By Suman Tarafdar
June 6, 2010
To look at Leela Naidu's legacy as one limited to cinema would be doing a disservice to a compelling life. But as this reclusive diva slowly faded from public life in the last decade before her death in 2009, there increasingly remained fewer who had been part of her life.
Instead, the accent is on the anecdotes being funny, human, memorable. The narration is intelligent, fast-paced and engrossing. Most times, you will end up laughing along as you read the way Moraes was suspected of having murdered someone in Chelsea or when Salman Rushdie did not end up meeting her despite having dinner at her house! That is how Leela Naidu prefers to be remembered, and while this is a quantum jump to the volume of knowledge about this elegant diva, there are times when you wish you know more about the persona when the public glare was off her. Pinto writes, "There's a Leela-shaped hole in my life." True for India as well.
Not many Indians can claim to have Dilip Kumar, Salvador Dali, Ingrid Bergman, Jean Renoir, JRD Tata, Ramnath Goenka, Raj Kapoor, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Peter Ustinov, Sarojini Naidu, Louis Malle, Mother Teresa, Ismail Merchant, Eugene Ionesco, Indira Gandhi, J Krishnamurti as well as Mahatma Gandhi as part of their lives. The legendary Balasaraswati once borrowed her petticoat tape. Roberto Rossellini referred her to a doctor in Paris (she was still in Bombay). Jean Renior coached her acting. She had princess Niloufer of Hyderabad as her 'fairy queen'. Cartier himself picked up her scattered pearls at her Paris hotel. Dali used her as a model to sketch a Madonna. She turned down Raj Kapoor, who wanted to launch her and sign her for four films, to go to Oxford. Alfred Hitchcock preferred a steam engine to her. David Lean considered her for Dr Zhivago. Non-speaking parts in the book include Francois Truffaut, Benito Mussolini, Imelda Marcos, Alberto Sardi and Marie Curie. Leela Naidu was never one to follow the beaten track.
As her just released autobiography, Leela: A Patchwork Life, written in conjunction with Jerry Pinto over the better part of the last decade, reveals, hers was life extraordinaire. She was of Indian-French parentage and spent her childhood in Bombay, Paris and Geneva. She was briefly married at 17 to Tilak Raj, the eldest son of MS Oberoi. She became a mother of twins even before she was 20, but lost them after a custody battle. She was later married to childhood friend and then India's leading poet, Dom Moraes, for more than two decades before the marriage ended.
She led life in the fast lane. Most would have been happy with just a few of her many accolades. Her parents allowed her to choose her religion, and at 7, she chose Sufism. Her participation in Indian cinema was largely at her terms from refusing to wear black satin pantsuit for a villager's role to her refusal to take payment in anything but cheques, hers was perhaps the most untrodden of paths in Indian filmdom. Star photographer Bert Stein thought she had no bad angles.
Subjects she chose to film were, to say the least, unusual. The first film she produced was on children with special needs, which was Kumar Shahani's first film too. She made a film on toilet training for 'Uncle Jeh' as he was finding it difficult to get people to clean airplanes defiled by squatting Punjabi migrants to UK fresh from the farms. She wanted to make a film on the horrendous situation on the miners in Asansol coalmines and the Naxalites. She made films for Hong Kong television that saw her being put on the 'black list', for disturbing the status quo. Her translations were of cream of global voices Ionesco, George Walter, G nter Grass. Her voice against racism was personal and lifelong.
Leela is an unusual biography, actually being largely a series of delightful anecdotes, not always chronological. There are massive gaps the reader has no idea why her marriages broke up, the pain that she endured at various points in her life. The stories of her parents, her spouses, and her children are incomplete here. We do not know when her birthday was, or what she thought of her life in different cities, settings. The litany of names and sheer exotica red elephants, abuses at Kinshasa, a brash Arundhati Roy who cared more for the state of stuffed animals in a fire than humans, a lamp made of human flesh from Nazi concentration camps at a classmate's house, the King of Spain eating only trout cheeks would pall were it not for the amazing tales around them.