It was Adil Jussawalla, the poet and man of belles-lettres, who told me the story of Leela Naidu’s grandmother, the monk we call Rasputin and a naked count in a French garden.

“She should write those down," I said. “They’ll vanish."

Luminous: Naidu (right) also worked as an editor and film producer; with Shashi Kapoor in The Householder. AFP

“I was wondering if you would care to help me with my autobiography," said Naidu. And so over the next three years, I went over to Sargent House, a beautiful colonial block of apartments in Colaba, south Mumbai, a flat given in perpetuity by the Tatas to her father Ramaiah Naidu, the man who worked with Marie Curie and helped set up the radiology programme at Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai.

We sat at the dining table— Naidu, one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world according to Vogue, and I, and we talked. We talked about Jean Renoir, who had called La Comédie Francaise’s Paul Meurisse to teach Naidu improvisation. We talked about Roberto Rossellini, who called Ingrid Bergman un peu cabotin.

“What does that mean ‘cabotin’?" I asked.

“It’s not a nice word," she sighed. “It means she was something of a grandstander, who acted from the surface."

“Did you think so?"

Her face, mobile and expressive, fell.

“No. But at that time, what did I know? I had only acted in an experimental film, Leela où la fille qui veut égaler les dieux or Leela or the girl who wanted to equal the gods. There was no script. All I had was a framework and I was supposed to improvise movement around the five ideas that would animate the five scenes of the film, all set to a montage of Stravinsky music."

She thought for a moment.

“But I did feel as if I had let my own opinions down."

There is a school of thought that believes Naidu let herself down. She was married early, had twins, divorced young. She acted in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha and the film won the President’s medal. She acted in The Householder and a film based on the Nanavati murder case, Yeh Rastey Hain Pyar Ke. She did a perfectly splendid job of her cameo in The Guru and of the role of a batty Indian royal in Electric Moon. She carried Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal on the shoulders of a trooper. That’s not much of a filmography.

It isn’t. But she also travelled the world. She edited a magazine at which publisher and novelist David Davidar and the poet Manohar Shetty worked. She did a television film in America and dubbed Hong Kong action films.

Photo: Gautam Patole

“Are you coming tomorrow?" she would ask. “I have to count the number of bags of cement they are using in the plastering work and there is a letter I simply must write to the Housing Board, but that should be done by 11."

And it would be done by 11am. She would be waiting, a cigarette unlit, a cup of coffee at her elbow, a glint in her eye, a memory waiting to be unearthed and recorded. I met her last week and she was much the same, although she was now confined to her bedroom. The death of her daughter, Priya, last year, had not been easy and she found moving difficult. But she had written the last chapter of the book we had worked on together and she wanted me to see it.

“An epilogue," she said. “But I will have to do it myself."

She had a horror of writing, she had told me more than once. “I couldn’t," she said. “Not after seeing how Dom sweated as he worked, how much pain writing caused him."

But she wrote it and showed it to me. It was written with some of her characteristic wit. When she came to the list of people she would like to thank, she wrote, “And now for a final flurry of wishes for all those who have got this far. (Shame on you if you skipped to the end to see if your name was in here.)"

The last lines were prescient: “To all of you I say, adieu."

Jerry Pinto is a freelance writer and author of Helen: The Life and Times of an H-Bomb.

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