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LEELA NAIDU (1940-2009)

Leela Naidu was an actor in Hindi cinema. She was Femina Miss India in 1954 and Miss World in 1955. Along with Maharani Gayatri Devi (q.v.), she was featured in Vogue’s list of the world’s ten most beautiful women.

She was born to an Indian father, Ramaiah Naidu, a scientist, and an Irish mother. Her first film was Anuradha, directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, in 1960 He saw a photograph of her taken by Kamaladevi Chattopahdyay (q.v.) and declared that he had found his Anuradha. In the film she plays a musically talented young woman who has to give up her career when her doctor husband’s job takes her to a village. The film had songs by Ravi Shankar including, Jaane kaise sapnon mein kho gayeen ankhiyan and Kaise din beete kaisi beeti ratiyan. Anuradha was a critical success and won the National Award for Best Film and was nominated for the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1961. She followed this up with Ummeed (1962) by Nitin Bose. She was most known for Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke (1963), based on the famous real-life Nanavati case. In this case, K.M. Nanavati, a naval officer, was accused of shooting Prem Ahuja, who had been philandering with his English wife Sylvia, and the trial led to the abolition of trial by jury in India. The controversial role was refused by many actresses of the conservative 1960s, but Leela Naidu had the courage to take it on.

She acted in The Householder (with Shashi Kapoor), the first film produced by James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, playing a rebellious young bride. On seeing this film Satyajit Ray wanted to cast her in his English film The Journey, with Marlon Brando and Shashi Kapoor, but this was never made. She was passed over in favour of Waheeda Rahman for The Guide, a film adaptation of R.K. Narayan’s book of the same name, as she couldn’t dance.

In 1969 she made a guest appearance in The Guru, but then retired and married the businessman Tilak Raj Oberoi, the son of Mohan Singh Oberoi, the founder of the Oberoi Hotels chain, with whom she had twin daughters. Later she divorced him and married the poet Dom Moraes, whom she had known as a child and whom she met at the house of mutual friend Mario Miranda. She spent more than ten years with Dom Moraes in Hong Kong. While there she worked in radio and even made a few films; one was banned by the Chinese government because it contained criticism of the state. After she lost her battle for custody her twin daughters, she was influenced by eminent Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti. She returned to the screen in 1985 to play a matriarch in Shyam Benegal’s Trikaal. Her last appearance was in Electric Moon (1992), directed by Pradip Krishen.
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