Jewel Thief to Shonar Pahar - looking back at Tanuja's greatest films as she turns 80

The sky was not the limit for Tanuja’s range as an actress. She featured in some of the biggest hits of the 1970s including Haathi Mere Saathi, Do Chor, Jeena Ki Raah, Imtihaan

Tanuja (Photo: Getty Images)
Tanuja (Photo: Getty Images)

Subhash K Jha

There is something about Tanuja, something unique and irreplaceable. A vivacity that even her daughter Kajol couldn’t hope to equal. Tanuja could do practically any and everything 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 was not the limit for Tanuja’s range as an actress. In Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav (1971) as Mita, the neglected wife of Amar (Sanjeev Kumar) Tanuja was such a natural, it didn’t feel like a performance at all. This is easily the cornerstone of Tanuja’s career in Hindi cinema. And if you see the film now, you will realise how uninhibited and spontaneous she really was. After doing the first part of Basu Bhattacharya’s marital trilogy why did the director shift to Sharmila Tagore in Aavishkar and  Grihapravesh? Tanuja made an endearing, enlightened screen pair with the great Sanjeev Kumar in Uss Raat Ke Baad, Bachpan and Priya. Sanjeev Kapoor 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, gentle performance quite effortless removed from the tomboyish image that Tanuja had cultivated through roles that didn’t require her to play the typical Hindi film heroine, probably because she wasn’t one. Though the film was a superhit, Jeetendra preferred to pair up with  Mumtaz and Hema Malini.

In Guru Dutt’s Baharen Phir Bhi Ayengi (1966) though the story of two sisters both in love with the same man (Dharmendra) revolved almost entirely around Mala Sinha’s character, Tanuja as the younger sister more than held her own. She complemented the leaden sobriety of her screen sister with an infectious impishness.

Three years later, Tanuja again gave Mala Sinha a run for her money in Paisa Ya Pyar. Rapidly acquiring the reputation of a scene stealer, several  topnotch actors were hesitant to have Tanuja around in a supporting role. Dharmendra who did several films with Tanuja (Chand Aur Suraj, Do Chor, Izzat) considers her one of his favourite co-stars.

Many of Tanuja’s biggest hits and most accomplished performances are in  Bengali cinema. In Tapa 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 woman who is gangraped during a vacation at the seaside. No, she won’t hush it.  She takes on the powerful goons in the court, as only Tanuja could. Tapanda once said he couldn’t have made this hard-hitting drama without Tanuja. Wonder why he never cast her again.

One of Tanuja’s career-defining performance was in Pitruroon (2013).  In this Marathi gem, Tanuja was cast as a rural widow Bhagirathi who challenges many of the decadent rules of a patriarchal society and emerges a hero 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 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—hiphops in the 7-year old wise little 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. We don’t feel any manipulative hands behind  the volume of contagious emotions created between the two unlikely friends. Their joyous togetherness, their shared time together when the  old woman reads self-written stories to the attentive responsive child and the way the child effortlessly takes over the authoritarian matriarch’s life, are all put forward with a gently persuasive nudge that tilts us completely  in favour of the film’s simple, uncluttered narrative fluidity.

Watching Tanuja in Shonar Pahar made me very melancholic. The tightly-controlled emotional ownership of her character is exemplary. 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 sporting guest appearance as Tanuja’s old admirer.

There is history in their reunion. Tanuja and Chatterjee 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. Oh, Tanuja has done films with every actor worth talking abou , from Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan to Parikshant 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 in 1970s.

She featured in some of the biggest hits of the 1970s including Haathi Mere Saathi, Do Chor, Jeena Ki Raah, Imtihaan. She gave one of her finest performances in Govinda Saraiya’s unknown gem 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.

I am pretty sure Tanuja could have done Saraswatichandra. But could  Nutan have done Priya?

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