Makings of a real star

Bollywood cannot always script happy endings. Innumerable stories, apocryphal and stark, swirl as you delve into the past. It is those legendary ‘stars’ who had been instrumental in laying the foundation stones of the industry, which today boasts of being the biggest in the world. Obviously, they are a pale shadow of their glorious past, when they were at the pinnacle of popularity. They have always remained enigmatic for the public and their fans. A peep into the dimly lit, inner corners of their personal life certainly does not dispel the aura of mystique surrounding them.

Leela Naidu died recently, at the age of 69. Way back in 1954, she was crowned Miss India and named one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world by Vogue. Naidu acted in just a handful of films. However, over the years that only added to her mystique.
 
But she was always overriding that ‘most beautiful woman’ tag because it was so manifestly true. Even as she grew older, Naidu had the sort of natural, serene beauty that simply seemed to exist without any effort. It wasn’t beauty that insistently grabbed one’s attention, but it would always draw the eye back to wonder and be refreshed.
It was also a beauty that for a while helped define the face of India to the outside world. Naidu was one amongst a group of beautiful Indian women who, from the ‘40s to the early ‘60s, helped create an idea of a beautiful, elegant and accomplished new nation. This included Rani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, (who too has parted the world to accompany her yesteryear’s pal), the other name that people remember from that ‘10 most beautiful women’ list and Nayantara Sahgal, the writer and Jawaharlal Nehru’s niece.

They were obviously not just pretty faces, but had their careers as actresses and writers, or their royal heritage like Gayatri Devi, which she then used to launch her political career. They also intrigued the West by often marrying and having children at an early age, but then continuing to lead their glamourous lives. This was still hardly common in the West. One lady, the daughter of an Indian diplomat who studied at the International School in Geneva where Naidu was also a student, remembers the sensation the day she arrived. “Everyone was crowding to see Leela Naidu, both because she was so exquisitely beautiful and also at 18, the only student in the school who was already married!”

As a face of a new nation, Naidu succeeded in creating an image that was familiar yet exotic, elegant and accomplished. It is not surprising then that this was the era when India’s other international faces were most admired in the world. Anything seemed possible in India at that time, that just like these remarkable women, we could manage to create a nation that was democratic and equitable, idealistic and effective.
Naidu married at a very early age to Bikki Oberoi, a businessman, which ended in a divorce. She married again to the poet Dom Moraes. Born to an Indian father and Irish mother, she made her debut in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha (1960). Naidu lent both grace and dignity to her character of the neglected wife of a devoted doctor, played by an equally dignified Balraj Sahni. It helped that Pandit Ravi Shankar composed some of his finest songs to be filmed on her, such as ‘Jaane kaise sapnon mein kho gayeen ankiyan’ and ‘Kaise din beete kaisi beeti ratiyan’.

Her most talked about film was Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke (1963), based on the famous real-life Nanavati case, where a naval officer shot a playboy philandering with his English wife. In the conservative 60s, many heroines would have refused the role. But Naidu imbued the part with style and intelligence. It’s a pleasure watching her in a black dress crooning ‘Yeh khamoshiyan, yeh tanhaiyan’ with Sunil Dutt in the snow-capped surroundings.

Her performance as the free-spirited young wife opposite Shashi Kapoor in James Ivory’s The Householder (1963) also won plaudits. But she acted in some forgettable movies too — Baaghi (with Pradeep Kumar in 1964), director Nitin Bose’s Ummeed (with Ashok Kumar, Joy Mukherjee in 1971), and a fleeting appearance in The Guru (1969) — before quitting filmdom.

Leela Naidu’s co-star Shashi Kapoor comments, “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.”

After a sabbatical, she resorted to a second innings in Hindi films with Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal (1985). Even in the role of a Goan matriarch, her timeless grace and elegance shone through. Her last film was Pradeep Krishan’s Electric Moon (1992). 

The reticent Leela Naidu was averse to Hindi commercial cinema. She felt that mainstream cinema did not give her much scope to exhibit her histrionic abilities. She always said, “In a type of cinema where illogical  songs and dances rule the roost, what can I deliver?”

She will always be a benchmark for Bollywood beauty. No Hindi film heroine, with the possible exception of Madhubala and Suchitra Sen, was as enchanting or entrancing as Leela Naidu, who passed away after a prolonged bout of influenza. Yet, Naidu was no colossus. At no time did she command the tinsel world or ride high on the success of star ratings. But everybody undoubtedly adored her. Perhaps that is what it means to be a ‘great star’.  

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