Leela Naidu incarnated an ideal of luminous beauty and flawless elegance that was almost too perfect to bear, perhaps most of all for herself. The truth of this poetic speculation can only be borne out by her future biographers, but for many of Mumbai’s citizens, Naidu’s death on Tuesday closes yet another chapter in the city’s history as a cosmopolitan hub. Her claim to the public sphere was not based on her career as an occasional, though memorable, actor. She was, quite simply, a legend, the symbol of a Zeitgeist.
Although she had, for over a decade, withdrawn into a private world peopled mainly by memories, Naidu never lost her hold over the city’s imagination. To those who cherish Mumbai as it was before the decades of ethnic tension and road rage, Naidu embodied the grace of a city that allowed actors, poets, journalists, scientists, painters and filmmakers to come together and produce a vibrant culture of conversation and collaboration.
This writer vividly recalls Naidu’s home in Colaba, south Mumbai, from the late 1980s. She and the celebrated poet and memoirist Dom Moraes, to whom she was then married, had crafted around themselves an environment replete with carefully chosen books, paintings, textiles and ritual objects. The openness of this home was not without its hazards. If young poets and journalists dropped in on them, in quest of advice and affection, less savoury characters also took advantage of Naidu and Moraes’ kindness.
Born to an Indian father and a French mother, Naidu came into prominence early. Vogue voted her one of the ten most beautiful women in the world in the 1950s. She first illuminated the screen in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1960 film, Anuradha, playing a wealthy and musically gifted young woman who renounces metropolitan life to accompany her husband, an idealistic doctor, into rural obscurity. Obsessed with his work, the husband, played by Balraj Sahni, does not notice his wife gradually wilting away, her musical instruments untouched beneath a layer of dust.
Naidu went on to act in several other films, including Merchant-Ivory’s inaugural production, The Householder (1963), and their The Guru (1969). She also played the grand matriarch of a fractious Goan clan fading into decline in Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal (1985). But, in retrospect, her first film seems to have held many of the leitmotifs of her life.
She was married twice: first to Bikki Oberoi, son of the distinguished hotelier M. S. Oberoi, and later to Dom Moraes. Both marriages ended unhappily, and her last years were spent in a self-imposed isolation through which some devoted friends attempted, without uniform success, to break. Those who knew her well often voiced the feeling that Naidu had never been able to fulfill the potential for which her birth, upbringing and education had equipped her.
Indeed, she belonged to that rapidly disappearing class of people, of whom words like birth and upbringing can be used without irony.
They recognised the role they were meant to play in a civilisation rather than a society, even if circumstances conspired to prevent them from playing that role in full measure. It is possible that Naidu was doomed by her membership of a lost intermediate generation of Indian women, who came of age after the structures of feudal and colonial patriarchy had collapsed, but before the advent of feminism made it possible for women to shape and manage careers in the public sphere as agents of their own choice and destiny.
Leela Naidu was among the last of Mumbai’s truly Romantic figures. As with all such figures, the legend came to overwhelm the life.
Ranjit Hoskote is a poet, cultural theorist and independent curator.