At 74, actress Tanuja is in complete command over the two things she has always been known for – her smile and her bluntness. If the former endeared her to lakhs of fans, the latter often made journalists run for cover. It is perhaps reassuring to see that life has not taken the edge off the icon of Bengali and Hindi films from the ’60s and ’70s, celebrated for her performances in films as diverse as Haathi Mere Saathi (with Rajesh Khanna) and Teen Bhubaner Pare (with Soumitro Chatterjee).

Tanuja was in Kolkata after more than two decades to promote her Bengali film Sonar Pahar, directed by Kahaani actor Parambrata Chatterjee. The film, about a mother-son relationship that goes awry and is transformed after the mother (Tanuja) befriends a seven-year-old boy (Srijato Bandopadhyay), is scheduled for a June release.

Sonar Pahar is Tanuja’s second release in recent years after her appearance in Konkona Sen Sharma’s A Death in the Gunj in 2016. There is certainly some excitement around Tanuja’s return to Kolkata for a film in which she shares a few minutes of screen time with her former co-star, Soumitra Chatterjee. After all, Tanuja has always enjoyed a special place in the Bengali heart that throbbed for the young, dashing Chatterjee and the legendary Uttam Kumar, her romantic leads in such classics as Deya Neya (1963) and Antony Firingee (1967).

However, Tanuja, who had spent time on Kolkata’s Mayfair Road in the ’70s, studiously skirts sentimentality, preferring to stay ensconced in her five-star hotel, watching Netflix over daal-rice and fish curry, and appearing only for brief media interactions.

When met up with the actress, she had just emerged from another Netflix binge. In a printed chiffon sari and a string of pearls, she could have passed off as one of the lunching ladies at the Raj-era clubs, had it not been for that famous smile that gave away her matinee past. Excerpts from the interview.

How has Kolkata been treating you so far?
Very well, excellently.

Have you been able to do anything other than promote the film?
No, where is the time? I am so tired by the end of the day. All I have done is meet my cousin one evening, met my friend’s daughter one evening and period. Yesterday, I just sat home, had my two drinks, had my dinner and went to sleep.

Sonar Pahar.

Your role in ‘A Death in the Gunj’ and ‘Sonar Pahar’ are very different. What is it that draws you to a film?
The story. That is what is important, and the director who is able to tell that story properly. He reads the subject to me. If I can see the film, then I will do it.

How does one approach Tanuja? If I were a filmmaker, how do I reach out to you?
It is so stupid to think that I am not available. I am available. You have to know how to contact me. How do you contact me? You contact me through my assistant, who is Priyanka. You go through her because I don’t pick up a phone unless I know the number. Or you message me, you say I am so and so, and I will send you Priyanka’s number and you can get in touch with her. Because if I were to get in touch with everyone who calls me, it would be a pain you know where.

You don’t like being on social media, but you recently did a Facebook live. Would you say social media is a necessary evil for any actor these days?
I don’t know if it is evil or not, but it is a necessity.

But you have also been a very private person, even when you are doing a film that is reaching out to millions and you know that you have to do certain things as part of the promotions. Where do you draw the line?
Everyone has a choice and even when there is no choice, you have a choice. When I say that, it means that this is something that is needed to be done. Either I complain about it or I enjoy it. So what do you think I would choose? Tell me?

Perhaps try and make the most of it?
No, not try. Either I make the most of it or I don’t. So my choice is always that. I will be happy doing whatever I am doing. That is the choice I will make.

Gaane Bhubon Bhoriye, Deya Neya (1963).

In ‘Sonar Pahar’, you seem to have a special rapport with the child actor, Srijato Bandopadhyay. You have mentioned how the talkative little kid would keep pestering you with questions.
Well, he didn’t pester me exactly, but he did talk a lot and finally I had to tell him please, could you be quiet? So he asked me, why? I had no answer to that. Could I tell him that it was irritating? It wasn’t irritating. It’s just that he went on and on and half the things I didn’t hear. So I wanted him to be little more clear.

I couldn’t tell him that. He is seven years old. So I had no answer. And he continued.

So that is what I loved about the kid, that his curiosity didn’t stop there. I think it’s very important for children to be curious. Whether you have an answer or not, you tell that child very frankly, look, I don’t have the answer. Why don’t you go and ask somebody else? I didn’t say that to him, but he was smart enough to know that and he went and asked somebody else. So that is what I call being innovative – the child thinking for itself. That is very important.

Today’s children are not thinking for themselves. They are not taught to, because our education system is so weird, they are taught everything by rote. I wish they had only one class where the child is asked a question and told, think for yourself, don’t go to your parents to answer that question. I am sure the child would have so much to say, because the child’s imagination is so vast.

What we are doing is cutting their imagination down. Telling them, don’t do like this, don’t think like this, don’t do that. Why not allow people, especially children to use their intellect intelligently?

