Leela Desai was born in New York to Umemdra Lalbhai Desai, her Gujarati father and Satyabala Devi her Bengali mother. Her father was a doctor by profession and her mother was musically trained in her childhood. She had four other siblings, Daulatrai, Shanti, Suprakash, and Monica. She had many half-siblings from her father’s other marriages.
Desai showed an inclination towards dancing since childhood. She was trained in Kathak under the guidance of two masterful dancers, Amaladevi first and then Sohanlal. Her dedication to mastering the craft took her to the epicentre of dance culture in Lucknow. It was in one of her performances in a dance recital, that the filmmaker Hemchandra Chunder spotted her talent and offered a role. After considering the offer and watching his film Karodpati/Millionaire (1936), she decided to take up acting as a prospective career.
She moved to Calcutta after her correspondence with Hemchandra. She made her debut in the New Theatres film President (1937) directed by Nitin Bose. She starred alongside stars such as Kamlesh Kumari and K L Saigal. She starred in several other New Theatres production such as Vidyapati (Debaki Bose, 1937), Dushman (Nitin Bose, 1939) Kapal Kundala (Nitin Bose, Phani Majumdar, 1939), and Nartaki (Debaki Bose, 1940). She acted in both the Hindi and Bengali versions of Nartaki and played the character of Roopkumari.
She frequently worked with filmmakers such as Nitin Bose, Debaki Bose, Phani Majumdar amongst others. When she shifted her base to Bombay, her first Hindi film Tamanna (1942) was also directed by Phani Majumdar. Majumdar later married Desai’s sister Monica. In Vishram Bedekar’s Nagad Narayan (1943), she played a comedy role alongside Baburao Pendharkar. She acted in Nitin Bose’s Mujrim (1944), Kidar Sharma’s Kaliyan (1944) and as Debaki Bose’s lead in Meghdoot(1945).
Desai had a keen interest in other aspects of the film world, such as producing. In pursuing her interest, she acquired the rights of the Hindi version of Tapan Sinha’s National Award-winning Kabuliwala (1961). Later, she gave it to Bimal Roy, but she has been credited as an associate producer for the film. In her decade long career, she appeared in 22 films but retired relatively early for health reasons.