Leela Naidu: Miss India of 1954 who went on to forge a career as an actress with a touch of Western elegance

The Indian film actress Leela Naidu, who has died aged 69, was a charming Indian beauty with a conspicuous touch of Western sophistication and elegance. This characteristic, that sprang from her mixed Indo-European origin, made her stand out among contemporary Indian film celebrities of the 1960s such as Nargis, Meena Kumari and Waheeda Rahman.

Born to Dr. Ramaiah Naidu, a renowned nuclear physicist from Andhra Pradesh (South India) and Marthe Naidu, an Irish Indologist of Swiss-French origin, Leela Naidu possessed the polish and sobriety of the Indian educated upper classes.

Naidu entered the limelight in 1954 when she was crowned Miss India. "Leela Naidu was aware, but not vain, about her beauty. She imbibed the nuances of European aesthetics from her mother and the resolve to stand up for her values from her father", wrote the biographer and columnist T.J.S. George, who knew the family very well. Along with Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur, she was listed as one of the 10 most beautiful women in the world by Vogue.

Naidu made her debut as an actress in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Anuradha (1960). A discerning director, Mukherjee displayed great insight by choosing her for the role of a lonely housewife (Anuradha) in a remote Indian village who gives up her career as an established singer to live with her doctor husband, Dr. Nirmal Chowdhury, played by Balraj Sahni. Under Mukherjee's deft direction, Naidu played her part with subtlety, restraint and poise and the film turned out to be one of the classics of Hindi cinema. The film won the Indian government's coveted National Award for Best Film (1961) and was nominated for Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival (1961).

Naidu's big break in popular cinema came with R. K. Nayyar's crime thriller, Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke (Love's Pathways, 1963), in which she played the lead female role of the adulterous wife. Its story was a fictionalised adaptation of a real-life murder that had taken place in Bombay in 1959. Known as the Nanavati murder case, in which a high-ranking navy commander, Kawas Nanavati, killed his close friend, Prem Ahuja, upon finding out that he was his English wife Sylvia's lover, it sent shockwaves throughout India. The case also marked a milestone in Indian legal history since it resulted in the abolition of one of the legacies of the British Raj, the jury system.

It was presumably the sensationalism of the case that led Nayyar to make Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke. Naidu's Westernised looks and bearing fitted her well for the role of Neena (Nanavati's wife). It was nothing unusual for a hero like Sunil Dutt, who played Nanavati, or a seasoned villain like Rahman, who acted as Prem Ahuja, to have accepted their roles. Leela Naidu's situation, however, was exceptional because it was only she who took a risk by agreeing to act as Nanavati's unfaithful wife, a role which many leading Indian actresses of the 1960s had refused. Luckily, her boldness paid off. Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke proved a commercial success and helped to turn Naidu into something of an icon for women's liberation in India.

Another film that brought Naidu critical acclaim was Gharbar (The Householder, 1963) a film by Merchant Ivory Productions. Based on the 1960 novel of the same name written by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, it was directed by James Ivory. It was the first collaboration between the producer, Ismail Merchant and the director, Ivory. Shot entirely on location in Delhi, The Householder is a comedy that revolves around Prem (Shashi Kapoor) and his young wife Indu (Naidu). Portraying the role of a lower-middle-class girl called Indu only proved Naidu's versatility. India's internationally acclaimed master director Satyajit Ray, who had made some creative input in the making of The Householder, was reportedly so impressed by Naidu's performance that he planned an English film with herself alongside Marlon Brando and Shashi Kapoor, but the project never materialised.

As an actress Naidu's classic performance came in Shyam Benegal's Trikal (Past, Present and Future, 1985) where she played the central character of a distraught widow, Maria Soares, who refuses to believe that her husband is dead. She always sits silently in her ornate rocking chair listening absently to a song on an old, hand-wound gramophone. When the song ends, she gestures with her hand to her young maid to put it on again. Naidu gave a studied and remarkably controlled performance.

"It was a sheer haunting experience to work with Leela Naidu, who breathed innocence and serenity in her performance," said Shyam Benegal, who had earlier shot an advertisement with her for Finlay Fabrics, a well-known Indian brand in the mid-1960s. In 1965 David Lean complimented her for being a method actress who never curtailed her spontaneity.

But in spite of her talent, dedication and commitment, Naidu only ended up acting in a handful of films. This was because in a film industry ridden with stereotypes, the strengths of her personality and innate style turned into disadvantages or drawbacks. Moreover, unlike modern day Indian actresses, many of whom are adept in dancing, she lost the coveted role of Rosie in Vijay Anand's Guide (1965) to Waheeda Rahman because she was not a trained dancer.

Naidu's personal life was far from happy. She married and divorced the affluent scion of the Oberoi Group of hotels, Tikki Oberoi, and then poet and writer, Dom Moraes. Her two failed marriages and her failure to get custody of her children left her shattered and shaken. To fight her sense of loss and loneliness, she sought comfort in the philosophical teachings of J. Krishnamurthi in London. Later on, she lived like a recluse in Mumbai. Naidu's last film was Pradip Krishen's Electric Moon in 1992.

Lalit Mohan Joshi

Leela Naidu, actress and model: born 1940; married firstly Tilakraj Oberoi (divorced, two daughters), 1960 Dom Moraes (divorced); died Mumbai 28 July 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Image from a flyer at the CPAC event where Nigel Farage will be speaking
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower