13 December 2010

Leela - A Patchwork Life

Pages: 180
Price: Rs 450
Publishers: Penguin Vikings

The faintest memory one has of Leela Naidu is that of Anuradha, the haunting, virginal beauty in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 1960s film with Balraj Sahni. There were a few more fleeting appearances from her on the screen, but by and large, she remained a figure known only to a close circle of friends in Mumbai, where she stayed till her death earlier this year.

Leela - A Patchwork Life is an autobiographical book, that captures some of highlights of her life - and there were many. She died before the book was published a few months back. She was 69. The multi-lingual, multi-cultural Leela was one of the most well-traveled, well-read people of her times, and French launguage in particular was ingrained into her system.

Born to an physicist Indian father and a French-journalist mother, Leela was thrown in the company of illustrious men and women very early on. Hindi films were incidental to her life. She acted in a few films, got married into a rich industrial family (Oberois), delivered twins, got divorced, married poet/writer Dom Moraes and stayed together for 25 years, until they separated. However, none of the personal tragedies in her life find a place in the book. In her prologue, she enumerates the incidences in just one sentence, but it unmistakably carries the weight of memory. 'I do not see what use it would be to recount my 'trials and tribulations', except to add to yet another narrative of feminine pain to the ones that are already extant."

If that was all there was to Leela's life - which she anyway didn't wish to talk about -- the exercise would seem pointless. If the book is still so readable it's because the memoir teems with wonderful anecdotes from a bygone era, where she came in close contact with some great luminaries of her time. Her parents were fairly influential in their fields, and Leela was privi to many of these personalities visiting her home from time to time. She remembers filmmaker Roberto Rossellini loving her mom's cooking and when Leela goes to Paris for a certain medical reason, she has his wife and legendary actress Ingrid Bergman for company. In one of the most interesting chapters of her life, she forms a close association with new wave director Jean Renoir, who teaches her some vital aspects of acting. In one of the episodes, she describes how Renoir got her to read a particular scene and led her through a series of exercises in what he described as the 'ifness' of the play. What if the character was such and such? The text was merely to be the framework and each interpretation could bring something new to that framework...

Obviously, her exposure to world cinema and her interactions with the masters had a bearing when she acted in films later on. In what is perhaps the most interesting segment of the book, Leela describes her working relationship with Ismail Merchant and James Ivory who made The Householder with her and Sashi Kapoor. Someone senior sees the clippings of the film and praises Leela for her good use of her toes in a scene where she is angry and on a hunger-strike. Leela had not noticed it at all. "I believe that if you know what one part of your body is doing, or you're planning what your eyebrows are going to do, you're not acting, you're modelling," she views.

Once Leela approaches her teens, her luminous beauty is noticed by all. Raj Kapoor who she is told has the 'regretable tendency of falling in love with his leading ladies', is struck by her good looks and offers her a four year contract. Leela says she was never very keen on films. Yet, she accepts Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anuradha and describes the experience as pleasant. She seems to have shared a bitter-sweet equation with co-star Balraj Sahni. She says he lend his gravitas to many films that didn't deserve it, and then goes on to tell us that for all his gentlemanliness, Sahni was not above 'trying his luck with her' The other high point was when Vogue mazagine listed as one of the five most beautiful woman in the world.

Leela's inherent delicacy of speech and elegance prevents her from ever turning vitriolic towards any known figure, but she nevertheless gets across her point, either saying it plainly or then employing clever sarcasm. The latter she uses for her husband Dom Moraes (not being able to resist calling him 'morose'), who was also her childhood friend. Leela talks about how she was his unpaid secretary for years, taking down notes for him and interpreting his 'mumbling questions' as he interviewed high-profile personalities all around the globe. One of them happened to be Indira Gandhi, who kept giving them monosyllabic answers.

The first half of the book is made interesting only because of some the famous interactions she had, otherwise Leela's language often tends to get stilted and there is the appearance of some dainty posturing as well. One theme that is repeated episode after episode is Leela's good Samaritan acts. So either she is fighting for the rights of the 'extras' on the film sets, or taking up some racism issue. Leela's concerns may well be genuine, and that is plausible given how she went on to make documentaries on a variety of socially relevant subjects later on, but her self-projection as a do-gooder gets tedious to read after a point. Leela presents herself in no better than in the best light possible always, which makes the memoir seem quite imbalanced.

But the book grows on you and Leela has many valuable insights to share along the way. Her observations of Indian film units - make-up men keeping their shoes in the same trunk which contains the cosmetics - or Leela finding her expensive clothes being returned in shabby condition after use - point at their callous disregard for others. "The film industry and I never understood each other," she writes finally.

The writing has its moments, and at 180 pages, the  book never overstays its welcome. The book was narrated orally to writer Jerry Pinto. People who know Pinto believe that there is a definite shadow of him in the writing. It seems very likely he anchored the material. But what you get in the end is an engaging book that takes you back in time and entrances you with the scents and smells of an antiquated time.

1 comment:

Aparna patrao said...

All my fave books, plus the ones iv been wanting to read. AND uv read cinnamon gardens! Too good to be true. Were we separated at birth?