Still full of laughter

Legends of Indian Cinema

Still full of laughter

Tanuja’s mantra was always clear — films were done either because she had to earn money, or because she enjoyed doing them. Usually, it was both. In the fairytale of Hindi cinema, she was the enfant terrible, the non-conformist, or simply — the mad hatter.

In a young and central role as the never-say-I’m-old granny, Tanuja stole the limelight as late as in Rules — Pyaar Ka Superhit Formula (2003), even as she became a real-life grandmother to Nysa, daughter Kajol’s baby and watched younger daughter Tanisha take her first steps in acting all around the same time. After Kajol’s debut film Bekhudi in 1992, she will once again play her ‘reel’ mom in the forthcoming Ajay Devgan production Toonpur Ka Superhero.

Tanuja Samarth’s affair with the camera began as a kid, when she was told by her mom, illustrious yesteryear star Shobhana Samarth, to portray elder sister Nutan’s ‘bachpanaa’ (childhood) in the latter’s debut film, Hamari Beti.

Tanuja sets her voice to a child-like pitch as she recalls, “I told my mom, ‘Par main to bacchi hoon! Main kisika bachpanaa kaise ban sakti hoon?’ I was about six then and my two front milk teeth were shaking. Mom had told me that I was going to get big, new teeth, so to me, that also signified my becoming a big girl,” she chuckles reminiscently. “My mom said, ‘Just use your imagination and you will be fine!’ I liked the idea, so I did the role.”

And so it was that Tanuja discovered that she was born to act. “I went out there and did what Kidar (Sharma) uncle told me. I never thought about whether a camera was around or not, recording everything I did and said. But when I heard my voice in the film’s rushes, I just screamed, ‘Mummy! My voice is so bad! I don’t want to do this anymore!’ I had to be pacified as I kept crying. They finally had to promise me a full bottle of Roger’s Lemonade and an ice cream.”

“Acting took on a fun meaning after that,” laughs the actress. “I played the late Nargis’s childhood too in Amber. I missed a few days in school, and realised that if this could be an excuse to bunk school I would love it, and the lemonade and ice cream were fun anyway. But I made the mistake of telling mom that I was now enjoying myself. She looked at me with narrowed eyes. ‘Hmm!’ she said. ‘If you think that by doing this you will not have to go to school, you are wrong child! Do whatever you want, after completing your education.’

Life was a routine of school and back while her mother and sister would go out to work. “We kids were not allowed to go even to the studios, and frankly, I wanted to be a diplomat and so I went off to Switzerland to do a course in languages.”

But when her family suffered a financial setback around 1959, her mother wrote to Tanuja saying that they could not afford to keep her in Switzerland anymore, for if they did, her kid brother and sister would have to leave school. “This was unthinkable to me,” says Tanuja. “My mother was not keeping well too, my sister had got married, and so I came back to do my duty and started acting in films.”

She goes on, “As I said, acting came naturally to me and I never found it difficult to get under the skin of my characters, whether it was a comic role like that in Gustakhi Maaf, or that of a mentally-disturbed character in Jeene Ki Raah. I just attempted to look at any character through the director’s eyes.”

Tanuja signed whatever came her way. “The idea was to earn. My first two directors were once again Kidar uncle (in Hamari Yaad Aayegi) and Hrishikesh Mukherjee uncle in Mem Didi, and to both of them I was like a ghar ki bacchi, as they had worked with my sister.”

With a work-list that also includes Izzat, Jewel Thief, Baharein Phir Bhi Aayengi, Imtihan, Haathi Mere Saathi, Do Chor, Aaj Aur Kal, Anubhav, Bhoot Bungla and others, Tanuja confesses that she “especially loved to do comedy because I love to laugh, I love people laughing with me and I love to make people laugh. If I make even one person smile daily, I think that I have achieved something.”

We shift topics to her daughter Kajol. When did she first have an inkling about Kajol’s phenomenal talent? “Only after working with her on her first film,” admits the proud parent. “She had this lofty aim about doing some correspondence course and then becoming a photojournalist, if you please! I told her to complete her education, as it was a must. She had just completed her first year when Rahul Rawail offered her Bekhudi and she thought that she could try it out. She is a complete natural like me. I was in America sometime back and these bunch of kids walked up to me and asked, ‘Aren’t you Kajol’s mom?’ When I nodded, they told me that they wanted my autograph, but I was to write, ‘I am Kajol’s mom’ below it. That’s when I realised how much people loved her.”

About the current generation, she says, “Having always been casual in my approach, I find today’s youngsters too serious!” A cackle of laughter follows.

How would she react to the statement that she was a more versatile and natural actress than her sister? How does she analyse the chasm in their respective status and achievements?

“You are entitled to your opinion,” she says laconically. “Actually a lot of people have told me this. But Nutan was always very lucky. She was taken seriously all along and got the best opportunities, roles and directors. I wasn’t taken seriously because I never took my work or myself that seriously. For example, it never mattered that I was not getting some dream role. I moved on, learning and improving with every role. I was enjoying my life, so who was going to carry the excess baggage of wondering why I could not have gotten a better role or film? To me, every role was an opportunity to grow as a person as well. That was more important than growing as an actress.”

Asked what she learnt by way of acting tips from Nutan and Shobhana Samarth, she says, “They certainly did not come and tell me how I was supposed to move my arms, hands and legs!” And Tanuja erupts into laughter again.

But Tanu (as she was called) also did 14 Bengali films, beginning with Deva Neva with Uttam Kumar. “Over there, I was considered a serious actress. Unfortunately that did not translate into a greater reputation in Hindi cinema,” says the actor, cackling with laughter yet again. “In the ‘80s, I also did some good roles in Gujarati and Marathi cinema.”

And what’s the real Tanuja like, to ask a cliché? “I haven’t a clue,” she says and goes into the familiar fit of laughter. “I am still looking and maybe one of these days I will figure her out. When I pass a mirror, I squawk, ‘Who’s that?’” Cackle, chuckle, chortle, goes Tanuja again. So to round off things, how has life been on the whole? “Oh, I have no regrets at all. I have had a wonderful time, and I am going to have a wonderful time in the future as well!’

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