Leela Chitnis (9 September 1909–14 July 2003) was an actress in the film industry, active from 1930s to 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.
Chitnis’ early stage work included comedy Usna Navra (1934) and with 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 publicised 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.
Specialising 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 it success at the box office.
With Kangan’s success, Leela replaced Bombay Talkies’ ravishing leading lady Devika Rani. Leela made a particularly good partner 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 learnt 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.
By the mid-1940s her career went downhill as the new leading ladies came in. Leela accepted the reality and in 1948 entered the next, and perhaps most renowned, phase of her career in Shaheed (“Martyr”). Cast as the hero’s suffering, ailing mother, she played this role to perfection. For 22 years, Chitnis played the mother of the later leading men including Dilip Kumar, often playing an ailing mother or a mother going through hardships and struggling to bring up her offspring. In fact she created the archetype of the Hindi Film mother, which was continued by later actresses. Leela’s maternal histrionics were portrayed in a range of films such as Awaara (The Vagabond, 1951), Ganga Jumna (The Confluence, 1961) and, in 1965, the runaway success Guide, based on the award-winning novel of the same name by R.K. Narayan. She was busy through the 1970s, but cut down her appearances thereafter before taking the final curtain call in Dil Tujhko Diya (“I Give My Heart to You”) in 1985. She cthen emigrated to the United States in the late 1980s to join her children. She died in Danbury, Connecticut at a nursing home, at age 94.
Leela also briefly dabbled in movie-making, producing Kisise Na Kehna (“Don’t Tell Anybody”, 1942) and directing Aaj ki Baat (“The Talk of Today”, 1955). She also wrote and directed a stage adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Sacred Flame and published her autobiography, Chanderi Duniyet, in 1981.