As a grandmother to Kajol and Ajay Devgn’s children, have you come across situations that made you feel this way?
No, because I brought my children up very well. I taught them to think for themselves and now they teach their children to think for themselves. So my grandchildren think of me as a very grand mother.

Srijato Bandopadhyay and Tanuja in Sonar Pahar. Image credit: GreenTouch Entertainment.

You were a quite an icon for women during the ’60s and ’70s. There was a time when young women would go for a head shot in a studio dressed up like you.
I never really thought about that. I just did what I wanted to do, and I dressed as I wanted to dress, and if people followed me, that was great. But I never thought that I have to dress in such a way so that people will imitate me or dress like I do. It never occurred to me.

Your contemporaries developed a signature look – a curl or a mole. Did you ever think of the Tanuja look?
Someone had asked me, who is Tanuja? And I don’t know who Tanuja is. Because everybody is on a journey and if you ask me who are you, I don’t know who I am. When I find that out, I will let you know.

The journey I am on, I am looking for myself and slowly but surely, I am getting there, doing what needs to be done, in my own head, not in anyone else’s. I listen to people, and I don’t comment. Because by the time they finish talking to me and I finish listening, they have answered their own questions. So I don’t need to talk to them for any reason.

And they ask me what advice do you give to people, and I say I don’t advise anybody. So I think that the best thing for advice is not to take it. Think for yourself. Nobody can tell you what to do. You choose to be dependent, that’s not my problem. But I would definitely say that I think for myself, I don’t advise people. I don’t think anybody has ever taken my advice.

Not your daughters?
My daughters, I have brought them up. I didn’t give them advice. I trained them. That’s a different thing. That’s a mother’s duty to do, teach them how to think for themselves, how to be their own person, how to be who they are or who they want to be. That is up to them. It’s their life, not mine, if I give them the proper values of life.

The basic Hindu culture as to who are you – respect your elders, be kind, be compassionate, be gentle and learn how to draw your own line. It’s as simple as that and whatever choices you make, they are your responsibilities, so think before you make a choice and then you deal with the consequences of that choice.

Meri Jaan, Anubhav (1971).

A few years ago, you helped launch your younger daughter Tanishaa Mukerji’s production company.
It’s ours.

So what’s happening on that front?
Right now? I don’t know what’s happening. When I know, we will let you know. It’s a media company basically. So it’s everything. Whether it is social or not, I don’t know. So whatever it is, she knows better than I do about media. So I let her handle it and we discuss whatever needs to be discussed and we go forward.

One of your last Bengali films was Tapan Sinha’s ‘Adalat O Ekti Meye’ in 1981. It was controversial since it dealt with a woman facing a social backlash after being gang-raped – the kind of space a movie like ‘Pink’ would take up now. Did it ruffle sensibilities at that time?
In those days, the film had seemed controversial because it was out in the open. Today it is out there.

It was important because I have seen, I have heard of this kind of things. When nobody wants to report this, whether it is gang rape, whether it is abuse by your family. You know, it’s ridiculous. I am appalled by the situation. Okay, you brought it out in the open, what are you telling the youngsters today? Okay, you get gang-raped. What does the woman do? It’s all out in the media. It’s all shu sha, shu sha, shu sha and nothing happens.

Why isn’t anybody doing anything to stop this and who is going to stop this? It’s going to be stopped by the elders who teach their children that look, you do not have to succumb to something like this if you don’t want to. It is your human right. It is up to the elders to listen to the child if the child comes and tells them that look, this is happening with me. This is not happening. And I don’t know why.

I would like all parents, all adults to protect their children, whether they are boys or girls. The adults need to be aware that when this comes forward, make it stop.

What was it like to take up the role, given your stature?
It was challenging, and I would never refuse a challenge. A challenge that doesn’t make sense to me, I will [shrugs].

Tapan-da and I discussed the subject and he said, how do you feel about it? Everybody was there, they all brainstormed about it. I said I would do it because it was important at the time. We discussed the social content because it was happening all around. Film is a medium where you can show what is happening, and the film was very well done.

Adalat O Ekti Meye (1981).

The film had a delayed release at the time because of its theme. Today, it is on YouTube.
Yes, for people to rediscover the film and learn the lesson in it. What is the lesson? I will support you, whoever it is. That support is what is important to the person who is fighting.

What is it that inspires you now?
I inspire myself. You have to inspire yourself. Nobody else can do it for you. You have to be confident. There is nothing that you cannot do. There is no right or wrong, no good and bad. It depends on you, what is true for you. My truth may not be yours, and that is okay. Everybody is an individual. So who am I to judge or evaluate somebody else’s behaviour? I am nobody and I will do what I need to do in my own space. I can’t change the country or the people of the country. In my community where I run my NGO, I will see to it that I empower the people who can.

And what makes you happy?
I am happy because I want to be. And I will be. Nobody else can make me happy.

What’s next after ‘Sonar Pahar’?
I have no idea. I am here right now and I am very happy to be here. That’s all I know.

Aap Ke Haseen Rukh Pe, Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi (1966).