Well before Nirupa Roy, Leela Chitnis laid the foundation for the suffering mother in Indian cinema. So entrenched is her self-sacrificing image on movie goers’ minds that people tend to overlook that she was a highly popular leading lady in the 1930s and early 1940s, even overtaking Devika Rani as Bombay Talkies’ premier female star!
Born in Dharwad, Karnataka in South India on September 30, 1914, Chitnis, the daughter of an English Professor, was initially involved with the vanguard Marathi Theatre group Natyamanwantar. The Group was founded by the Hindi and Marathi Director Keshav Narayan Kale, Music Director of several Prabhat films – Keshavrao Waman Bhole and that great actor of early Marathi Cinema Keshavrao Date. Natyamanwantar’s works were influenced by Ibsen, Shaw and Stanislavski, whose theoretical writings were translated by Kale in Marathi. Chitnis’s early stage work at Natyamanwantar include the comedy Usna Navra (1934) and with her own theatre group Natyasadhana’s Udyacha Sansar.
Films were Chitnis’s last resort to support her children from her first marriage. She started as an extra at Sagar Movietone and moved on to mythological films and Ram Daryani’s stunt films. In the latter’s Gentleman Daku (1937), she played a thief attired in male apparel and was publicized in the Times of India then as being the first graduate society-lady on the screen from Maharashtra. By then, she had already made her first major mark as an actress on the silver screen in Master Vinayak’s Chhaya (1936) playing the role of a woman who betrays her lover when she hears of his family history and his father, a bank employee who steals money to buy medicines for his dying wife and is subsequently caught and sent to prison where he dies in shame. Chitnis then worked at Prabhat Pictures, Pune and Ranjit Movietone notably playing Ratnavali in the latter’s Sant Tulsidas (1939) before entering her best phase as a leading lady with Bombay Talkies.
Chitnis will always be remembered for her films at Bombay Talkies. Her association with Bombay Talkies saw her scale the top rung of stardom and she made a particularly good pair with Devika Rani’s earlier hero and Bombay Talkies’ best and most well known leading man, Ashok Kumar. In fact Chitnis’s quartet of films with Kumar – Kangan (1939), Azad (1940), Bandhan (1940) and Jhoola (1941) represent her best oeuvre of work in Hindi films as a heroine. Ashok Kumar was most impressed by her acting abilities and admitted to learning the technique of emoting with the eyes from her.
Chitnis entered films when it was a profession looked down upon and actresses were often compared with prostitutes. She was one of the first educated women in films. In fact, was said of her,“She was liberated before it was fashionable for Indian women to be liberated.”
By the mid 1940s however her career as leading lady was starting to go downhill. Bollywood had conventional rules and roles for its leading women and there were few forthcoming roles of substances for actresses in their 30s. Even a re-pairing with Ashok Kumar – Kiran (1944) failed to evoke the magic of the earlier hits.
Chitnis entered the next and perhaps the most well known phase of her acting career with Filmistan’s Shaheed (1948), playing the suffering mother of Dilip Kumar. For 22 years after that Chitnis excelled playing the suffering ailing mother to the entire range of leading men of the day, often widowed or abandoned and struggling to bring up her offspring with dignity in the face of abject poverty. In fact, it is in this image that moviegoers remember her rather then her leading lady days. The very name Leela Chitnis conjures up the widow in white, coughing and slaving away. To quote RM Vijayakar in India-West magazine, 1997, “If she appeared on screen it was to cough consumptively, gobble spoonfuls of syrup from bottles perched so precariously on bedside tables that they overturned and crashed to the floor when there was no money to buy another.”
In fact, she created the archetype of the Hindi Film mother that was later personified by the likes of Achala Sachdev, Sulochana and most famously Nirupa Roy. Some well-known films showcasing Chitnis’ maternal histrionics include Raj Kapoor’s Awara (1951), the title role in Bimal Roy’s Maa (1952), BR Chopra’s Sadhna (1958), Dilip Kumar’s Gunga Jumna (1961) and Dev Anand’s Guide (1965).
After a lot of films in 1970 – Man ki Aankhen, Jeevan Mrityu and Bhai Bhai – Chitnis was seen on the screen after a gap of a few years, first with Mehman (1973) and then in Palkhon ki Chhaon Mein (1977). She continued to make sporadic appearances on the silver screen, her last film being Dil Tujhko Diya (1985). She then migrated to the United States to join her children.
Apart from acting, Chitnis created history of sorts when in 1941 she became the first Indian film star to endorse Lux soap, a privalege that only the top Hollywood heroines had till then. Chitnis also produced the film Kisise Na Kehna (1942) and directed Aaj ki Baat (1955). She also wrote and directed the stage adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s Sacred Flame (Ek Ratra Ardha Diwas (1957)) and published her autobiography Chanderi Duniyet in 1981.
Some other films of Chitnis include Wahan (1938), Kanchan (1942), Bhakta Prahlad (1946), Ghar Ghar ki Kahani (1948), Sangdil (1952), Awaaz (1956), Naya Daur (1957), Sadhana (1958), Phir Subah Hogi (1958), Dhool ka Phool (1959), Kala Bazar (1960), Hum Dono (1961), Dosti (1964) and Waqt (1965).
Leela Chitnis passed away in the United States on July 14, 2003 at a nursing home in Danbury, Connecticut.