Leela (2002)

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This is not a Hindi film per se but falls into the “crossover” genre; most of it is in English and it was filmed by a mostly American crew, although it stars some of the brightest stars of Hindi cinema. And I must confess that for the first half hour of this film, I was pretty bored.

I thought: I need masala like a crackwhore needs crack!

But I stuck with it, and by the end was glad I had watched it all the way through.

The first half of the movie is essentially the story of Kris(hna), a first generation Indian-American college student whose parents are divorced, and who considers himself American and not Indian. Emphasis on the NOT Indian. His mother Chaitali (Deepti Naval) is a stereotypical hovering Indian mother who wants him to recognize and relate to his roots; his father (Gulshan Grover) lives with his American girlfriend (of course a pretty blonde woman named Jennifer — why are western women never brunette in Indian films, why?) and is mostly absent from his life.

Enter Leela (Dimple Kapadia), an Indian woman who is re-examining her life after her mother’s death, and decides to take a position at a university in America for a semester. She is married to a womanizing poet (Vinod Khanna), whom she loves but knows is not faithful to her.

One thing that really struck me at the beginning was the transition from the busy streets of Bombay to the leafy suburbs where Kris lived. It really captured how abrupt and disorienting the gap is between the two worlds.

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Kris is talked into taking Leela’s class on south Asian culture as an “easy A” by his friends. They are slightly stunned at the sight of beautiful Leela in her exotic saris:

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Chaitali, also a university professor, immediately establishes a friendship with Leela — they have lots of friends from Bombay University in common, among other things.

Although at first resistant to what she might have to teach him, Kris is gradually drawn into a friendship with Leela also, both through her class and her friendship with his mother. When he discovers that his mother has a boyfriend whom he has known nothing about, he is hurt and angry, and moves out of her house. As he negotiates his way into an independent adult life he relies increasingly on Leela for support and comfort. She helps him find his way toward a relationship with his father, and introduces him to aspects of Indian culture and life (especially music) which he has had no previous interest in. (A silly sidebar also is a drunken bet that Kris makes with his buddies that he will get Leela into bed — I never really figured out what the point of that was, but it’s a strand of plot that never goes anywhere.)

Leela in the meantime is embracing her new home and asks her students to teach her about American life.

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Chaitali and Leela are watching Junglee one night (I love any Shammi reference anywhere!) when Chaitali notices a pair of Krishna’s sneakers by the door. Leela explains that she has borrowed them as he is teaching her to play basketball. Then she sees Leela and Kris going into Leela’s house together one evening, and is overcome with envy and suspicion (Kris is still avoiding her). She tries to get Kris’ father to intervene, but he is unwilling to interfere. Meanwhile, Leela’s husband Nashaad has noticed that Leela’s letters are getting farther and farther apart and he writes her reproaching her. She calls him; a woman answers the phone. When Nashaad comes to talk to her, she screams at him for having another woman in their bed and hangs up. When he tries to call back, she pulls the phone cord out of the wall. Kris comes to see what the matter is and she collapses weeping into his arms. (In a true Hindi film, we would now be treated to bees buzzing around a flower or an exuberant splashing waterfall.)

After this they cannot refute Chaitali’s accusations and Leela’s friendship with Chaitali is broken. In addition, Nashaad is worried at the change in Leela and accepts an invitation to give a recital in America so that he can see her.

Of course I won’t give the end away. As I said, I really enjoyed this film by the end, although the cultural struggle isn’t as resonant for me as it would be for some of my Indian-American friends. I’m the opposite, in fact — not Indian, but so drawn to it! There is a funny scene where Chaitali asks Kris if he would come to India with her and he reacts with horror, saying “Mom! I almost died last time I went there!” The contrast between Kris’ life and also that of his parents with the life of someone who still lives in India is sharply drawn.

The music throughout is beautiful and is a big factor in uniting Kris with his heritage. Jagjit Singh and Shantanu Moitru (Parineeta, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Eklavya — I think he is wonderfully talented) are the composers and Gulzar the lyricist, and the music has a wonderful classical sound. I particularly love the song that Nashaad sings at the end accompanied by Kris on the guitar (“Jaag Je Kati”) although I don’t generally appreciate ragas that much. It doesn’t hurt that Vinod Khanna plays Nashaad — it is really wonderful to see him again and he hasn’t lost any of his sex appeal at all.

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Dimple is dignified and quietly elegant, and beautifully underplays the anguish beneath her outward composure. Deepti Naval and Gulshan Grover are natural as Kris’ parents — they have adapted to American ways, although they cherish their Indian roots. And Amol Mathre is good as the painfully young but hurtling-towards-manhood Kris. The movie is written and directed by Somnath Sen.

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7 Comments to “Leela (2002)”

  1. This sounds really interesting. I love the cast – Dimple Kapadia is totally compelling, I think. My favorite Dimple Kapadia story comes from when my mom was watching *Being Cyrus* – at one point when Dimple was on the screen, my mom exclaimed “She’s so appealing!” I thought this was a tremendous testament to Dimple’s charisma – even playing such a singularly unappealing character, she was completely, irresistibly compelling.

  2. Recommended Masala Allowance is very, very important.

  3. i remember not being able to concentrate on the movie what with all the good looking people. first the hot boy [i watched the movie when it first came out so i was kinda youngish] and dimple kapadia but mostly deepti naval. she is so incredibly beautiful its not fair. and i love that song too. it happens to be an awesome car song.

  4. I want to watch this one…but can’t get hold of it here in NL….I’ve loved Dimple ever since I was a kid….I love Deepti Naval too…Have you seen Deepti Naval’s ‘Katha’, its on youtube…and its awesome.

    trupti

  5. Hi Trupti, you could try ordering it from Nehaflix, I think they ship worldwide, or from Amazon or eBay—although it might be a region 1 DVD. I have seen Katha, loved it :-) And Chashme Buddoor is one of my favorites of all time.

  6. she is quite good

  7. Wow…this is really very beautiful site..love to see your blog….!

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