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LEELA CHITNIS (1909-2003)

Leela Chitnis was a stage and screen actor of the early years of Marathi and Hindi cinema. Born in Dharwar, Karnataka in South India, Leela was the daughter of a professor of English and was well educated. Initially she was a stage actor with Natyamanwantar, an avant garde Marathi theatre group founded by Keshav Narayan Kale, the authors Anant Kanekar and S.V. Vartak, the music director Keshavrao Waman Bhole and the actor Keshavrao Date. Jyotsna Bhole, Keshavrao Bhole’s wife, and Padma Vartak, wife of the author, also acted in the plays, thus making Natyamanwantar a pathbreaker in introducing women of ‘good’ backgrounds to the stage. The plays done by the group were heavily influenced by high modernist theatre such as the work of Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw and Konstantin Stanislavski. Kale translated Stanislavski’s classic An Actor Prepares into Marathi. Leela acted in the comedy Usna Navra in 1934, just a year before the group shut down. Some time later she formed her own theatre group, Natyasadhana, but her divorce made her the sole support of her four children and she had to go into films.

She began working as an extra at the Sagar Movietone studio, and appeared in a few of the mythological films so popular at that time. Ram Daryani gave her an opening in his action films, and in his Gentleman Daku (1937), she dressed as a man to play a thief. But by then she had already gathered a reputation for her role in Chhaya the previous year, where she played a woman who rejected a man because his father had died in jail for stealing money to buy medicines for his dying wife. Leela moved from studio to studio, taking work wherever it was available. She worked at Prabhat Pictures in Pune and at Ranjit Movie tone, playing Ratnavali in Sant Tulsidas (1939) before settling down at Bombay Talkies. Devika Rani had just left and Leela stepped into the void she left behind, to become Ashok Kumar’s leading lady. She made four films with him: Kangan (1939), Azaad, Bandhan (1940) and Jhoola (1941) and they were all hits. Ashok Kumar claimed that he learned a lot from her style of acting. She was so successful that she was invited to advertise Lux soap, the first Hindi film heroine to endorse an international brand. She produced Kisise Na Kehna in 1942 and directed Aaj ki Bat in 1955. She kept her links with the stage, writing and directing Ek Ratri Ardha Diwas, based on Somerset Maugham’s The Sacred Flame.

As the 1940s drew to a close she gave up leading roles to concentrate on character acting, where her stage background gave her an advantage. She appeared in Shaheed in 1948, which typecast her as the suffering mother-figure for a whole generation of leading men. Dressed in white, bent and contorted with pain and poverty, she would cough and slave her way through her role, epitomising the ‘Ma’ for a range of heroes, notably in Awara (1951), Maa (1952), Jamuna (1961) and Guide (1965). She died in Danbury, Connecticut. Her autobiography published in 1981 is titled Chanderi Duniya.
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