Tanuja made her big screen debut as a child artiste with her sister Nutan in Hamari Beti (1950) directed by her mother Shobhana Samarth under her banner, Shobhana Pictures. As the story goes, she had to be bribed with lemonade to say her lines. The two sisters also acted their mother’s second film, Chhabili (1960).
As a young child, Tanuja was sent away to boarding school just like her older sister Nutan. She completed her education in St Georges in Switzerland where she spoke in English, French and German.
For her first role as a lead heroine, Tanuja acted opposite Ashok, son of filmmaker Kidar Sharma in their home production, Hamari Yaad Aayegi (1961). Kidar Sharma groomed the young actress on the finer points of acting and even slapped her once when she giggled during an emotional scene. Tanuja herself recalled in an interview, 'No man, not even my father, had ever slapped me before and I burst into tears. I stomped off the sets, got into my car and went straight home. But what do you know? Mother packed me back into the car, drove straight to the studios and told Kedarji, ‘I give you full permission to slap this monkey anytime.”
Tanuja was slated to act with Guru Dutt in Baharen Phir Bhi Aayegi (1966) before his untimely death in 1964. The two shared a good working relationship and had planned to watch a film the day after his death. Tanuja and Dutt had shot for 11 reels of the film before it had to be scrapped. Dharmendra filled in for Dutt and completed Baharen Phir Bhi Aayegi. It became the last film from Guru Dutt Productions.
In Navketan’s Jewel Thief (1967), Tanuja was one of two heroines opposite leading man, Dev Anand. One popular song off the soundtrack composed by SD Burman was ‘Raat Akeli Hai’ sung by Asha Bhonsle and picturised on Tanuja and Dev Anand. However, when Anand first offered her the role of Janice in Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971), she declined as she didn’t want to play his sister.
Tanuja was nominated for a Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress for Jewel Thief (1967), but lost out to Jamuna for her work in Milan (1967). She eventually won for Paisa Ya Pyar (1969) beating out Farida Jalal for Aradhana and Bindu for Ittefaq. Tanuja played a fruit seller who masquerades as a wealthy heiress from Singapore in order to marry the man she loves.
For Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav (1971), Tanuja worked with Sanjeev Kumar with whom she had acted on several films. Interestingly, the feature was shot in Tanuja’s own flat. Tanuja had said of the experience of working with Bhattacharya, 'Every morning he’d land up in my bedroom and I’d throw him out, ‘Get out of my room.’ Sanjeev and I shot for it whenever we had the time.'
Tanuja acted with Amitabh Bachchan in Raveekant Nagaich’s Pyar Ki Kahani (1971). It was his first big break. They first met in a discotheque called Blow Up. Years later, when they acted together in Khud-daar (1982), he reportedly said, 'How can I call my first heroine bhabhi?'
In her daughter Kajol’s first film, Behkudi (1992), Tanuja played her mother onscreen as well. Eighteen years later, in Toonpur Ka Super Hero (2010), Tanuja was once again cast as mother to Kajol in the animated feature. The only difference was that she was also playing mother-in-law to her real-life son-in-law, Ajay Devgn in the film.
Tanuja will be seen next in Konkona Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj (2016). According to Tanuja, she agreed to be a part of Sen Sharma’s first film as it was in English and Konkona was her dear friend Aparna Sen’s daughter.