Leela Chitnis was an Indian actress, who is known for her films from the years the 1930s to 1980s. Though she played lead roles as a romantic actress, she is notable for her roles as virtuous mother of the leading actors in films. Leela was born in the Dharwad district of Karnataka. Her father was a professor of the English Literature. She is known to be the first actress who was educated. After her graduation, she joined a progressive theatre group named Natyamanwantar, which produced many plays in the Marathi language.
The theatre group's plays were mostly liked by the Norwegian director and poet, Henrik Johan Ibsen, Irish polemicist, playwright and critic named George Bernard Shaw and the Russian actor and director, Konstantin Stanislavsky. Leela played many lead roles in comedy and tragedy series with the theatre group. Her father was known for his adherence to the Brahmo Samaj, which is a religious movement that did not believe in caste. At a very small age, she was married to a very old man, Dr. Gajanan Yeshwant Chitnis, who had four children together.
The couple participated in the India's struggle for freedom from the British and also risked to get arrested to harbour Manabendra Nath Roy, who was a Marxist freedom fighter. She left her husband later and started working as a school teacher. Along with teaching, she started giving stage performances in many melodramas which were typical of that time. She acted in many movies and moved to Bombay University to get hired by
, which was a major studio hiring college graduates only. Having three sons, she lived with Manavendra, her eldest son in the USA till her death. She is known to have three grandchildren at that time. Leela's early stage works consisted of Usna Navra in the year 1934 and Udyacha Sansar with her own film theatre group.
She started her career as an extra to support her children and ended up acting in stunt films. She acted in a film called Gentleman Daku in the year 1937, which was publicised in the famous English newspaper, Times Of India. She was already famous as an actress by that time. Before becoming the leading lady of Bombay Talkies, she worked at the Prabhat Pictures at Pune and also at Ranjit Movietone. Bombay Talkies was specialised in directing controversial films which challenged societal norms regarding invidious caste system, marriage, etc., so it had limited luck for success at the box office. With Leela as the lead actress, Kangan movie bounced it back and achieved success.
With the success of Kangan, she became the ravishing lady of Bombay Talkies replacing Devika Rani. She was known to be a good partner of Ashok Kumar for the hits of box-office like Azad, Jhoola, Bandhan, which focused on societal issues. Ashok Kumar said that he learnt the way to speak with eyes from this talented actress. She became the first Indian film heroine to endorse the Lux soap brand in 1941 when she was at the heights of her glamour and popularity. It was a concession granted only to the top heroines of Hollywood.
With the entry of many leading actresses, her career came downhill by the mid-1940s. She accepted the truth and entered in the most phase of her acting career in 1948 with Shaheed as the hero's ailing and suffering mother. For almost 22 years, she played as the mother of many later leading stars including the tragedy man,
. She created the archetype of being the Hindi Film mother continued by many upcoming actresses. Her maternal melodramatic behaviour was portrayed in many films like Awaara in the year 1951, Guide in 1965, etc.
She was very busy in the 1970s, but even before acting in Dil Tujhko Diya in the year 1985, she reduced her the number of movies in which she acted. She then moved to the US and joined her children in the late 1980s. She is also known to take part in producing, movie-making of Kisise Na Kehna in the year 1942 and
Aaj Ki Baat
in the year 1955. She had written and directed Sacred Flame and published Chanderi Duniyet, her autobiography in the year 1981. Leela died at the age of 94, in a nursing home at Danbury.