It’s a cover that will make you reach out. Leela Naidu, posing with a half-smile and blunt hair for black-and-white—a syncretic beauty who combined European elegance and Indian flair. Okay, so I know a bit about her.
Nonetheless, it’s a stunningly eloquent portrait.
Like Maharani Gayatri Devi, Naidu’s singular, and perhaps most significant, contribution to India is her unmatched elegance. Her contribution to Indian cinema is thin, just a shining sliver of a few good roles. But she is a name, an enigma—even for those unacquainted with her life and work.
Frame: An uncharacteristic pose.
I began reading with some cynicism. Author and journalist Jerry Pinto, who wrote the book with her in the last five years of Naidu’s life, has been quoted often about the lady. Would there be enough in the book to hold a reader for 180 pages?
The foreword, written by Pinto, reminded me a bit of Stanley Booth’s tone in The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. Booth spent a few years with the Stones and did what they did to write this cult book in the 1960s. I write like the Stones make music, he seemed to say between the lines. Pinto, we realize in the beautifully written foreword, has almost relived his subject’s lost moments as she narrated them. After describing a particular conversation with her, Pinto almost sighs, “She was that kind of lady.” The last line of the foreword: “There’s a Leela-shaped hole in my life.”
But after reading the entire book, I realized how that involvement has made it so abidingly readable and so original in the context of Indian memoir writing.
The book is in Naidu’s own voice. Pinto has recorded her meticulously—the retelling of her memories of childhood up until the days she was in bed before her death (Naidu died a few days after the biography was done, and movingly signs “To all of you I say ‘adieu’” in her thank you note).
Pinto’s achievement is the reproduction. The book is neither a typical authorized biography nor a real biography or autobiography. It’s a unique collaboration where the recorder presents a round but rough-around-the-edges portrait, which, in tone and prose, couldn’t possibly be Naidu’s alone. Yet the narrative has the honesty of self-admission.
Naidu was born into an Indo-French lineage, was brought up in Europe and India through the 1950s, was an actor whose beauty was venerated by the media and men of all ages.
She made friends with film-makers, artists, diplomats and writers, but maintained her mystery. Naidu became a recluse after two divorces and the death of one of her daughters. She breathed her last in 2009.
Some details that make for immensely fun reading: When Sarojini Naidu asked little Leela to meet Mickey Mouse, who happened to be Mahatma Gandhi; how her preparation for a career in cinema began in Paris soon after her twins were born; how she met Raj Kapoor and turned down his offer of a four-film contract; her many adventures with her second husband, poet Dom Moraes; how she lost weight for one of her later roles, in Shyam Benegal’s Trikal—the diet included “pinky water”, a solution of potassium permanganate.
Her life with Moraes makes for the riveting chapters in the book, the writing doused in feelings of scorn as well as fondness for her husband: “He lived under the misapprehension that anything could be improved by the addition of alcohol in good measure.”
Leela: A Patchwork Life is a cinematic book written by both writers with heart.
Leela: A Patchwork Life, Penguin/Viking, 180 pages, Rs450.