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.
ROFL at "elite Indian couples who roll their hips and masturbate their nerves on..." This chap appears to be quite fond of invoking onanism. One of the most unforgettable put-downs of Shantaram's Navrang was Patel's" "the mental mesturbation of a senile mind."ReplyDelete
Is there anything about the woman in the book? I mean her interviews, letters or diaries may be... I am intrigued, I mean I can understand he was good-looking and he was Italian but still that doesn't explain these affairs. Bergman did sacrifice her fame and Hollywood career and invited condemnation and moral censure but her movies with Rossellini are really great. I have seen only two of them Stromboli and Voyage to Italy - both are really very good. I specially loved the former. I wonder what happened to Sonali Dasgupta.ReplyDelete
I also missed a rare chance to see India Matri Bhumi last year... Jonathan Rosenbaum thinks it is his "crowning achievement". Sounds like a hyperbole but still the review makes it sound very intriguing.
Alok: that's a gap in the book: there's little about Sonali, apart from secondary-source info from a couple of her interviews - some of her views on RR, the differences between Europe and India, her own adjustments problems. Padgaonkar quotes from a small book titled Another World, in which she wrote about her early experiences in Europe. Interesting stuff about how western attire can be like "a bridle or a yoke, determining the shape of the body", and her problems with "banal physical contact" between people in Italy.ReplyDelete
I liked Voyage to Italy too. Haven't seen Stromboli or any of the other Rossellini-Bergman films.
If there's very little about Sonali, then it's probably deliberate. Because if it isn't, then it's a badly researched book. Anyone connected - even remotely connected - with the relevant circles in Calcutta would tell you everything you want to know about Sonali, about Harisadhan (a very close friend of Ray's and a filmmaker himself; their son is also a filmmaker of some repute) and the episode...ReplyDelete
BMR: yes, I think it's deliberate - Padgaonkar probably chose to be discreet when it came to the more personal stuff. Also, sifting out the facts from the gossip/speculation would have been a troublesome task.ReplyDelete
My dad has archived old issues of Mother India.ReplyDelete
Mr. Patel was a busy man in those pages. Talking proudly about his two wives, followed by talking smack about everyone else. And finding time to promote his herbal medicine (so you too could be a manly man like him).
I love that old SOB.
Here's Patel going all Shakespeare on Shree 420.
"It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
Little late in replying to this old post.ReplyDelete
Thanks for talking about this book which I hope to read. A writer named Tag Gallagher wrote a biography on Rossellini called,
"The Adventures of Roberto Rossellini" which chronicles in detail the kind of person he was and deals with his stay in India and his career afterwards in detail.
I realize this is an old, old post but for anybody who happened across it and felt really curious to know more, there is some more info at :ReplyDelete
credit Sunil Deepak (who BTW appears to have been motivated by this post)
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