India’s last trial by jury was held in 1959. K Maneckshaw Nanavati was tried for shooting Prem Ahuja, his wife’s lover, and acquitted with an 8-1 verdict. It was felt that the jury was influenced by the extensive media coverage. Even as Nanavati later got sentenced to life by a higher court, the case led to the abolition of trial by jury in India in 1960.
Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke, a 1963 film, was based on this case. It is the most noteworthy film of Leela Naidu’s acting career, that too because of the context. Otherwise, she was not much of an actress. Maybe the actress in her could not flower because her acting career was all too brief.
She stumbled into Hindi films in 1960 with Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha. Her last film was Electric Moon in 1992, only her eighth in 32 years. She won some praise for her work opposite Shashi Kapoor in the English language film The Householder, directed by James Ivory. She also appeared in Ummeed (1962), Baaghi (1964), and The Guru (1969), and that was it. She made a brief return in 1985 in Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal, and there was Electric Moon, directed by Pradip Kishen.
Somewhere along the way, she made documentary films, worked as editor of Society magazine, translated French playwright Eugene Ionesco, dubbed Hong Kong action movies, and made a film for JRD Tata on how to use the loo on a plane.
This book’s narrative is similar to Naidu’s career. It moves in fits and starts, leaping backwards and forward, and is reminiscent of writer-director Quentin Tarantino’s non-linear narrative style. Why then should one read this book, you might ask. The answer is simple. This book tells a story that is worth telling.
It is a great blessing to be beautiful. Even greater for those who are not, as they spend their lives watching the beautiful get what they want without having to try much. But what happens when your beauty, however captivating, becomes your only calling card? Naidu seems to have spent a lifetime trying to forge an identity in which her beauty would not be mentioned.
It was quite a battle. Naidu is best known for putting Indian feminity on the world map when fashion magazine Vogue chose her as one of the five most beautiful women in the world. David Lean wanted to cast her as Tonya in Dr Zhivago. Salvador Dali used her as a model for the Madonna. Satyajit Ray wanted to make a film with her and Marlon Brando. Raj Kapoor wanted to sign her up for four films. Dali succeeded, Lean and Ray did not. And she turned down Kapoor.
When Naidu did join films, she retained her scepticism. Her first brush with the industry was a shoe box. Inside it were three bras with rubber baggies tucked inside them. They were equipped with little nozzles so that they could be blown up to the appropriate size. She wondered who blew them up and who decided the appropriate size. Did the heroine herself blow them up and then came out of her dressing room? She imagined an assistant director telling her: “No, Madamji, in this film, you are a 38B cup, remember?” At which she would say, “Oops!” and go back to the nozzle, to deflate or inflate her measurements. Since Naidu could not see herself doing such a thing, she returned the shoe box and almost ended her career in Hindi films. “I don’t think this would have worried me much,” she says.
Naidu enjoyed the advantages of birth and connections. Her father was a nuclear physicist who worked under the supervision of Nobel Laureate Madame Curie for his doctoral thesis in Paris and served as scientific adviser to Unesco. Her mother was a French Indologist. She grew up in Europe, went to an elite school in Switzerland, and, in her teens, took acting lessons from Jean Renoir, whom Citizen Kane director Orson Welles called “The Greatest of All Directors”.
All the privileges, though, failed to ensure a fairytale life for her. All her privileges were tinged with sadness. That included her schooling in Geneva, which exposed her to a vicious physical assault by racists, at a time when Naidu was too young to comprehend why she was targeted.
In 1956, at the age of 17, she married Tilak Raj Oberoi, son of Mohan Singh Oberoi, the founder of the Oberoi Hotels chain. The brief marriage ended in divorce and Oberoi won custody of their twin daughters as the laws believed that the male was better equipped to care for the children. One of the daughters died in 2008.
In 1969, Naidu married poet and writer Dom Moraes. The romance did not last long and was replaced by Naidu’s exasperation. According to her, Moraes believed that anything could be improved by adding alcohol in good measure. After the relationship ended, Naidu led a somewhat reclusive life in Colaba, Mumbai.
This book is full of anecdotes about some of the best known people from history, including one in which Sarojini Naidu sends Leela to meet “Micky Mouse”, only for the little girl to run into Mahatma Gandhi. But the book’s cheery disposition fails to hide the enduring pain that comes through.
It seems Naidu lost her lifelong battle against her own beauty. When she died in Mumbai on July 28 last year, the obituaries gushed about her beauty. It helped the cause of the admiring writers looking for a peg that Gayatri Devi, also known for her beauty, died the next day.
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