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03 January 2013

Leela - A Patchwork Life

Leela Naidu with Jerry Pinto
Penguin India
Rs 450
Oddly enough, it was writing the tribute to Ravi Shankar that reminded me of Leela Naidu again. I had watched Anuradha many times (though the movie's ending always irked me), and had always loved its music. So, when we were at a dinner with friends and the topic of Ravi Shankar came up, so did Anuradha and its music, and by extension, Leela Naidu, the film's eponymous heroine. 

I had bought Leela - A Patchwork Life a year or so ago, after reading excerpts from it on rediff.com, but like many a book gathering dust on my bookshelf, had never got around to reading it. The after-dinner conversation with our friends made my husband pick the book up, and he said he found it interesting. So, when he finished with it, and I found my insomnia attacking a couple of days ago, I began reading the book and didn't put it down until I finished, sleep notwithstanding. 

What I remember of Leela Naidu, the actress, is her portrayal of Anuradha, a talented singer who gives up her career to become the wife of an idealistic village doctor. The film explored her increasing frustrations at giving up an essential part of herself, as well as the neglect she faces as her husband becomes more and more engrossed in his work. I remember thinking the first time I saw the movie that the film would have had a much better impact with a heroine who could actually act. 

Neither did other films (Ye Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke, Trikaal, The Householder) make me change my opinion about her acting skills. So imagine my surprise when I read her reminiscences and learn that no less a personage than new-wave director Jean Renoir taught her to act!

By all accounts, Leela Naidu led an eventful life. Born of an Indian father who was a noted physicist and a French mother who was a journalist of repute, young Leela grew up in India, Paris and Switzerland. She was multi-lingual, and exposed to a wide variety of experiences and people. Roberto Rossellini, Ingrid Bergman, Rosenthal, Jean Renoir, Indira Gandhi, Balasaraswati, Salvador Dali, Mahatma Gandhi - these are names that appear in the book; yet, it is not name-dropping so much as sharing a connection that she has with these diverse set of people with us, her readers.

What makes the A Patchwork Life interesting are the anecdotes: how Sarojini Naidu (her paternal aunt) asked a young Leela to offer chocolates to 'Mickey Mouse', and how Leela discovered later who Mickey Mouse was, and how Mickey Mouse delved into the chocolates like a little boy; how Dom Moraes decided to ask her father for her hand, and how her father told her that it was good to be loyal, 'but it's no good trying to defend the indefensible.'

Then there are the anecdotes about the film industry. Leela was already married and a mother when Hrishikesh Mukherjee signed her to act in Anuradha. Incidentally, much before this happened, Hrishida's friend Raj Kapoor had offered her a four-film contract. (RK's note was addressed 'To a peeping face in a moving car'.) One that she had rejected because she was set on going to Oxford. But Hrishikesh Mukherjee persisted, even offering her a complete script. There are some humorous asides about being offered inflatable bras and two caterpillars (false eyelashes) as well as being told to wear three satin petticoats so she would less like 'a TB patient'. 
Yet, she had a good experience working with Hrishikesh Mukherjee who she says 'never directed; he just offered comments.' There is also a sly rap on the knuckles for Balraj Sahni, who, though he was a gentleman, was not above trying his luck, while Ashok Kumar, who was a phenomenally busy actor then, never knew the name of the film, or that of his character, or that of his co-stars'. 

The anecdote that made me laugh out loud, though, was the one she shares about Shashi Kapoor when they were shooting The Householder. Jennifer (Kendall) once told Shashi (in Leela's hearing), 'Why don't you act?' 'I'm acting, Jennifer,' he protested. Jennifer's reaction was dry (and classic): 'No, you were not. You were fluttering your lashes.'

There is a very interesting story about Ye Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke that would interest anyone who is curious about the backstory of films. Commonly accepted as based on the Nanavati murder case, the film's heroine even called a press conference to set the record straight. 

She is blunt about the lack of organisation in the film industry, and what she saw as its callousness towards anybody but the stars. She mentions how she was called a 'communist' for standing up for the plight of the extras (a term she abhorred) on the sets, even locking horns with Arundhati Roy on the sets of Electric Moon. (She is quite caustic about Roy's present concern for displaced people, considering Roy didn't have much sympathy for the workers on her husband's film sets earlier.)

There was much more to Leela Naidu than being an actress. As she says herself, 'The film industry and I never understood each other.' She had worked as editor for a couple of magazines, including Society, where she took over from Shobha De; she was also a well-known producer whose documentaries on socially relevant subjects made waves. She had directed documentaries and short films, some of which had won awards. She had written scripts for films, done radio shows, translated Ionescu and Gunter Grass, and been a dubbing artiste. She had learnt Bharatanatyam from Balasaraswati herself, and was an accomplished pianist.

Salvador Dali painted her. Vogue listed her as one of the 'Five Most Beautiful Women' in the world. While that did not go to her head, her meeting with Alfred Hitchcock was classic - while shooting for A Face in the Sun, they needed a steam engine to shoot the scene where Anna gets down at a small university town. After they finished shooting at Universal Studios, she heard someone clapping. 'Beautiful', he sighed. Leela looked around. A fat man with a face like a bulldog (as Leela describes him) was introduced to her; he greeted her and then pointed to the engine - 'She's beautiful, isn't she?' 
There are several mentions of racism/classicism and her attempts to level the playing field. The patting-self-on-the-back does get a bit much, though I'm sure it did happen as she said it did. After all, her body of work stands evidence to her sensibilities. It's perhaps because there is not much else to balance the self-kudos. It is also perhaps because she is so restrained in her telling that the narrative is stilted in a few places.  While the latter part of the book has many references to Dom Moraes, for instance, her narrative is very clinical, reflecting more on her unpaid duties as his secretary, transcribing his unreadable handwriting and taking down notes as he interviewed famous personalities across the world than on any personal woes. 

