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Leela Chitnis


Leela Chitnis (née Nagarkar; 9 September 1909 – 14 July 2003) was an Indian actress in the Indian film industry, active from the 1930s to the 1980s. In her early years she starred as a romantic lead, but she is best remembered for her later roles playing a virtuous and upright mother to leading stars.


She was born in a Marathi-speaking Brahmin family,  in Dharwad, Karnataka. Her father was an English literature professor. She was one of the first educated film actresses. After graduation, she joined Natyamanwantar, a progressive theater group that produced plays in her native Marathi language. The group's works were greatly influenced by Ibsen, Shaw, and Stanislavsky. With the theatre group, Leela played the lead role in a series of comedies and tragedies and even founded her own repertory.


Chitnis' early stage work included the comedy Usna Navra (1934) and her own film group Udyacha Sansar. She started acting to support her four children. She started as an extra and went on to stunt films.


In Gentleman Daku ("Gentleman Thief") in 1937, Chitnis played a polished crook dressed in male apparel and was publicized in the Times of India as the first graduate society lady from Maharashtra. By then she had already made her first major mark as an actress on the silver screen. Chitnis worked at Prabhat Pictures, Pune, and Ranjit Movietone before going on to be the leading lady in Bombay Talkies.


Specializing 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 its success at the box office.


With Kangan's success, Leela replaced Bombay Talkies' ravishing leading lady Devika Rani. Leela made a particularly good partnership with Devika Rani'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. Ashok Kumar was so impressed by her acting abilities that he admitted to having learned how to speak with his eyes from her. 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.



Dulhan Ek Raat Ki as Nirmala's Mother