A correction was made to this article on July 16, 2003.
Bollywood singer-actress Leela Chitnis, known for challenging the caste system, died Sunday July 13 in Danbury, Conn., due to complications from a fall in a nursing home. She was 89.
A mega-star in her era (police would have to be called in to control crowds who thronged to her), she started acting in the 1930s using her roles to fight caste confinement and also broke the taboo against married women acting.
“She was a feminist before the word was popular,” her son Manavendra Chitnis told the News-Times of Danbury. “At the time, any Indian woman who went on the stage was considered a prostitute. But she was very defiant, very strong-willed.”
Although she started onstage, she gravitated toward the newly emerging celluloid medium. Together with Ashok Kumar she sang and acted in productions of Bombay Talkies (one of India’s earliest Hollywood-style studios) such as “Kangan” (Bangle, 1939), “Bandhan” (Ties, 1940) and “Jhoola” (Swing, 1941). Her duet “Chal chal ray navjawan” (Come on oh Youth) with Kumar for “Bandhan” helped energize the independence movement against the British.
In later years she took to playing mother roles in blockbusters such as Raj Kapoor’s “Awaara” (Vagabond, 1951), “Hum dono” (We Two, 1961) and “Guide” (1961).
She moved to the U.S. in the 1980s.
Three children from two marriages survive her.