Frail and blessed with kindly eyes, Leela Chitnis, who died in the US on Sunday, is familiar to many moviegoers as the famous mother figure to the top trio of the 1950s and 1960s.
She was Raj Kapoor's falsely-accused-of-infidelity mother in Awaara; Dilip Kumar's falsely-accused-of-theft matriarch in Ganga Jamuna and Dev Anand's mother who is under the impression her soldier son is dead in Hum Dono.
While on screen, suffering almost always stalked her racked-by-cough physique.
What is often lost in the mist of times is the recollection of the days in the late 1930s and early 1940s when this delicate beauty was one of the topmost heroines in the country.
One of cinema's earliest educated ladies, Leela captured her life in her autobiography Chanderi Duniyet. Born in a Marathi-speaking household in Karwar, Karnataka, she made a name for herself in the Natya Manvantar theatre group.
Talkie films were a fledgling artform in the 1930s and Leela gravitated towards cinema with minor roles. Her obvious felicity with histrionics won her notice. Soon, she was working with major names like Master Vinayak in Chhaya (1936), Prabhat's Narayan Kale in Wahan (1937) and Sohrab Modi in Jailor (1938). Willing to experiment with her roles, Leela even donned a man's guise in Gentleman Daku (1937).
In 1939, Leela became a major star. Ranjit Studios took actor Vishnupant Pagnis (of Prabhat's Sant Tukaram) and made Sant Tulsidas with the actor. Leela played Pagnis' wife, whose love distracts him from his goals.
The film was a major success.
The same year, Leela studio hopped to Bombay Talkies, where Kangan was being made under S Mukherji's supervision. It costarred Ashok Kumar. The friendly competition between the two young stars translated well on screen and this bucolic love story became a thumping hit.
Leela made a hugely popular pair with Ashok Kumar and starred in a hat-trick of hits (Kangan, Bandhan, Jhoola) opposite him. Kumar always praised her acting abilities and candidly referred to the days when he used to watch Leela's acting closely. He admitted to have learnt the technique of 'speaking through the eyes' from her.
1940 saw Kumar and Leela star together in Bandhan (its superhit song Chal chal re naujawan still reverberates in the ears of connoisseurs). Another rural love story, Bandhan, had Leela looking her prettiest in simple saris and double-plaited hair. The success of the pair's Jhoola in 1941 cemented their teaming.
But Leela was not a studio person and preferred to freelance. This had worked for her earlier but, in the Forties, the results were not very encouraging. She teamed again with Bombay Talkies in Chaar Ankhen (1944) and with Ashok Kumar in Kiran (1944) but the earlier mega success eluded her.
Filmdom in the Forties followed many of the conventional rules for heroines. Towards the end of the decade, Leela accepted a strong role as Dilip Kumar's mother in Shaheed (1948).
The film made a strong impression at the box office. And Leela began her second innings as a character actor.
She landed some very good roles. Raj Kapoor's Awaara (1951) begins with a longish prelude that tells of her marriage to Prithviraj Kapoor (the first time they worked together); her kidnapping by a dacoit (K N Singh), who wants revenge from Prithviraj; her subsequent estrangement from her suspicious husband and her later struggle to bring up her child (played by a young Shashi Kapoor).
Leela played the central role in Bimal Roy's Maa (1952) and even tried her hand at directing a film with Aaj Ki Baat (1954).
From the mid-1950s, she was often typecast as the protagonist's woebegone mother.
The occasional impactful role still came Leela's way. She worked often with major filmmakers like B R Chopra: she was Vyjayanthimala's mother in Naya Daur (1957) and her mother-in-law in Sadhana. Dev Anand's Navketan Films cast her in Kaala Bazaar (1960), Hum Dono (1961) and in Guide (1965).
She was particularly good in Guide as Dev Anand's helpless mother, who cannot overcome her trepidation at society's condemnation of her son living in with Waheeda.
Famous bhajans like Tora manwa kyon ghabraye re Ramji ke dware (Sadhana) and Na main dhan chahoon na ratan chahoon (Kaala Bazaar) were picturised on her.
Leela worked very sporadically in the Seventies, making an exception only for films like Satyam Shivam Sundaram (1978).
Approaching 70, she dropped out of public notice and migrated to the US. But the memory of that aristocratic bone structure, sympathetic countenance and benign eyes lingers on.