Indian cinema lost one of its most luminous beauties this week. Leela Naidu had the kind of timeless face that grew more gorgeous as it aged: she was like supernacular wine,worthy of being drunk to the last drop. She wasnt a great actor,but then she didnt need to be one: she could just come on the screen,and the camera would start slobbering over her.
We rewind to three of her films: one in which she began her dalliance with movies,another in which she charmed the socks off of one of the most handsome stars of Hindi cinema,and the third in which she is shown weathering the slope gracefully,in the twilight of a briefly realised career,if career it can be called.
She made a striking debut in Anuradha,one of Hrishikesh Mukherjis most loved films,in which she is a modern girl,with all the attributes of a liberal upbringing,forced to live in a village,because that is where her idealistic doctor husbands heart lies. Balraj Sahni plays the dedicated daaktar saheb with the sort of dignity only he could bring to a role. He is bowled over by her,but cautions her against following her heart. She doesnt listen,of course. And the way she reconciles to her way of life comes out of a powerful feminist message,radical for its times.
Ravi Shankars music made Anuradha really special: Kaise din beetey,kaise beeteein ratiyaan is as appealing today as it was then,when Naidu lip-synched it in the film.
Merchant-Ivorys The Householder didnt give her as much space as it did its charming leading man Shashi Kapoor,but you cant imagine that film without Naidu. The two play a newly married couple,coming to terms with the thorny things that go with the territory: a territorial mother-in-law played by the doughty Durga Khote and an unexpected pregnancy (its all your fault,she tells her aghast husband as he contemplates the awful thought of bringing up another on his measly school-teacher salary,and you have to chuckle). Its hard to beat Kapoor in the looks stakes,and here he is particularly winsome neat haircut,cotton kurta-pajama,and killer smile,but Naidu manages to upstage him,effortlessly.
Watch out for a special segment in the DVD which has a corpulent Kapoor harking back to the shoot of The Householder. His co-stars angelic looks belied her temperament: Naidu,he says,was difficult to work with,often forcing the producer-director duo to tear their hair out.
Even in Trikal,one of Shyam Benegals gentler pastoral rambles,where Naidu plays grieving widow Dona Maria Souza-Soares,she gets no competition from any of the younger girls Neena Gupta is sexy in a blowsy sort of way,Anita Kanwar is tight-lipped and held-in,Sabira Merchant is merely well-groomed. Naidu sits mostly in a rocking chair,black mantilla lace obscuring her face,and you cant look away.
They broke the mould,when they made her.