‘La’ Ode to Leela

My friend Srini, a connoisseur of art, sent this mail today. With his permission, I share it below… It is a beautiful sketch of a lovely star… Enjoy…

***Start of Srini’s mail…

The lovely Leela Naidu is no more. There’s a brief newsitem in today’s ‘The HINDU’.


She was of course unquestionably the most beautiful actor in Hindi movies. She was once voted one of the ‘ten most beautiful women in the world’ by the Vogue magazine of London.

Being a method actor, she was absolutely wonderful to watch. She would look at her co star (Sunil Dutt in Anuradha) for a full minute while the expression in eyes kept changing until a smile started playing in her lips which then traveled up to her eyes and merged with the look there. She also had very thick lovely hair.

Of course in our own time, Robert De Niro did the same thing with method acting. But he used it for prosaic applications like how to pick up a knife so he could cut an apple. You simply have to excuse Hollywood for its excesses 🙂

Leela’s father was a nuclear physicist from Andhra and her Mother was French. Being of partial European extraction, she was very comfortable in various kinds of attire. So the Hindi filmmakers inflicted on her all manner of sub-continental torture like high necked blouses, wrist length cholees and covered her head with shawls all the time. She still shone through.

Her first Hindi film was ‘Anuradha’ where she plays the role of a singer and married woman who wants to get a hand back at her career. She plays opposite Ashok Kumar whom she easily outclasses in the acting department.

The sitar maestro Ravi Shankar scored the music for this film remembers Leela Naidu, “as an actress at par with Ava Gardner and Sophia Loren”. (Ravi Shankar, a great connoisseur of women, is quite probably referring to her oomph and not acting). Anuradha was not a box office hit but got the Best National Film award and was nominated for the Golden Bear in Berlin.

She acted in the Merchant Ivory production `The Householder’ opposite Shashi Kapoor. He says of her, “When we worked together she never threw any tantrums. She was of a withdrawn nature and depended on her expressive eyes to convey a myriad of emotions. In the romantic scenes she was able to express much more with her carefree smile than unnecessary dialogues and hugging”

Satyajit Ray who watched her in `The Householder’ said , “I will surely cast her in my first ever English film.She is simply brilliant”. Ray planned a project for her opposite Marlon Brando but it never took off.

Her next 2 Hindi films were opposite Sunil Dutt – who looked a vazhaikkay bajji even then 🙂 – ummeed (1962) and yeh raaste hain pyaar ke (1963). The latter movie of course was based on the Nanavati case and was very topical at the time. Cowasjee Manekshaw Nanavati, a Parsi gentleman, shot and killed his wife’s paramour. This case led to the abolition of trial by jury in India.

Since `yeh raaste hain’ was such a topical film, the choice of Leela for the lead role came under severe criticism apparently. But Manoj Kumar says she was simply classy in the film, “The way she seduced Rehman in the film was a class apart from her seniors and contemporaries. Two movements of her shoulders and her arresting smile conveyed all without making her appear vulgar at any point of time”

Shortly after this, she abandoned her film career and married Biki Oberoi, the son of MS Oberoi, the hotel magnate. She had twin daughters by him but divorced him after a few years. She lost the battle for custody for the kids. This depressed her very much and she sought refuge with J Krishnamoorthy, the philosopher.

She then met again her childhood friend Dom Moraes in the house of her acquaintance, Mario Miranda, the cartoonist with the Illustrated Weekly of India. Dom Moraes was a celebrated poet who had more prose to his credit than poems. They married and were briefly happy. Dom however had a long history of alcoholism. His travel book about Karnataka, commissioned by the Govt of Karnataka, was famously dubbed by some Kannada reviewers as Dom Moraes ”teertha yaatre’ 🙂

He wrote two memoirs about the women he loved – one `My son’s father’ was mostly about his mother who suffered from mental illness all her adult life and the other `Never at home’ was mostly about Leela Naidu and how he was not able to give her happiness. It seems J Krishnamoorthy laid a hand on Dom’s head at one time and it cured him of his nosebleeds. I’m sure this is a true story. JK was supposed to have been a great healer.

She acted in a few other movies like `Guru’ which I haven’t seen. She was finally cast in `Trikaal’ by Shyam Benegal. This is a wonderful movie with a mature and greying Leela Naidu in the lead role with Nasiruddin Shah, Neena Gupta etc in support roles. She completely carries the movie. It should be of interest to photography buffs. The whole movie’s shot in Mario Miranda’s (see above) ancestral home in Goa. All the scenes are lit by a eerie domelight which kind of goes with the main theme. In the movie, she keeps trying to get her recently departed husband’s ghost to come back and speak with her.

Her eternal regret was not playing the lead role in `Guide’. She was a shoo in for the role other than the fact that she couldn’t dance in the Hindi film way. WHo knows…Maybe Dev Anand’s poori-like persona would have been flattened to a plain ol’ chapatti opposite such a cerebral and beautiful actor. ..Oh, well.


Here are some links to enjoy:

1. Film: Anuradha

–  ‘haay re vo din kyon na aaye’

‘kaise din beete’

Saanware saanware

jaane kaise sapnon mein

In this song she does the hug the tree routine with her hair done in a thick long single plait reaching all the way to her knees. It’s mostly her own hair .

2. Film: ‘yeh raaste hain pyaar ke’

‘yeh khamoshiyan’



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