Tanuja ji turns 79 today. Reams have been written about her talent, vivacity, spirit and spontaneity, her illustrious family, and her career – what more can I possibly add?
Born on September 23, 1943 to Shobhana Samarth and Kumarsen Samarth, Tanuja was the second of four children (Nutan, Chatura and Jaideep being the other three; Chatura and Jaideep stayed away from movies). With both her parents being in movies, her father, a director and mother, a famous actress, films were no novelty. Why, Tanuja’s first film was when she was some 4/5 years old. That it was a home production and the role required a baby actress is another story altogether. Her debut as an actress was when she turned 16 – not because she wanted to; but because films were a solution to the financial crunch the family faced.
Tanuja made her debut in Chhabili (1960) opposite Kaysi Mehra. The film, directed and produced by her mother, also starred Nutan. While the film didn’t do any wonders in the box office, Tanuja’s impish charm was noticed. Film offers followed, not only in Hindi but also Bengali. While her Hindi film career has been chequered, especially with her early films in the 1960s not doing too well, her films in Bengali (during the same time period) garnered her much fame. Acting across film industries, what set Tanuja apart, in those days and now, was that she didn’t fall prey to the rat race. She steered clear of that!
The late 1960s and early 1970s proved to be productive and successful for Tanuja. With movies such as Baharein Phir bhi Aayengi (1966), Izzat (1968), Haathi Mere Saathi (1971), Anubhav (1971), Mere Jeevan Saathi (1972), she cemented her place in the annals of Hindi cinema. Marriage to filmmaker Shomu Mukherjee (son of Sasadhar Mukherjee and brother of actors Joy and Deb Mukherjee) and the birth of two daughters, Kajol and Tanisha followed. Acting never stopped though.
Tanuja continues to light up the screen, her innate sparkle, vivacity and intelligence intact and shining through. On her 79th birthday, here is a list of my favourite songs picturised on her.
- Kabhi tanhaiyon mein bhi (Hamari Yaad Aayegi, 1961, Mubarak Begum; Snehal Bhatkar): This song from Hamari Yaad Aayegi is remembered for Mubarak Begum’s soulful singing and Snehal Bhatkar’s music, immortalising both of them for posterity. This movie, made by cinema great Kidar Sharma, to launch his son Ashok Sharma was Tanuja’s first foray outside her home production. And there is an interesting anecdote that she recounts about this film, also corroborated by Kidar Sharma in his autobiography. During the shooting of this movie, Tanuja was unable to get the nuances of a particular serious scene right. She kept getting it wrong and would start giggling. After a point, Sharma lost his cool and probably yelled at her. And that was it. Tanuja left the set in a temper, only to be dragged back to the sets by her mother Shobhana Samarth. In her interview, she said that her mom had smacked her for being unprofessional and got her back. A lesson she never forgot!
- Raaton ko jab neend ud jaaye (Memdidi, 1961, Lata Mangeshkar, Salil Chaudhury): Fresh and pretty, Tanuja is a delight to watch in this endearing Hrishikesh Mukherjee film. This song introduces her character, Rita, on screen. She is bubbly, cute and effervescent as she plays the role of an 18 year old girl in a boarding school, caught in the innocent joy and passion of a first love. Kaysi Mehra, her co-star in her debut film, is her co-star in this movie also; and their pairing onscreen is cute.
- Baag mein kali khili (Chand aur Suraj, 1965, Asha Bhosle, Salil Chaudhury): If I were to pick my favourite song of Tanuja ji, this would be it. Or it would at least put up a close fight for position no 1! Sung by Asha Bhosle, Salil Chaudhury composed this fantastic melody for Chand Aur Suraj. Dharmendra and Tanuja paired up for the first time. Becoming friends on the set of this movie, their friendship continued – with their pairing extending to three other movies after this – all hits – Baharein phir bhi aayengi (1966), Izzat (1968) and Do Chor (1972). In a recent interview, Tanuja narrated an interesting anecdote – Dharmendra tried to flirt with her; she slapped him and called him besharam and then tied a rakhi on his wrist! An anecdote that my father had told me years ago – and since I hadn’t come across this in any magazine or website, I hadn’t believed him back then!
- Koi keh de keh de (Baharein phir bhi aayengi, 1966, Asha Bhosle, O.P. Nayyar): The first title card of this movie, when the credits roll, announces – “Guru Dutt’s last offering” for this was supposed to be a Guru Dutt film. In fact after his untimely death, the entire movie had to be reshot with Dharmendra. Remembered even today for some of its melodious songs, this melodrama stars Mala Sinha as a proprietor of a newspaper, Dharmendra as a journalist and Tanuja forms the third angle in this love triangle. In an era where the leading ladies were Sati-Savitris on and off screen, Tanuja essayed roles that were spunky and puckish in nature. Quite a firebrand – and oh so refreshing. Here too, she is impish, spontaneous and natural. And exceedingly pretty!
- Raat akeli hai (Jewel Thief, 1968, Asha Bhosle, S.D. Burman): One of her most famous songs, what comes across in this number is how much fun Tanuja seems to be having. A sensuous song, her interpretation is playful, teasing and refreshing. Asha Bhosle’s vocal range, S.D. Burman’s genius – this song is a classic.
- Meri jaan mujhe jaan na kaho (Anubhav, 1971, Geeta Dutt, Kanu Roy): Tanuja comes into her own in Basu Bhattacharya’s brilliant take on marriage and marital discord. In Meeta she invests inner strength, spontaneity and warmth. A modern movie, out and out, it shows Meeta as the one with a past – one that her husband (Sanjeev Kumar, as fabulous as always) accepts, and a conflict that she resolves pro-actively. Geeta Dutt’s swan song, the soundtrack composed by Kanu Roy is memorable. This song conveys intimacy and seduction, like no other – its melody, lilting, has minimal orchestration; its picturisation – focusses on both Sanjeev and Tanuja’s superior facial expressions and the rain outside. This movie, made on a shoestring budget, was supposedly shot at her own flat!
- Aaj gun gun gun kunje amar eki gunjaran (Rajkumari, 1970, Asha Bhosle, R.D. Burman): Some of Tanuja’s finest performances were reserved for Bengali cinema. With Uttam Kumar, the Bengali legend, she formed a fine pair and worked in three successful movies. This famous song is from one of the three films.
- Madhobi modhupey holo mitali (Deya Neya, 1963, Arati Mukherjee, Shyamal Mitra): Another Bengali song in this list. Not sure what this song or movie is about it, but Tanuja is refreshingly innocent and vivacious.
- Yaaron kisi se na kehna (Chhabili, 1960, Nutan and Geeta Dutt, Snehal Bhatkar): Ending this list with a song, the video of which is not available. This is a duet sung by Nutan and Geeta Dutt for Chhabili, Tanuja’s debut film. The print of this movie had accidentally gotten destroyed many decades ago, and sadly does not exist any more. This probably was filmed on the two sisters. We will never know!
PS: There are some conversations, unexpected but so meaningful that they leave a deep impact. I was privileged to have such a conversation with Tanuja ji sometime back. A conversation that I cherish deeply. It was a brief interaction that revealed her feistiness, spontaneity, strength of character, and most importantly her kindness and warmth.
As she turns 79 today, I would like to wish her a happy, healthy and a wonderful birthday. Happy birthday, Tanuja ji!