Leela Naidu’s death marks the passing of an age when art was a real expression that fought its way up from the messy business of life, says Manjula Narayan
THOSE BORN with great beauty are condemned to grapple with its ambiguous power. Its eerie afterglow bathes their actions long after that beauty has faded. The wise ones sidestep the pathetic fate of the forgotten matinee idol by cultivating a life of the mind. Femina Miss India 1954, Leela Naidu, once anointed by Vogue as one of the most beautiful women in the world, the Aishwarya Rai of her time, never coasted along enveloped by that sense of entitlement of the very beautiful. The obituaries have mentioned the particulars of her life: that her father was nuclear physicist Ramaiah Naidu and her mother French, that she starred in Merchant Ivory’s first film The Householder with Shashi Kapoor, that she gave up a career in Hindi films to marry hotelier Tikki Oberoi with whom she had twin daughters, and that her next marriage to poet Dom Moraes lasted until the late 1990s, when they separated acrimoniously after he fell in love with a younger woman. But Leela Naidu wasn’t just a celebrated beauty with awful luck when it came to men. She was acutely intelligent, a trait that struck me on the one occasion I dined with her and Dom at their apartment in Sargent House in Colaba. The food was presented with more élan than it is at a luxury hotel. But the conversation made me nervous. While Dom spoke about his poetry, Leela threw in the barbs. “AK Ramanujan is a better poet than you are,” she finally pronounced.
In the early years of their marriage, Naidu and Moraes had a fruitful partnership. She traveled with him on his journalistic assignments and acted as his amanuensis. “Several of Dom’s poems mention her. Future Plans, in which he talks about her miscarriages and the babies they never had, is lovely,” says writer Jeet Thayil. Naidu was no lightweight herself. Besides translating Ionesco’s essays, she worked as line producer on Kumar Shahani’s first documentary and on a Louis Malle film.
And then there was her generosity. “The young poets of the 1980s in Mumbai were regularly fed, watered and given advice by her on a weekly basis, and we all owe her,” says Thayil. Her absolute fearlessness could land her in difficult situations, as it did in the 1990s when, returning from the hospital with her ailing father, she found the approach to her building blocked by a Muslim congregation. “She got out of the car and said ‘Is this prayer or is this gymnastics’. It could have turned ugly if Dom hadn’t sorted it out. She didn’t care about consequences,” says Thayil.
Writer Jerry Pinto remembers her grace. “Every week, for three years, I visited her. When I presented her with the first draft of her autobiography, she seemed awed that there should be a book about her,” he says. Naidu’s onscreen persona was imbued with that same grace. “In The Householder, she added an authenticity to her role as a young woman trying to work out her relationship with a husband she barely knows,” says film critic Meenakshi Shedde. “In Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal, even her silences spoke,” she says.
Benegal, who first met Naidu while making a commercial for Finlays Fabric in the 1960s, remembers her “skin like porcelain”. “She could be difficult, but professionally, she was very accommodating,” he says, suggesting that her death at 69 was the result of an unhappy life. Leela Naidu belonged to an earlier era when Indian English literature wasn’t slickly marketed and writers and their lovers infused works with their own crazy excesses. Her death marks the passing of an age when art wasn’t a commodity but a real expression that fought its way up from the messy business of life.