hindi film Tanuja acted in. While it was a role she enjoyed playing, PITRUROON’S Bhagirathi, in her words, “is a role that got me excited and let me sink my teeth into the character”. But there hasn’t been any dearth of offers. “There are people who come to me with scripts (of TV shows) and say, ‘Tanujaji, you are the central focus of the whole plot’. And I ask them what does it mean? ‘Central focus’, to them, means I am in one scene every month and every one dances around me,” she chuckles.
“I ask them what I am doing in the show! What is my character? They look clueless. That’s why I don’t do TV serials. There’s no feedback in TV shows, it’s all so artificial. It is not what our country is all about. I’d rather do something more meaningful with my life. When I say that something is important, I should mean it, because my audience will believe me. I have that power to make my audience believe what is true. I don’t want to tell them a lie or say something that I am not convinced about.” This could be partly the reason why Tanuja prefers to engage her precious time in a far more satisfying work, away from the arc lights. The zingy granny is often at her house in Lonavla, actively involved in the Lonavla-Khandala Citizens Forum which focuses on environmental issues in the hilly terrain. Whilst passionately speaking about the Forum’s concerns, Tanuja shares instances where she has stepped out of her Skoda and reprimanded swanky car owners for littering and spitting on the tarmac!
But that’s not all she makes time for. “Reading, watching a good movie…” she says are some of the pleasures of life, other than playing with her Nysa and Yug.
The good days are always followed by the tough times, so what are the challenges in today’s time? “The challanges are the biggest joys,” she stumps me and continues, “When Kajol was 12 years old, she told me, ‘Mom I have found the perfect problem to your solution.’ I was confused. So she said, ‘Unless you have a solution, one doesn’t create a problem.’”
As she gets comfortable engaging in the candid chat, I probe her about her bold and independent personality, in both her professional and personal space. When her marriage to filmmaker Shomu Mukherjee didn’t stay rosy, she separated from him. She didn’t hide her love for the tipple or her addiction to the stick either. What’s more, in the days when films idolised perfect girlfriends and wives, Tanuja portrayed an unhappy biwi in ANUBHAV. Not going into the details, she says, “This is the way I was brought up – with no fear. Say what you say, as long as it is the truth about you. What is true for me, I will say! Whether you agree or not is not for me (to worry about). It’s your problem. Let’s agree to disagree!
“I lied once,” she nods, “when I was a 4-year-old. I wanted to buy targolas (ice-apples) so I wanted two annas. I told my mother that I wanted money for targolas but she refused as I had a cold. So I lied to her to get the money, saying that I wanted chana (gram). Then I went to the back door of the house and called the targola-seller. My mother never bothered to check on us or keep tabs but that day she arrived at the back door and saw the targolawala. I got the walloping of my life. I understood, through that one incident, that one should never lie. To cover that one lie, you will tell a thousand more lies.”
One hears that Tanuja, who started out as a child artiste, wasn’t really enthused about the glamorous profession. She disagrees and clears my doubt, “I always enjoyed acting. It was effortless. For me, the camera just existed. Actually, I was born dramatic. I do drama every time! I wanted to do something different, but then we had a financial problem, so Mom asked me to come back (Tanuja had been sent to Europe to study), not to study any further, to take one year off and work so we have some money in the family...
“Once you get into the film industry, it’s very difficult to get out of it. But then I have so many other varied interests, so my mother said, ‘You can have as many books as you want and you learn by experience’. I didn’t want to go back to college as I didn’t enjoy the exam business. But I wanted to go into communications, learn languages and be an interpreter. So I combined it into being an actor. I did multilingual films. It’s a way of communicating with people.”
Once at home, she had to live with two diverse women – a fiery mother and a quiet sister. What was the experience, living with the extreme personalities? She laughingly says, “People thought she (Nutan) was the calm, quiet and docile type. But honestly she was a firebrand in her own quiet way. She made her point very clearly and let everyone know that this is the line you don’t cross. She did it very sweetly and gently. We had great fun. I am an extrovert and she’s an introvert. But when we are in the family together, we all are extroverts, because family is family. You can say whatever you want and be yourself.”
Speaking of being true to one’s real self, nowadays it’s a quality that is on a diminishing curve and hypocrisy is on the rise in filmdom. Unlike Tanuja and her peers, the current breed of actors often parrots politically correct statements. Interestingly, the yesteryear’s star doesn’t find it disturbing or detrimental... “Today’s youngsters are like that... Who are we to make a judgement on another human being? I have never done it in my life and I will never do it. It’s a value that has been inculcated by my mother and grandmother, and I have passed it on to my children. If you point one finger there are three fingers pointing to you,” she believes.
But what about changes on the whole in the industry – the cut-throat competition, the corporate culture, contrived film plots, and more? “Change is bound to happen. It’s the only constant in the world, and guaranteed. If change stops, it will be a flat line. One will die. Death is also a change. According to me, there is no good and there is no bad. Change is change. All change is good - actually, I would say, appropriate. The world goes forward, not my problem. How I go forward, what I do with my life is what makes my universe work. If I can’t do anything about it, I keep quiet and allow it. Where I can make a difference I take a stand and do something about it.”
Is there anything she misses about the good old days? Pat comes the reply, “No, I don’t miss anything in my past. I am very happy in the present.” But she quickly adds, “I have enjoyed working with everybody in my life because, for me, it was a profession. I don’t have friends in the industry or yaar or langotya yaar (childhood buddies) in the industry. All my friends were outside the industry because my interests are more into books, reading, general knowledge, also very much into my own spiritual journey, about me, about moving on as a human being and as a soul. My soul journey is very important. It’s a very progressive one. I learn how to be, and I am still learning.”
This article first appeared in February 2014 issue of Cine Blitz magazine