This bald, 51-year-old Italian director of the neo-realist film Rome, Open City recently thought that Bombay was as open a city for seduction of married women as was his birth city (sic), Rome. But Bombay made it pretty hot for this obviously sex-obsessed Italian, when in April last year, Roberto was reported to have grabbed and taken to his Christian neighbourhood the 28-year-old anaemic and skeletal Sonali Dasgupta, a married Bengali woman with a husband and two children...Patel’s diatribe went on in this fashion as he found ways to insult various other people, including Roberto’s estranged wife Ingrid Bergman, Sonali’s husband Harisadhan Dasgupta, and, more generally, “elite Indian couples who roll their hips and masturbate their nerves on the rock-n-roll floors of our clubs and then go home to breed little monsters of modern culture”. (No, I didn’t understand any of that either, but it’s very entertaining and makes 1950s Bombay seem like an exciting place.)
Chunks from this article are quoted by Dilip Padgaonkar in his Under Her Spell: Roberto Rossellini in India, a book that is itself a much more balanced and thoughtful account of the famous Italian director’s stay in India in the late 1950s, his acquaintance with Jawaharlal Nehru, his filming of a series of episodes about the newly independent country, and his relationship with Sonali. It was a relationship that caused an uproar in the Indian press at the time, Baburao Patel’s invective being only the most florid example of the many reports that appeared in newspapers and magazines. Eventually, Rossellini had to leave the country under duress (though Padgaonkar says the reports that Nehru had washed his hands off “that rascal Rossellini” were greatly exaggerated; Nehru and Indira Gandhi continued to maintain close ties with Roberto and Sonali in later years, after the two got married) and many critics felt that his film India, Matri Bhumi had an unfinished feel to it – almost as if reflecting the abrupt severing of his ties with the country.
I’ve just finished Padgaonkar’s book. It’s a good, solid read for anyone interested in the people involved, though it doesn’t deal with Rossellini’s career in any detail. The writing is mostly dry and functional; this is very much a reportage-oriented work written by a seasoned journalist. Though Padgaonkar knew Rossellini personally in the 1970s and also spoke to a number of people during his research, he stays discreetly in the background for the most part. (As it happens, I liked the voice that emerged on the few occasions that he does use the first-person: in the Prologue, where he recalls being a young, Hollywood-obsessed boy at the time of Rossellini’s visit to India, more interested in Ingrid Bergman than in neo-realist cinema; and later, when he offers a personal critique of India, Matri Bhumi, relating his own deepening response to the film after a second viewing.)
Perhaps Under her Spell is just a little too dry and restrained though, given that at the centre of this story is a tempestuous affair that complicated the lives of many people. We don't really learn that much about the Roberto-Sonali relationship, what drew them to each other and how the bond gradually deepened, and Padgaonkar is also reticent about their later years together. I thought there was a little too much journalistic detail in places: in the chapters describing the shooting of particularly troublesome segments of film, for example, we are meticulously told exactly how many feet of film were exposed each day – at one point it almost becomes a refrain with which to end every few paragraphs.
As a chronicle of an emotionally stressful time in the life of a famous – and famously complex – person, this book has a lot of merit. But it also feels somewhat disjointed, its chapters resembling little pieces of film – each intriguing in its own right – that haven’t quite been put together. These include vignettes on Rossellini’s earlier relationships; his often hidebound views about what made for “important” cinema (his opposition to “pretty pictures” and dramatic editing were laughably inflexible); his determination to capture facets of life in India as naturally as possible, and not to exoticise or depict tourist-friendly images (in his autobiography, he claimed that he turned his face away when his car passed the Taj Mahal and that he refused to see the Ajanta frescoes); the difficulties of shooting and of getting approval from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry (there’s a surreal telephone conversation with a minister, who objects to an episode where a tiger becomes a man-eater); and, of course, the repercussions of the Dasgupta affair. Padgaonkar also underlines Rossellini’s prescient observation that India was destined to take its place in the front rank of nations within a few decades. “Contrary to most other foreign viewers, he argued that Indians were amongst the most rational people in the world. Indeed India was akin to an enormous stomach that swallowed everything, digested everything and provided nutrition for the country’s social and economic development.”
Rossellini comes across as a man ridden with contradictions: immensely generous at times yet capable of mean-spiritedness, warm and unmindful of social divisions yet also off-handed, hard-headed but boyishly vulnerable. Given this, I was surprised that Padgaonkar disapproves of the following description of Rossellini by the biographer Lawrence Leamer:
“Roberto was not a man but a mosaic of men. He was an intuitive genius; he was a fraud; he was a soothsayer; he was a charmer; he was a liar; he was an adventurer; he was a crook; he was a man of saintly generosity; he was a cheat; he loved humanity; he manipulated human beings; he was an egomaniac; he reeked of insecurity.”
Padgaonkar says this description lacks in generosity of spirit, but I think it’s a matter-of-fact recognition of the many qualities that can coexist in a temperamental artist. The portrait of Rossellini that emerges in Under Her Spell is not in its essence all that different from Leamer’s description.