Leela Chitnis (9 September 1909 – 14 July 2003) was an actress in the Indian 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 main stars
She was born in Dharwad, Karnataka to an English professor. She was one of the first educated film actresses. Her husband was part of a Marathi theatre company called Natyamanwantar.
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.
She 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 which saw her overtake and outshine Devika Rani. Her association with Bombay Talkies shot her to stardom and she made a particularly good partner with Devika Rani’s leading man Ashok Kumar. 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. 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. She continued doing films and then 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.
Her father adhered to Brahmo Samaj, a religious movement that rejected caste.
She married a much older man named Dr. Gajanan Yeshwant Chitnis at the age of 15 or 16, and quickly had four children. The couple supported India’s struggle for independence from Britain and once risked arrest by harbouring Manabendra Nath Roy, a Marxist freedom fighter. After she divorced her husband, she worked as a school teacher and began acting onstage in melodramas typical of the time. She appeared in several movies, and went through a Bombay university to be hired by a major studio, Bombay Talkies; it hired only college graduates.
She had three sons Manavendra, Benoy and Raj. She lived with her eldest son in Connecticut in USA, until her death. She had three grandchildren then