Leela Chitnis

Bollywood leading lady who later played victimised mothers

Leela Chitnis, actress: born Dharwar, India 9 September 1909; twice married (three sons, and one son and one daughter deceased); died Danbury, Connecticut 14 July 2003.

One of the first educated ladies in Bollywood, India's film capital city Bombay, Leela Chitnis was a feminist long before the word was even popular. With her trademark eyebrows, eloquent eyes, delicate features and tremendous screen presence, she defied tradition by entering Indian films in the 1930s at a time actresses were considered prostitutes.

By "speaking through her eyes", first as a heroine and later in well-scripted character roles, Chitnis captivated generations of moviegoers for almost five decades till the 1980s. She portrayed the archetypal sacrificing, sometimes shrill but almost always victimised Bollywood mother, a personification that is characterised by others in similar roles today. Ironically, however, in a tragic case of life imitating art, Chitnis died obscurely in a nursing home in the United States, where she had moved to be with her children.

Born in 1909 in Dharwar in southern Karnataka state, Chitnis was the daughter of an English- literature professor. After graduating locally she joined Natyamanwantar, a progressive theatre group that produced plays in her native Marathi language. The group's works were greatly influenced by Ibsen, Shaw and Stanislavsky and, after playing the lead role in a series of comedies and tragedies and even founding her own repertory, Chitnis gravitated to Bombay to act in films, in order to support four children from her first marriage that ended in the 1930s.

She started as an extra, before moving on to playing bit roles in mythological and stunt films that were hugely popular with Indian audiences. In Gentleman Daku ("Gentleman Thief") in 1937, Chitnis plays a polished crook dressed in male apparel and featured prominently in the local Times of India newspaper as Bollywood's first graduate society lady.

After a brief stint with Prabhat Pictures at Poona, 120 miles south-west of Bombay, Chitnis's golden period began in 1939 after she joined Bombay Talkies, founded five years earlier as a state-of-the-art studio with echo-proof stages, automatic laboratories, a preview theatre and highly skilled staff, mostly Germans.

Specialising in controversial films that challenged accepted societal norms, especially those regarding marriage and the invidious caste system, Bombay Talkies was having limited luck at the box office. But it bounced back with Kangan ("Bangles", 1939), which introduced Chitnis playing the lead role as the adopted daughter of a Hindu priest in love with the son of a local landlord who opposes the relationship and threatens the holy man. Her love, however, stands up to his father's prejudices, an unusual theme for the time, but one that appealed to the public imagination enough to ensure it success at the box office.

The film was still under production when the Second World War began and Franz Osten, the film's German director, the cameraman Josef Wirsching and several other technicians were detained by the colonial administration as prisoners of war. It was eventually completed by two of Osten's assistants and its success is attributed largely to its music, which experimented creatively with Western instruments. Osten directed 14 Indian films under the Bombay Talkies banner, greatly influencing Indian cinematography.

With Kangan's success, Chitnis replaced Bombay Talkies' ravishing leading lady Devika Rani and successfully teamed up with Bollywood's leading man Ashok Kumar for a series of box-office hits such as Azad (Free, 1940), Bandhan (Ties, 1940) and Jhoola ("Swing", 1941) that broadly deal with societal issues. In 1941 Chitnis, at the height of her popularity and glamour, created history of sorts by becoming the first Indian film star to endorse the popular Lux soap brand, a concession then only granted to top Hollywood heroines.

By the mid-1940s Chitnis's career as leading lady was waning. After a brief renaissance, Bollywood was once again typecasting female actresses in traditional roles and unwilling to compromise. Chitnis accepted reality and in 1948 entered the next, and perhaps most renowned, phase of her career in Shaheed ("Martyr"). Cast as the hero's suffering, ailing mother, she played this role to perfection.

For the next four decades Chitnis emerged as Bollywood's best-known mother, mostly widowed or abandoned, but always struggling to bring up her offspring with dignity despite abject poverty. Even today, the very mention of her name conjures up an image of the long-suffering widow in white, coughing consumptively and feebly feeding herself a spoonful of life-supporting cough syrup from a bottle that is always perched so precariously that it invariably overturns and crashes to the floor. There was never ever any money for "Mother" Chitnis to buy another.

Chitnis's maternal histrionics were portrayed in a range of films such as Awaara (The Vagabond, 1951), Ganga Jumna (The Confluence, 1961) and, in 1965, the runaway success Guide, based on the award-winning novel of the same name by R.K. Narayan. She was busy through the 1970s, but cut down her appearances thereafter before taking the final curtain call in Dil Tujhko Diya ("I Give My Heart to You") in 1985.

She then moved to the US to join her children, but by all accounts her twilight years were lonely. A younger Bollywood colleague who visited Chitnis in her Connecticut nursing home found her in a wretched state, forlorn and penurious, attended to by a kindly nurse in a situation tragically reminiscent of the roles Chitnis popularised in her heyday.

Chitnis also briefly dabbled in movie-making, producing Kisise Na Kehna ("Don't Tell Anybody", 1942) and directing Aaj ki Baat ("The Talk of Today", 1955). She also wrote and directed a stage adaptation of Somerset Maugham's Sacred Flame and published her autobiography, Chanderi Duniyet, in 1981.

Kuldip Singh

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