I am not familiar with the actress Leela Naidu. Do not remember seeing an of her movies. She is not from our era of actors that I am familiar with. However, the person who gave the book to me is from that time. It is only later did I learn about Leela Naidu, the erstwhile Miss India, the cover girl of Vogue as the one of the most beautiful woman in the world, wife of poet Dom Moraes.
This is not a typical biography. It is a collection of her random incidents, not arranged in any chronological order, nor in any level of importance. interestingly, it does not have much about her on personal life, her child hood, her education or any details of her initial failed marriage with to the Oberoi clan. She also manages to skip all those unpleasant memories of her life from being discussed. Leela Naidu, writes the book with a disclaimer "This is the Leela I know. She had an eventful life by her own understanding of it and she thinks you might like to hear about it"
She brings out names after names from every where. The book starts with an anecdote, of Price Yusupov, the alleged murderer of infamous Rasputin, appear naked at the door of her Grandma, escaped from asylum , where he was taken in and fed upon. She also writes about one 'Bennito Mussolini' who used to work for her grand father at his factory, to be expelled from job for thrashing a co-worker's hand with a red hot metal rod..
Leela Naidu, has very good style of writing, of course supported by Jerry Pinto. She has a keen observation, and an acute sense of humour and srong convictions. Though she write about the major incidents in her life, and do get the attention of the reader; the attention is to the character and is not necessarily associated with Leela. Her acting classes with Jean Renoir, the help and guidance from Ingmar Bergman for a complication post child birth, the meeting of Salvadore Dali, who wanted to use her as a model for Madonna, the accidental chance to pose for vogue , each are intriguing in its own way.
On her personal attribute, we could see a strong person in support of the weaker section of the society. Be it the villagers of UP in their fight against the land mafia, the right to use the road during the religious ceremony, the one man( woman) fight against the plight of extras in the film shooting sets, the support for better food for the animals ( elephants ) during the shooting of a film were enough proof for her conviction and willingness to go to any extend to get things done towards what she believe. In the earlier chapters, she tells us the racial slurs and difficulties she had to face during her student years, and she slams India as one of the most racist countries in the world, with our age old caste systems and the way the lower classes treated by the rich.
Born to a celebrated scientist, Ramaiah Naidu, who worked with Marie Curie, later head their research and a French woman,an Indologist, she had a very European upbringing with Indian roots. As she puts it elsewhere in the book, "Daddy is Cafe, Maman is milk and I'm 'cafe au lait''. Widely read, learned music and dance, multi lingual ,with sharp brains added with her beauty and was set to take her into greater heights.
Her career in movies did not go as well as expected. After rejecting an offer from Raj Kapoor to sign in for four movies, she did manage to get few roles in the Hindi movies, to be directed by none other than Hrishikesh Mukherjee about which she says, "I do not remember my first day of shooting perhaps because I did not suffer from stage fright. According to me, stage fright is about waffling. It happens when an actor will not stay in the moment".
Her professionalism, her demand for script before signing, the perceived intellectual air around her, possibly would have come in as hindrance to her career. Though, each of the eight movies that she acted, where noticed. First movie with Hrishkesh Mukherjee, followed with the first production of James - Ivory, "The house Holder" , Trikaal with Shyam Benegal were critically acclaimed. Comparing the style she says : "What Renoir gave me was a basic understanding of the way in which a text was only a frame work and how each interpretation brought something new to that framework. What working with James Ivory did was to throw me back to my own resources because he said almost nothing."
She is not regretting her lost opportunities. After refusing to sign for Raj Kapoor, she seems to have missed many more including that of the lead role in David Lean's Dr.Zhivago. "You saw me posting the that letter ? It was to Geraldine Chaplin. She was my second choice for the role". Her observation on Arundhati Roy, with whom she worked in one film ( Electric moon) is noteworthy. "I must say I admire the way Arundhati has turned her status as celebrity author into a catalyst for the causes she cares about, but there was very little of the caring Ms Roy on the set of Electric Moon."
Leela was married twice, both ended in separation. The first, in her teens, were to the Oberoi family, with whom she had twins even before turning twenty, The bitter law suit of separation and the lost battle for possession of the daughters must have devastated her, and it is until late she got into her second marriage with poet and childhood acquaint Dom Moraes. This marriage which lasted longer was also not discussed in the book. however the second part of the book was more on her life post her film career and her travel around the world working for Dom, in his various literary pursuit, often working as his translator cum secretary .
Jerry Pinto , in his foreword explains that 'everyone who met her has a Leela Naidu story. This is her version.' This is not a life story, it is a parts ( patchwork as she say) of her life, as chosen , rather carefully, and told. I believe, apart from some of the curious incidents, there is no significance of this book in any genre of writing. There are no personal life insight, there is no multicultural imbalance and truggle, there is no heart breaking experiences. She was clear that the "book would have nothing to do with my life... It's only about the funny anecdotes and the sad historic ones I came across". And, that's all is there to this book.-------------------------------------------------
Leela - A Patchwork Life ( 2010)
Leela Naidu with Jerry Pinto
Other reviews : Outlook , DNA India