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
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
Alexis Sanchez missed a penalty before scoring the opening goal with a header at the back post
footballLive! Sanchez makes up for penalty miss to put Arsenal ahead
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
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

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all