THE GAMINE ONE
While most people in the industry take advantage of their lineage, Tanuja’s problem was that her own identity was lost in the lustre of her very talented family. She was always known Shobhana Samarth’s daughter, Nutan’s sister, Shomu Mukherjee’s wife and later, Kajol’s mother. When, by herself, the gamine, husky voiced beauty and natural actress could have amounted to much more than she eventually did.
Starting her career with Chhabili produced by her mother, and making an impact even in an minor early film like Hamari Yaad Aayegi, Tanuja, even without trying too hard, did some memorable films in which her performances were appreciated.
She also brought in a whiff of fresh air with her openness and refreshing lack of hypocrisy. She never hid her cigarettes or camouflaged her drink, or disguised her penchant for cards, and her laughter rang out with genuine good cheer. At a time when actresses were supposed to be coy and tragic, Tanuja’s irrepressible high spirits made her roles in films like Jewel Thief (in which her naughty Raat akeli hainumber stole the thunder from heroine Vyjayanthimala), Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi, Haathi Mere Saathi, Do Chor click.
The full range of her talent can be seen in two totally diverse films as Basu Bhattacharya’s Abubhav and Debu Sen’s Do Dooni Char—with Sanjeev Kumar and Kishore Kumar respectively. In the former she played the lonely, neglected wife of a busy newspaper editor, who is attracted to another man; and in the latter (based on Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors) she kept pace with Kishore Kumar and Asit Sen’s comic timing.
In spite of her unconventional beauty and talent, Tanuja’s career was marked with a singular lack of ambition that prevented her from being too competitive even though she was far superior to her contemporaries. Whenever she did second leads or supporting parts in films like Baharen Phir Bhi Ayengi and Sapnon Ka Saudagar, she effortlessly took away attention from her co-stars.
The other problem was the constant comparison with elder sister Nutan, who always got better, author-backed roles in the films of the greatest directors of the time.
Rather early in her career, Tanuja moved to character parts, playing bhabhi and mother roles with her usual aplomb—some in B-grade films. She even did a stint on television.
Her daughters Kajol and Tanisha entered the film industry with the advantage of the Samarth-Mukherjee lineage. Tanisha hasn’t made it yet, but flashes of Tanuja’s irrepressible spirit can be seen in some of Kajol’s performances.