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When Leela Naidu did not get her Mickey Mouse

Monday, 31 May 2010 - 12:33am IST | Agency: dna

What are the chances of Raj Kapoor, the Indian filmmaker and Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, finding a mention in the same book?

Or for that matter the likes of Salvador Dalí, the Spanish painter, Ravi Shankar, the sitar player, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the prolific Indian film editor and director, Ingrid Bergman, the famous Swedish actress, J Krishnamurti, the philosopher guru, B K Iyengar, the yoga guru, J R D Tata, the business baron, Balraj Sahni, the commie turned actor, Ramnath Goenka, the press baron, Dilip Kumar, the famous actor,  Merchant-Ivory, the film producing duo, and  Jean Renoir, the famous French film director, also forming a part of the cast.

I guess that only happens if you are Leela Naidu and you decide to write your autobiography.  Of course Leela knew each one of people mentioned above personally, except Mussolini, who was an employee in her grandfather's factory and was fired for creating trouble, much before he became a notorious dictator, and along with Adolf Hitler, drove the world to the second world war.

And if all that was not enough, she had an aunt called Sarojini Naidu, who once gave her chocolate to eat and told her 'Now go out to the outhouse and see Mickey Mouse'.
The Mickey House turned out to be none other than Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the man the world calls Mahatma Gandhi.

Leela Naidu died in July last year. Her autobiography Leela - A Patchwork Life, co-authored with Jerry Pinto, has recently been released.  In this book she reveals the conversation that happened between her and Mahatma Gandhi.

"You are not Mickey Mouse!" I said.

"No?" Gandhiji asked.

"Your ears are big but they're not big enough."

"Is that all?" he asked...

"And you don't have a tail.'...

'So I am not Mickey Mouse,' Gandhi Ji said, "but who am I?"

"You are Gandhiji," I said. I put the flowers down and gave him the chocolates. He took them and began to eat them immediately, as happy as schoolboy with a box of tuck.

Imagine Mahatma Gandhi having chocolate.

Born to a French mother and an Indian father, Leela lived the early part of her life in Paris and Geneva, was educated at the best schools there, and was equally conversant with French as well as English. And on top of that she was very beautiful (as the famous photographer Marvin Minoff once said "she has no bad angles.') This along with something that made her tick with people perhaps explains the eclectic life she lived.

Her father was the well known nuclear physicist, Dr Pattipati Ramiah Naidu, who was working under double Nobel Laureate, Madam Curie, for his post doctoral thesis, when Curie died.

Ramiah Naidu developed artificial cancer at a very young age, for over exposure to Radium, and he successfully recovered from it.  Her mother, Dr. Marthe Naidu, was an Indologist.

The Naidus were pretty well connected. And once they moved back to India, from Paris, Ramiah Naidu called up Ravi Shankar to arrange for a dance teacher to teach his daughter. Ravi Shankar got the third brother of the trio (the other one of course being Uday Shankar) Debu Da to teach her dance.

Raj Kapoor was the first film maker to have noticed her, and wanted to sign her for a four movie contract, sometime in the late 1950s. He even got a photo shoot done. The shoot as Leela mentions in the book, was supervised by none other than Nargis. Leela Naidu turned down the offer and went to Oxford. A few years later, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, saw a few pictures of her, and decided to make Anuradha with her, and that's how, the career of the most beautiful heroine in Hindi cinema was launched.

And so Leela's story continued. Salvador Dali wanted her to be his Maddona.  Jean Renoir taught her the finer points of acting. J R D Tata commissioned short movies for her to make (the most famous being the one on potty training for a spate of rural punjabis, who while traveling Air India to London, and not knowing how to use the fancy commodes, left the toilet in a terrible state of disarray. The janitors in London refused to clean it up, and so Air India had to fly jamadars out of India to clean up.)  

She acted in a few films here and there. Married Dom Moraes in 1969, and given Moraes' terrible communication skills, acted as his unpaid secretary, when he wrote commissioned articles and books.  She edited the Society magazine, after Shobha De ( I am really not sure how she spells her name now, so will stick to the most straightforward spelling of her name that I have come across till date) quit. She acted as the communications manager for Ramnath Goenka. She dubbed for Hong Kong martial art movies in English.

And along the way, she also made men fall for her, all the time. Here is what she writes about the late Balraj Sahni. "Sahni was a perfect gentleman. But like many other perfect gentlemen, he was not above trying his luck. One day he dropped me home from the studios. 'I think of you all the time,' he said. 'That's kind of you,' I said. 'You are in my head,' he said. 'And how is your dear wife?' I asked." And so the conversation ended.  

Most people live one life in one life. Leela Naidu lived many lives in one life. As she writes in the book "There has been quite a bit of all this in my life." The book beautifully captures "the quite a lot of all this" in Leela's life.

What it reveals is interesting, but what it leaves out is intriguing. There is almost zero mention of the kind of relationship Leela had with her first husband Tilak Raj Oberoi (son of Raibahadur Mohan Singh Oberoi). When they married in 1956, she was 17 and he was 33.  They had twins, Maya and Priya. They got divorced in a few years.  The book does not talk about any of this in detail, and that does leave a gaping hole in the book.

She goes into some detail about Dom Moraes, her second husband. But that's primarily because the couple also shared a working relationship. Some of the anecdotes about Dom Moraes are hilarious, particularly the one about Salman Rushdie and Moraes.  

And there is a touching  moment in which she tells Jerry Pinto, her co-auhtor ""I've been reading Henrietta," she said, referring to the autobiography of Henrietta Moraes, the woman once described as the only female queen of Soho, muse to Francis Bacon, wife to Dom Moraes. 'Do you know she says that Dom said he was going out for cigarettes and never came back? Why didn't someone tell me that before I married him?'"

The book is a great read for anyone wanting to know the mysterious Leela Naidu, a little better.