Leela Misra – Interview
It was sometime before I realised my mistake: I was looking for a house instead of the person. Nobody knew the house. Everybody seemed to know the person. “Kaun, Leela Mausi? Woh saamne, seedhiyan chadh ke jaaiye ..”, they said.
When I entered Leela Misra’s one-room tenement, neatly painted and partitioned, she was sitting in a chair, reading Tulsidas’ Ramayan to one of her neighbours. The smell of fish curry wafted from the other side of the partition.
The interview started with a reference to “Shatranj Ke Khilari”—her performance was widely acclaimed even by Ray. But she bowled me over. She told me she had not seen the film. How come?
“Because I don’t see films at all. I can’t stand the stuffiness of a theatre. The last film I saw, two decades ago was ‘Awaara’.”
But, you should have seen “Shatranj …”
“Is it running in town?” she asked. And then, “but, what is so great about my performance?” I was preparing to answer that when she shot another question, “How are the other artistes in the film?”
What follows is in her own words …
The producer, Suresh Jindal came to me four times with the offer. I had heard of him, but I knew very little about Ray. Initially, I was unwilling to work in the film because we couldn’t settle on the payment, I was demanding an exorbitant price. Jindal wanted me to reduce it a little. Then he left as we couldn’t come to any terms. Next time, when he returned, he said “Manikda (Ray) wants you or he can’t shoot the film. I am even prepared to pay you fifty thousand.
But kindly come to Calcutta for a week.” Jindal sounded so lovable that I agreed to work for him—and this time, without any money. He left, satisfied.
A few days later, both I and Shabana were booked on the same flight. Next day we started shooting and my work was over within 24 hours. Very disciplined kind of work. We started shooting exactly at 11.30 a.m. and packed up around 4.30 in the afternoon. Ray made me relaxed. He would talk very softly to me and say, “Act as you wish.”
But I found him very serious. He wouldn’t talk much on the sets. once I said something funny about him. He got a bit curious and asked one of his assistants to translate what I had said. The man did so and the next moment Ray burst out into laughter and said, “Leelaji, you are a great joker, a great one.” At the last phase of my shooting he came to me and said, “You must learn Bengali for my future films”.
“I will,” I said, “provided you shoot in Bombay.” “That’s impossible,” he said. “That goes for me too when it comes to shooting in Calcutta”, I said and we laughed merrily. We parted perhaps with great memories.
Leela Misra has been on the Bombay film scene since 1934. She came to Bombay to look after her husband, Ram Prasad Misra, a character artiste, then working for silent films.
I was married at the age of 12. Films were taboo then. But my husband was a rebel. He had graduated from Natak Mandalis to films. By the time I was 17, I had two daughters. My husband used to shuttle from Bombay to Pratapgarh and Banaras, where I originally belonged. We both belonged to Zamindar families, and very narrow-minded ones at that.
I was discovered by Mama Shinde who was working for Dada Phalke’s Nasik Cinetone. He persuaded my husband to make me work in films. I had no idea as to what films meant then. My husband used to bring me small strips of film and show them to me and say, “You will be working in this.” And I wondered how a fat person like me could fit into such a small frame? The Dehati that I was, it took him years to explain how things happened inside the camera. Even now I don’t exactly understand the trick of reducing a man into a small thing like a film.
When Mama Shinde took the Misras to Nasik the contracts showed vast disparity. Ram Prasad was to get one hundred and fifty rupees per month, while Leela’s contract hired her on a salary of five hundred. It was the price paid for the scarcity of actresses in those days.
The real trial began when I came to face the camera. I was stupidly overawed by the instrument. My husband was playing Ravan and I was Mandodari in “Sati Sulochana”. Both of us fared so badly in front of the camera that we were turned out of the sets and our contracts cancelled.
This was the beginning of great hardships. I was crestfallen because I was deprived of a handsome salary, nothing beyond that. I was still unaware of films, I had never seen one. A few weeks later, a distributor representing Kolhapur Cinetone, happened to be in Nasik. He was staying in a hotel across the street. Initially I didn’t notice him. When I did, I realised he was one of those ‘bird watchers’. I complained to my husband who in turn complained to the hotel owner, who took the man to task.
But the ‘bird watcher’ turned out to be a perfect gentleman. He wanted to know if I would like to work in films. The hotel owner conveyed the message to my husband and a meeting was arranged between all of us. Next day I was photographed and the snaps were sent to Kolhapur. They were approved. We packed and left Nasik.
When we reached Kolhapur we were given royal treatment. The company, we later discovered, belonged to the Maharaja of Kolhapur. We were hired for three years on the strength of our last agreements plus boarding and lodging. Our first film was “Bhikarin”. When the shooting started, I was in for a shock. I was asked to put my arms round the actor and say, “Kumar, main tumhare bina zinda nahin reh sakti.” This I wouldn’t do. I was a married woman and was not supposed to touch anybody else except my husband. No amount of persuasion could make me say that.
Next came “Ganga Avataran” for which the company booked Dadasaheb Phalke. I was happy to bag Parvati’s role in the film, more for the reason that I wouldn’t have to touch par-purush. The film was a big success.
The real problem came when Jagirdar was hired by the same company to make a social “Honhaar”. I was cast opposite Shahu Modak as heroine and was supposed to hug and embrace him, which I again wouldn’t do. Jagirdar became so furious that he ordered me out. But the company couldn’t turn me out. Legally they were in a weak position. So I was given Modak’s mother’s role in the film and I clicked instantly. I felt great playing mother’s roles at the age of 18—actors touching my feet and receiving blessings in return!
Next year I became pregnant and fell sick. I had no alternative but to return to my hometown. We gave up the idea of returning to Bombay. In 1940 we went to Calcutta which was a big film centre then. We worked in three films – Fazli Brothers’ “Qaidi”, Kidar Sharma’s “Chitralekha” and R.C. Talwar’s “Khamoshi”. But after that Calcutta began to wear a deserted look. The second World War was at its peak and we were compelled to leave Calcutta.
A cameraman friend of my husband’s invited us to Bombay. We returned to the city and startedworking in his film, “Kisi Se Na Kehna”. The film clicked and film folk began to see me as a mother- figure. Within the next few weeks I had bagged a number of assignments. Ever since then I have never had to beg for roles.
Leela Misra speaks about her acting career like a hermit. Like a sage under a vast banyan tree who never moves out, she is blissfully unaware what the world says of her. I asked her, Why don’t you go and see your performance in a theatre?
What for? Why waste money on cabs and tickets and sit in a stuffy theatre through the whole painful process of watching those flashes of brilliance? Don’t I know I am a three-scene actress. I prefer to spend my money and energy on good food, good neighbours and good literature, that is the Ramayan.
How many films has she worked in?
I don’t keep count, nor do I maintain an album of my films. I don’t read film magazines or even see them. So if you show them to me, I will not be able to tell Zeenat Amen from Parveen Babi and vice versa.
I met Rekha very recently while we were shooting for “Aanchal”. Now I think I can recognise her, but only when she tells me who she is! I had the same problem with Rajesh Khanna when we were working for “Dushman”. I was criticising him for his late coming without even knowing that he was sitting in the chair next to me. But now we can recognise each other better. (she laughs) For both of us have spare time to discuss things of mutual and not so-mutual interest. He can discuss his bungalows and kids, and I, the origin of Lord Shiva’s portrait—the only one hanging on my walls — and life after death. Who is interested in films by the way? (As told to Devendra Mohan in 1978)