Yet, there is a untold sense of poignancy - for what she had lost, for what she had never attained, for her untold 'trials and tribulations'. Perhaps it comes from an inherent distaste at washing dirty linen in public. She skims over her failed marriages, first to Tiki Oberoi, the scion of the Oberoi hoteliers, and then to famed novelist Dom Moraes, her childhood friend. That both marriages were unhappy was a well-known fact, yet there is very little expression of her grief at the end of those relationships, or her suffering at losing custody of her daughters. Her distaste for exposing her private life to the public eye is evident in her prologue: “I would willingly bare the scabs on my soul were I to suspect that there would be some value in so doing.” Yet, what remains untold is just as interesting as what is revealed.

Her autobiography is not so much an autobiography as it is a montage of 'scenes' from her rich and varied life, anecdotes about people she had met and encounters she cherished. She also knew that any story that is told is only a narrative of a certain period in one's life, not the whole truth about that person. And so, in her words, this was the story of 'the Leela I know'. She also enters a caveat - the Leela she was may have had a different view of her life from the Leela who is now narrating this story, and the perspective of her life may change yet again.
At 180 pages, you are in no danger of tiring of the book before you finish it. Co-author Jerry Pinto, to whom she narrated her story orally, does a yeoman job in keeping his voice out of her narrative (the book underwent 17 drafts before it attained its present form). That is fortunate because Leela Naidu has a very interesting 'voice'. As interesting as the narrative is when she is talking about her brush with the film industry both here and abroad, it is the little vignettes of her life as a child and a teen that make for riveting reading. So, if you want to know about a naked Russian count who came to tea, or the story of a lampshade made out of human skin, or her debates on theology, or the story of how she became the Princess of Kuch-Nahin, do dip into this charming and idiosyncratic memoir.

It's a fascinating account of an age long gone, much like unexpectedly coming across sepia photographs from your great-grandmother's trunk. There is a sense of déjà vu, of seeing something that you have seen once and forgotten, but that is still not erased from the deepest recesses of your memory. It brings both smiles and tears, and just like those faded photographs leave you with many unanswered questions, so does this narrative. Reading this book, however, and realising that she died not soon after the book was published does leave, in Jerry Pinto's words, 'A Leela-shaped hole in my heart.'


  1. This is creepy. I don't often read cinema-related books. But I just have finished reading one, and have been writing up a review of it while it's still fresh in my mind - though I'll probably post the review later. And, oddly enough, my review too has a mention of Leela Naidu, quoted from the book.

    This book, though, sounds much better and more polished than the one I read. I doubt if I'll get around to reading it, even though that hint of the naked Russian count coming to tea is tantalising! :-D 

  2. Anu, I've had similar reservations about Leela Naidu, based on 'Anuradha' and 'Householder' - her acting, or lack of it, was hilarious, at times. Can't believe she had acting lessons from Renoir. :) The book though seems a fascinating read. 

  3.  It is weird. It's like living parallel lives. Wonder if anyone would believe it if we made a movie script out of this?

    If you can get your hands on it, do read it. They are just small chapters, vignettes really, and she does have a way of telling stories. Very, very interesting.

  4.  Banno, same here. Even knowing Renoir tutored her doesn't change my opinion that she was more wooden than a plank of wood. She was beautiful, though, and very, very intelligent. What is more, she knows how to tell a story.

  5. Leela Naidu ought
    to be quite lucky in so far as her acting career is concerned. She got
    hold of not one - which could have been due to her
    very beautiful photogenic face- but three  really good
    films that required the heroines to not only act , but, probably live he roles of
    those films- so powerful characters each one was.

    And then she has
    got Anuji to carry out such a succinct, but (probably all that one would
    need to know!) complete review of the book.

    I have also have seen
    all three films several times and may still se some more times - for reasons
    other than Leela Naidu, but I may not need to read this book any more now.

  6.  Thank you, Ashokji. How nice of you to praise me so much! :) But oh, do read the book; it is really, really interesting. :))

  7. I'm relieved to know that I'm not the only one who found Leela Naidu wanting in the acting department.  I confess to bewilderment when folks talk about her nuanced, sensitive performances in "Anuradha", etc.  I guess, like the Emperor's new clothes, her acting was too "subtle" for this plebe.  That said the book sounds interesting...and short enough to read. :-)

  8.  Shalini, 'nuanced, sensitive performance' my foot! :)) But like you, I'm glad I'm not the only one who found her completely wanting in the acting department. The book is very interesting, though.

  9. I've read somewhere that JN used to be Mickey Mouse for Sarojini Naidu. But this little titbit is quite delicious, given the Bollywood (wonder what it was called back then) connect. Good job, Anu, I am tempted to add this one too to my shelf, which has Innocent, Srinivasan and Mohanlal's biographies and the R D Burman compendium presently. Not that I am a huge fan of Ms. Naidu Jr, but then if this be a nice little window to look into the past; I am game. Thank you!

  10.  Not JN, Boby, someone else. :)) It is a very interesting book, so I have no qualms in recommending it.


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