The Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women, or SPARROW, pioneered the idea of a camera, a woman, a story. In film after film, the same formula yielded rich results in terms of documentation, even if the quality of the films was often questionable. Lila, a documentary film by Bidisha Roy Das and Priyanjana Dutta, works on much the same principle. There’s a camera, a woman and her story as told by her. The difference is Leela Naidu, the actor, who, as we all know by now, was once nominated as one of the most beautiful women of the world by Vogue.
This is almost as much as anyone knows about the star of films such as The Householder, Anuradha, Ye Rastey Hain Pyar Ke, Electric Moon and Trikaal. When she died last month, there was as much misinformation about her in the press as there was misunderstanding about her life. Lila is not going to be of much help in dispelling those myths but then it isn’t meant to be a biopic. It is a series of stories, held together by the effortless storytelling skills of its narrator and the beauty of its black-and-white camerawork. We have always been saturated with colour; black and white works to remind us we are now in the realms of art. Any attempt at biography or autobiography is also art. It involves a process of selecting details, a sculpting of those details into a story, and it is coloured by the position from which it is told.
Inner beauty: Naidu in her prime. AFP
Lila is told from Naidu’s perspective. It is an intimate film, only marred by the precious diary format. This is how it goes: Montage of images. A diary opens. A copperplate script—which operates as visual referent to another age and as formalizing device—is used to introduce each segment.
Long ago, Naidu told me about a television crew that had come to her home. They asked her to do her piece to camera and then they wanted some mood shots. They wanted her to go and look at the picture by Bert Stern, the fashion photographer who famously remarked, “She has no bad angles”. They had her dust it and the voice-over talked about how she lived in the past.
Thankfully, there is none of that manipulation here. The camera looks at Naidu as if she were a human being. It catches her coquetry; it catches her misery, not for herself but for humanity. She is almost without affect when she talks about the horrors of her own past. She admits to the hubris of wanting to change sad men by marrying them. She talks about her daughter Priya being high on LSD even before she was in her teens. She talks of Dom Moraes’ abandonment but she does not weep. It is only the memory of Hiroshima that brings on the tears.
What does one make of that? Nothing. Everything. Lives are like that. They are complex, they are multivalent. Someone else’s life will never make perfect sense. It is to the credit of Lila’s directors that they leave the ambiguities unchanged. They let Naidu ask, “Am I boring you?” And in those moments, a great and desolate dignity is shaped.
Lila will be screened on 16 September at 6.30pm at the India International Centre in New Delhi.
Jerry Pinto is a freelance writer and author of Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb.Write to firstname.lastname@example.org