Veteran actress Tanuja (Mukerji, nee Samarth) lives life on her terms and admits she used to be difficult. Shilpi Madan meets the straight-talking actress, who will soon be seen in Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut Death in The Gunj.
I first heard Tanuja in real life when I was shooting with her daughter, the feisty Tanishaa, on the second floor of her bungalow in suburban Mumbai. The photographer and his unit were setting up the equipment and disturbing Tanuja, seated a level above the central atrium. She was in the process of giving a sound byte to a television crew on the third floor. Just then, the shutterbug’s assistant dropped the tripod on the floor and as it clattered noisily, her angry voice rasped out from up above—“Who is this idiot who is still disturbing me?” I had just walked into the space, and burst out laughing. Once the shoot was in progress, I climbed up the winding staircase and met her, and we took to each other instantly. Tanuja is a sheer, outspoken delight. Full of beans, even at 73, absolutely loveable. We chatted over coffee about life, Lonavla (where her primary home is), politics and everything manic that Mumbai brings with it. Excerpts from the interview:
So your movie A Death in the Gunj is readying for release. Do you want to talk about it?
Then why did you do it?
(Smiles, shrugging her slim shoulders) I did it for two reasons: One, it is in English, and two, it is the directorial debut of Konkona Sen Sharma. Her mother Aparna Sen is a dear friend of mine.
We saw you last in Son of Sardar where you acted with your son-in-law Ajay Devgan. Are you open to doing more projects?
Yes, why not? But on my terms, my conditions.
As always (smiles)
Tell me, what is it that annoys you about the current work scenario?
The hoopla is too much. The contracts run into 25 pages. It is too tedious going through all the fine print.
You could get your lawyer to vet the contract for you…
Why? It is not necessary. I mean, there is too much process, too many driving commercials. But I guess production houses need to safeguard their interests and want to avoid legal hassles. I am just old-fashioned. Of course, the earlier system of working wasn’t like this.
You have always been short-tempered, quite a rebel. Do you get along with the cast on the sets?
Now, yes. Of course, once you start shooting, the entire unit gets along just fine.
There are people who still call me an arrogant bitch. See, I used to be a very difficult person. But I take ownership of all the tantrums I have ever thrown.
What changed you?
Once I lost my temper, and at that time my elder daughter, Kajol, was just 10. She said why don’t you lose your temper forever, instead of losing it again and again, and recovering it to lose it again? That drove the point home. Children are very perceptive. They teach you so much. Everyone has to change; you can’t be flatlined, and live in a rut.
Then why do people still call you arrogant?
Because I tell them the truth and that is not what they want to hear. I have the right to air my opinion. I believe in speaking my mind. Diplomacy has never worked for me.
Can you share what went through your heart as a kid?
Well, I grew up in a busy home, we were four siblings. My mother, Shobhana Samarth, was an actress. My father was a filmmaker. We bonded well. My parents separated when we were kids. We lived with our mother. She was a gorgeous, independent woman and did a commendable job of bringing us up almost single-handedly. I admire her for that. She always placed a premium on education and learning.
Your mother sent you to Paris to study, then she called you back owing to a cash crunch…
Yes, there was a financial situation in the family that had to be dealt with. Of course, I didn’t want to come back, but I had to.
Then how can you say that you have always lived life on your own terms?
See, when life throws up a googly, you have a choice, in adopting your own attitude. I could have sulked and wept. I didn’t, because I didn’t want to. I did what I knew: act in films, and helped in dealing with the situation. I chose to enjoy myself while taking up acting. Life is what you make of it.
What about your bonds with your siblings?
We’re good. I am in touch with Nutan’s son, Mohnish (Behl).
What have you learnt?
To be more human, sensitive and compassionate. I am not a control freak anymore. I have resolved not to let anger affect me. I believe in moving on. Life is simply too short.
How did your own kids handle the split between you and your husband (Shomu Mukerji)?
Well, I never played the blame game. What would that have achieved? I let it go, turned the page. I simply told them that he is your father for the rest of your life. We co parented our children and were there for them, together, as parents. Decisions like Kajol getting into films were taken by us together, with the kids.
So are you trying to say that your soured relationship didn’t affect you?
It did, but I learnt to deal with it without making much ado. I took care of my husband when he was ailing and we had actually become good friends again before he passed away.
It mustn’t have been easy, being a single working mother. How did you handle the guilt?
What is there to feel guilty about? I sent my kids to a boarding school. I gave them the best I could, at that point. If they do not appreciate it, they have to deal with it. Their problem, not mine. I never feel guilty about having put them in a hostel.
Work kept you busy earlier. Now you are in a relatively relaxed space. Tell me something about your daily routine.
I lead a simple life now. I sign on movies only if the script interests me. I get up when I want to. I do yoga when I want to. I enjoy every day as it comes. I have a core group of friends, we spend time together. We understand each other inside out, no irrelevant questions asked.
Ever thought of getting into politics?
Never! I am an apolitical person. I can’t play games. Look at the status of the cities, the potholes, the traffic…All humbug.
What are you doing about it?
I can’t save the whole earth, but I can do my bit for the part that I live in. I run an NGO in Lonavla to stop illegal construction in the area and to get proper infrastructure in place. We are trying to save the environment and have filed a PIL to the effect as well. It will take time and patience but we are at it, together.
Is there anything on your bucket list?
What bucket, and what list? I will tell my kids that when I hit the bucket, I need to physically kick a bucket next to me before I die. Else I won’t pop it.
(We burst into laughter)
What if you die right now?
So be it. I know that I am loved and that I will be missed. That is enough for me.
(Some photos are courtesy @TanishaaMukerji on Twitter)
(About the writer: @ShilpiMadan is an incurable bon vivant, an irrepressible adventure seeking sybarite who loves trekking across the world. For her nothing is more delicious than the excitement of shaping the written word (and experiencing gourmet gospels). Cue into her busy-ness at www.shilpimadan.com)