Hailing from a family entrenched in films, Tanuja has consistently impressed with her unquestionable talent and natural spontaneity onscreen. Younger daughter of actress-producer Shobhna Samarth, and sister of noted actress Nutan, she has several notable films to her credit including Do Chor (1972), Mere Jeevan Saathi (1972), Haathi Mere Saathi (1971), Anubhav (1971), Jeene Ki Raah (1969), Jewel Thief (1967), Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi (1966), Chand Aur Suraj (1965), Aaj Aur Kal (1963), and Hamari Yaad Aayegi (1961). She also left her mark in character roles in films such as Masoom (1983), Saathiya (2002), Rules: Pyaar Ka Superhit Formula (2003), Bhoot (2003), Pitruroon (2013), A Death in the Gunj (2016), Shonar Pahar (2018), and the series Aarambh (2017) and Modern Love: Mumbai (2022). With her captivating charm a sure-shot crowd-puller, Tanuja had soon shone in most of the films that came her way. However, she chose not to single-mindedly pursue top ranking in the industry. In another marked departure from the norm, she was known to be blunt and speak her mind; something that is not generally appreciated in the diplomatic industry. In fact, if she is considered not to have achieved the level of success predicted for her, it is mainly on account of these two factors. She was awarded the Bengal Film Journalists Association Awards - Best Supporting Actress (Hindi) for Benazir (1964), the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress for Paisa Ya Pyaar (1969), Best Actress Award for Marathi film Pitruroon (2013) at the 20th Life OK Screen Awards, the Lifetime Achievement Honour at Apsara Film & Television Producers Guild Award in 2014, and the Filmfare Lifetime Achievement Award the same year. She is the mother of actresses Kajol and Tanisha.
Born on 23 September 1943 to actress Shobhna Samarth and producer Kumarsen Samarth, she has three sisters—actress Nutan, artist Chatura and Reshma—and a brother Jaideep. The acting gene ran in the family as her grandmother Rattan Bai, and cousin Nalini Jaywant were also popular actresses. Her parents parted amicably while she was still a child.
She started her career in films as a child artiste - Baby Tanuja, featuring alongside her older sister Nutan in the family drama Hamari Beti (1950), starring her mother Shobhana Samarth and Motilal, followed by Amber (1952). As an adult, she debuted in the film Chhabili (1960) which was directed by her mother, and had her sister Nutan, in the lead. She made her mark in Kidar Sharma’s Hamari Yaad Aayegi (1961). Sharma, who had earlier discovered Raj Kapoor, Madhubala and Geeta Bali, directed her in this family drama that revolved around a young man Ashok, newly relocated to a city, staying in rented accommodation owned by a young widow Hari Devi. He befriends an orphan girl Manorama (played by Tanuja) and her brother Bulva. The story follows the heartbreak Manorama causes Ashok due to her love for money. It was while working on this film that Tanuja reportedly became truly responsible towards her craft and profession. It is said that, infuriated by her lack of concentration on set, director Kidar Sharma had lost his cool and slapped her. This acted as a catalyst and effectively turned her into a committed actress.
With her talent coming to notice, there was no dearth of good performance opportunities. The 1966 Shaheed Latif directorial Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi saw her cast as the bubbly Sunita in a love triangle that included rich heiress Amita (Mala Sinha), and idealistic writer Jiten (Dharmendra). It portrayed the anguish that culminates in two sisters when they realise they love the same man, and their attempts to sacrifice their future happiness for the sake of the other.
Vijay Anand’s spy thriller heist film Jewel Thief saw her star alongside a bevy of beauties such as Vyjayantimala, Helen and Anju Mahendru, opposite the James Bondesque character played by Dev Anand. As Anjali Nath, shimmering in the song Raat akeli hai as she attempted to seduce Dev Anand, she had an important supporting role in the hit film. She also received a nomination for Best Supporting Actress for her performance.
She had a series of hit films such as Chand Aur Suraj (1965) opposite Dharmendra, followed by Izzat (1968) in which they were again paired together, and Jeene Ki Raah (1969) opposite Jeetendra. Her performance in Paisa Ya Pyar (1969) won her the Best Supporting Actress at Filmfare. The film portrayed the change that a wealthy and snobbish woman's life undergoes when her daughter marries a commoner.
In 1971, she essayed the role of Tanu, wife of Raju (Rajesh Khanna), an orphaned lad who had grown up with four elephants, and later builds a private zoo for his beloved animals. However, Tanu is jealous of the animals as she feels Raju loves them more. Concerned for their newborn child’s safety, she asks Raju to choose between her and his animal friends and leaves home when he chooses the animals. Ramu, the eldest elephant, brings about a reconciliation but loses his life in the process.
Starring in Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav (1971), she and Sanjeev Kumar won appreciation for their realistic portrayal of a married couple at odds with each other. The film, a case study on marital discord, won the National Film Award for Second Best Feature Film. The film portrayed the changing dynamics between a once-happily married couple Amar and Meeta. After six years of marriage, Amar becomes more focussed on his career, while the unexpected entry of Meeta’s ex-lover Shashi (Dinesh Thakur) further strains their relationship.
In 1972, she had two noteworthy films, namely Do Chor and Mere Jeevan Saathi; her performances in both came in for appreciation. The light-hearted romance Do Chor (1972), revolved around Tony (Dharmendra), a happy-go-lucky thief, who assists another thief named ‘Bob’ out of friendship. Bob is actually Sandhya (Tanuja) in drag, who is committing robberies to gain back her inheritance. She pulled off her role with panache, and the crackling chemistry between the lead pair, as well as the brisk pace and popular songs, ensured the frothy film was a crowd-pleaser.
She essayed an eye doctor Jyoti in the Ravikant Nagaich - directed Mere Jeevan Saathi (1972). The film, replete with plot twists, revolved around the travails of Prakash (Rajesh Khanna), a painter who falls in love with Jyoti, but goes blind.
Simultaneously, in the 1960s and 1970s, Tanuja stepped into Bengali cinema, becoming part of many successful films. Making a great onscreen pair with Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee, respectively, she delivered memorable films like Prothom Kadam Phool (1969), and Teen Bhuvaner Parey (1969). Other Bengali films she impressed in include Deya Neya (1963), the superhit musical Antony Firingee (1967) in which she played a Brahmin widow who remarries and is an inspiration to her singer-poet husband, Pita Putra (1969), and Rajkumari (1970) in which she essayed the princess Manju. Tapan Sinha’s scathing attack on society in Adalat O Ekti Meye (1982) saw her essay the role of a young teacher Urmila (Tanuja) who is gang-raped, and further ostracised by her relatives and friends, and ill-treated at her school by colleague. She has to face obstruction of the process of justice by the accused persons, as well as insensitive cross examination by the defending counsel in her quest for justice. This role was a marked departure from Tanuja’s usual feel-good roles, as she movingly essayed the character’s suffering and struggle. The more recent Shonar Pahar (2018) saw her play a septuagenarian retired school teacher, who lives a lonely life in an old house with only domestic help. Her life changes when she is persuaded to foster an orphan child. Transforming from a stern and detached loner to a sympathetic and sensitive individual, Tanuja was hailed for essaying the role without a single wrong note.
She also impressed playing a widow in the Marathi film Pitruroon (2013) made by Nitish Bharadwaj. Tonsuring her head to lend further authenticity to her character, she was a central part of the film that told an emotional story of a romance failed by a cruel twist of fate, a confrontation of shattered family values and a rebuilding of human bonds.