Friday, July 1st, 2022 17:19:23

Leela Naidu Beauty With Brawn

Updated: September 25, 2010 12:19 pm

This is how this story that began with ecstasy because she was the lone survivor amongst eight siblings—seven boys and a girl begins, wades through the streets of several continents, and ends in the loneliness of a Mumbai apartment where it, probably began. The not-necessarily-incredible story, but nevertheless, full of adventures, and relationships though not necessarily really told. In the end confessional, Leela Naidu, once described by Vogue magazine as one of the five most beautiful women of the world, starts to unfold:

                “I stared at the blank page while I sensed that as I proceeded there would be the floes of my personal life’s sadness, anxiety, anguish that could so easily crush my book of anecdotes, meant to make the reader of different ages, smile, chuckle, laugh, and sometimes feel the sadness of humanity past and present.” But in so doing, Leela Naidu has, sensibly or otherwise, left behind a fractured narrative. True, no memoirs can encapsulate a life, however significant, but here one is sadly left to realise, was a celebrity who did not go into the causes of her own failure in the way this promised story should have unfolded itself. It is, at best, regressive cinema at its worst.

                Greeta Garbo took her to be an Indian princess. Ingrid Bergman confided in her. Jean Renoir personally compiled a file on her. Charlie Chaplin sent for her. She was mistaken for Sonali Dasgupta with whom Rossellini had been having an affair. She appeared in the Johnny Carson Show even before other Indians had heard of the name. She was personally photographed by Marvin Minoff who had 2,751 pictures of Marilyn Monroe. She did a television film for Universal Studios, A Face in the Sun. David Lean wanted to cast her as Tanya in Dr Zivago. She assisted Jacques Brissot for the documentary, India: Culture for a Few Rupees. Assisted Louis Malle for the series, L’Inde Phantome or Salvador Dalli used her as a model for his Madonna. And Fritz Lang wanted her for the story of Taj. She worked for Hong Kong television, and shot for the Run Run Shaw.

                KA Abbas rejected her as a potential actress, saying she was too young then, though Raj Kapoor wanting to make her an RK discovery screen-tested her with a view to cast her in not one but four films. She turned down the offer. She was barely 15 then. Balraj Sahni, her co-star in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha, her debut film, made a pass at her. She worked opposite Ashok Kumar in the unreleased, Umeed. She acted in a film called Baaghi in which her maid’s role was played by Mumtaz. Her moment of glory was the comforting presence of ‘gentleman’ Shashi Kapoor on sets of The Householder but found the total apathy of producer Ismail Merchant, and director James Ivory and the desire to continue shooting despite the presence of death in the household that was being used as location.

                She produced A Certain Childhood which was Kumar Shahani’s first directorial venture. Produced a ‘potty’ documentary for JRD Tata; found Shama Zaidi, the dialogue writer for Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal, a woman without substance; and Arundhati Roy, the great advocate for social justice, a ‘ruthless’ woman on the sets of Eclectic Moon, the film for which she last applied the greasepaint.

                And as if the forays into celluloid were not enough, she was Ionesco and Gunter Grass’s choice for the translation of some of their essays from French to English, and also the short term editor for Society and Keynote. The unofficial, unpaid interpreter for Dom Morose’s interviews with Indira Gandhi, and other distinguished global celebrities.                 Sarojini Naidu was her beloved aunt. Mahatma Gandhi was her Mickey Mouse. The legendary dancer, Balasaraswati borrowed her petticoat tape shortly before a performance. J Krishnamurti was her spiritual guru. She could have borne a boy for Dom, had she not had a miscarriage, like her mother who went through the agony of seven sons experiences.

                All through her life, Leela Naidu carried the burden of a “poll of grief within me always. I suppose I’m crying for the world. The wars. The children. The hunger. The disease.” That was also her dying soliloquy: “I end my epilogue with a flurry of wishes for the book; that whoever cares to read it may smile, chuckle and laugh and then understand or feel the sadness, the pain of humanity in certain anecdotes in the historical past and the present.” And when she invited Jerry Pinto to do the book, she categorically told him that the “book would have nothing to do with my life.” But that’s precisely what this compilation of fractured memories all about.

                She does talk about her failed marriage to hotelier Tikki Oberoi, though she does not reflect on the causes of break-up in less than three years during which she gave birth to girl twins, and miscarriage—a son. She had a long live-in relationship with poet Dom Moraes (or was it ‘Morose’) before getting married, having yet another miscarriage (after seeing ‘mother’s slim feet enveloped in flames’), again ‘a baby boy’ who had long toes, like Dom.

By Suresh Kohli

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