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A very neo-real love story

Too many details mar a real-life story of glamour, romance, elopement and heartbreak, writes Amitava Sanyal.

books Updated: May 26, 2008 20:39 IST
Amitava Sanyal
Amitava Sanyal
Hindustan Times
O Hari! Under Her Spell: Roberto Rossellini In India

O Hari! Under Her Spell: Roberto Rossellini In India


Dileep Padgaonkar


PENGUIN VIKING


RS 550 PP 263



The first time anyone said he wanted to talk to me 'man to man' was during my last year in school. My mothelf who had been in hospital for a while, mentioned one day that an old man a few rooms down the corridor had expressed the wish when she had worried loudly that her teenage son was in love with a dead woman, namely Ingrid Bergman.



Indeed, Ingrid's was the only poster - actually a grainy photocopy - on my bedroom wall. But I didn't even know what a 'man-to-man' meant. So I went down the corridor all nerves. The old man mentioned at the onset that he had known Ingrid intimately My twitch vanished and I was all ears.



The old man was Harisadhan Dasgupta. He was frail but proud, and stank of alcohol - I later learnt that he used to get country liquor smuggled into the hospital in shells of green coconut.



This picture of dilapidation was a filmmaker whose most treasured work had been a documentary on 'Baba' Allauddin Khan and his Maihar band. Then came the 'man-to-man' bit: it was his wife, the "talented and beautiftil, though flat-chested" Sonali, with whom Roberto Rossellini had eloped in the summer of 1957 - while he was still married to Ingrid. My heart stopped.



This scandalous tale, that had roiled Bollywood and society at the time, is the thumping heart of Dileep Padgaonkar's latest book, Under Her Spell. The scandal stretched across three continents, in Cinemascopic proportions. Almost a decade back, Ingrid herself had left her daughter and husband in the United States and moved to Italy to be with Rossellini, with whom she bore the first child out of wedlock.



Incensed, a hypocritical Hollywood had ostracised Ingrid. Later, when a married Sonalini (her real name) left her two sons and husband to move in with Rossellini in Mumbai, a forked tongue hissed: "Sonalini rhymes with Rossellini." When she bore their first child 'a month too soon', gossip columnists in a prudish India joined their western counterparts in creating a fantasy of fallen filmstars.



Baburao Patel of Filmindia and Russi Karanjia of Blitz, in particular, tore into Rossellini's fleshy flanks with more salacious fiction than solid fact. Even as fact, it was stuff fit for Hollywood, Bollywood, and even the Globe Theatre: an attractive foursome involved in an amazingly symmetrical plot of passion and betrayal.



Problem is, by adding a cast of hundreds - of which at least two dozen people get several 'scenes' - dredged up by painstaking search, the book almost manages to stretch it into a mind-numbing documentary fit for the Films Division of India.



Padgaonkar refuses to shout 'Action!' before dropping a tonne of heavy names. But when he gets rolling, his projection shines through the repetitive, starchy and patchily edited prose. On Padgaonkar's screen, Rossellini is a bundle of energy at times, a bundle of nerves at others, and a bundle of contradictions all the time. He is at once a fiercely independent liberal and a gay-hating Catholic 'benign' on the caste system.



Determined not to be blinkered by cliches, Rossellini looks the other way while passing by the Taj and is dumfounded when a lorrywalla in Dindigal hurls abuses at him in chaste Italian (the trucker had apparently been taken prisoner of war in Italy while serving in the colonial British army). The maestro of Italian neo-realism is spellbound by Mother India and two of her tallest sons, Nehru and Gandhi.



The four-part feature that resulted from Rossellini's India project, that lasted seven months and '100 kilos of spaghetti', is titled India Matri Bhumi. The book is clearly written to make it globally accessible. But do we really need to suffer tedious details of the Hirakud dam? Or how many feet of film were 'exposed' each day of shooting? It's also perhaps aimed at the Indo-Italian friendship society, for Padgaonkar dives into details such as those of Tagore's trips to Mussolini's Italy - that have little relevance to the story Of the frisky four, the auteur ends up looking as a bully and an arch-cad entranced by his strong-and-silent new love.



The Shantiniketanbred beauty ends up as a woman wronged who displays great fortitude under social reproach. The Hollywood star is ambitious, and yet ready to set aside her career and stand by her man in his hour of distress. The shoddiest treatment, put together with the least of first-hand materials, is of the US-trained filmmaker and jealous husband; he ends up as "poor Hari".



The baby which came too soon was explained by Rossellini and Sonali as a premature delivery Talking to me, Hari claimed it was 'his' child Sonali was carrying when she left India.