Adored by millions but abandoned by those she loved... Reliving the late Leela Naidu’s tragic tale of dreams and dust…
An exotic blend of cross-continent genes, Leela Naidu’s beauty, like her persona, defied description. She had both the sensuality of the East and the spunk of the West.
Being crowned Miss India (1954) was just a precursor for someone, who featured for years in Vogue’s list of the world’s most beautiful women along with Maharani Gayatri Devi.
So dreamlike was her beauty surrealist painter, Salvador Dali, saw his Madonna in her. David Lean wanted to cast her as Tonya in Dr. Zhivago. Satyajit Ray desired her to be part of The Journey alongside Marlon Brando. Raj Kapoor planned a four-film contract with her. But she dodged them all. She was too free a spirit to be reined in by expectations and expediency.
In a three-decade career, she did a handful of films from which Anuradha, Yeh Raste Hain Pyar Ke, The Householder and Trikaal remain memorable.
What perhaps defined and also dented her narrative were her two failed marriages. The first one with Tikki Oberoi, scion of the Oberoi chain of hotels, and the second with author/poet Dom Moraes.
While one spelt power, the other promised poetry. Sadly, both crumbled, compelling Leela to retreat into a world, peopled by memories...
MATTERS OF ART
Leela made her film debut alongside Balraj Sahni in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha (1960). She played a wife, who gives up singing to follow her doctor husband (Balraj Sahni) to a village. While he’s immersed in his duties, her loneliness draws her to another man. Eventually, she gains a new perspective.
The film won the National Award for Best Film and was nominated for Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival (1961).
Anuradha has classical tracks like Haye re woh din kyon na aaye, Jaane kaise sapnon mein and Kaise din beete composed by Pandit Ravi Shankar.
What grabbed headlines was R. K. Nayyar’s crime thriller, Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke (1963), a fictionalised adaptation of the controversial K Maneckshaw Nanavati vs State of Maharashtra case. In 1959, Naval Commander Kawas Manekshaw Nanavati killed wife Sylvia’s paramour Prem Ahuja. The incident received unprecedented media coverage.
The film had Sunil Dutt playing beleaguered husband Anil Kumar G. Sahni, Leela Naidu as his adulterous wife Neena and Rehman as cad Ashok Shrivastav. Leela played a flawed character in an era when audiences couldn’t accept ethically compromised heroines. The song Ye khaamoshiyaan ye tanahaaiyaan from the film remains popular.
The Ismail Merchant-James Ivory production, The Householder (1963) had Shashi Kapoor play a professor in Delhi, while Leela played his new bride. His impatience and her sensitiveness make their marriage hit rough weather with the mother-in-law aggravating the conflict.
She quit films to marry Tilak Raj Oberoi, the heir to the luxurious Oberoi Hotels chain in 1969.
Years later she returned to do Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal (1985), a colonial drama, where she played a distraught widow. Leela later appeared in Pradeep Kishan’s Electric Moon (1992). Written by Arundhati Roy, it was a parody on Westerners visiting India. Ram Dayal’s Baghi (1964), a costume extravaganza co-starring Pradeep Kumar marked the end of her film career.
“Our mainstream films depend on illogical songs and dances - maybe I was a misfit,” she once said. Also for someone, who was well-versed with the classics, someone who could discuss acting theories and appreciate world music… to be just equated with her beauty was disparaging.
The erudite produced a documentary on mentally challenged children titled A Certain Childhood, directed by Kumar Shahni. She turned editor for an elite magazine and also translated the works of French playwright Eugene Ionesco. She dubbed for action films in Hong Kong and back home made a film for JRD Tata on washroom etiquettes on a plane.
MATTERS OF THE HEART
While she had no dearth of admirers, for Leela, love was an elusive dream. In 1956, 17-year-old Leela married hotelier Tilak Raj Oberoi. Known as Tikki, he was 33 then. They had twin daughters, Maya and Priya.
The allegedly abusive marriage soon ended in divorce with Oberoi winning the custody of the girls.
A distraught Leela met philosopher J Krishnamurti while in London and found solace in his teachings. In 1969, she welcomed love once again and married noted poet/author Dom Moraes. They lived between Hong Kong, New York, New Delhi and Mumbai for about 25 years.
In her autobiography Leela - A Patchwork Life, co-authored with Jerry Pinto, she described Dom as someone who, ‘lived under the misapprehension that anything could be improved by alcohol...’ She referred to herself as his ‘unpaid secretary making endless notes and translating his mumbling questions to puzzled people across the globe,’ the affection and the angst both unmistakable in her description.
But then Dom found a new muse and Leela found herself at sea again in the early ’90s.
Friend and writer Sunil Murthy in his memoir on the late Leela titled, ‘Bad liver and a broken heart: A friend remembers Leela Naidu’ (2012) sums up the collapsing of her two marriages, “Her first marriage to Tikki Oberoi… was a sordid saga of rum, sodomy and the lash… In the second, there was a brilliant poet, and also a mumbling cheat and liar, with a fondness for liquor...”
Leela never recovered from being betrayed by Dom Moraes (he passed away in 2004). She then on led a reclusive life in Colaba. Someone, who was part of privileged invites, she chose to spend the rambling years in the confines of her vintage home cluttered by frayed books and unforgiving memories.
“She lived alone in a large old flat near the seafront in Colaba, attended by a Tamil manservant called Selvam, who kept house, cooked her meals and refilled an enamel mug with ‘ayurvedic medicine’, as she termed her rum, from morning to midnight, and then cleared the ashtray overflowing with butts…,” wrote Murthy.
To pay the bills she apparently took paying guests. “She spent her days sipping the sauce, reading, doing crosswords… watching TV…Sometimes… she would sit staring out of the windows, her hands in her lap and mind faraway,” Murthy revealed in his essay.
Once a style iconoclast with trademark silks, pearls and silver strands, Leela took refuge in cotton gowns and anonymity. “Beauty is one of the most subjective abstractions and standards change,” she pointed out when once reminded about her legendary splendour.
When in a good mood, she’d tend to her garden outside. “But soon she’d be drinking and again withdraw into her world. Intoxication had become her reality; sobriety the illusion,” lamented Murthy.
With time, she began ‘tripping’ around the house.
A wooden stick became her ally.
“An aluminium chamber pot stood in the corner, and her beloved old teddy bear, blind in one eye, stared wordlessly. The stale air smelled like that in a poorhouse,” wrote Murthy bringing out the grim reality of a once serenaded star.
Leela’s daughter Priya died of a heart attack on 8 February 2008. The next year, on 28 July 2009, Leela too passed away after prolonged influenza and other complications. She was 69.
Gayatri Devi, her peer, also celebrated for her beauty, died the next day. Both continue to live on in many a photographer’s prized collections.