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Existentially yours

Amita Malik writes on his visit to Sweden and her last interview with Bergman who will always remain one of the greats of world cinema.
None | By Amita Malik
UPDATED ON JUL 31, 2007 11:43 PM IST

It was my second visit to Sweden in search of Ingmar Bergman. The first attempt had failed miserably. The Swedish film industry, the Swedish government, the Swedish film archives and the Indian embassy in Stockholm had all drawn a blank. Six journalists had waited for months. A Frenchwoman writing a book on him had waited for a year. Bergman had told Playboy that he did not give interviews.

Then the unexpected happened. Flying from Copenhagen to Stockholm, sitting next to me was a silent young man who did not even return my ‘Good morning’ — until he spilt his cup of coffee on my silk sari. After the hostess had mopped it up, the young man apologised profusely and asked if I was an Indian. He also asked me what I did for a living.

“I write on cinema,” I replied.

“I act in films and my name is Per Oscarsson.”

I realised I was talking to one of Bergman’s leading actors whom he had also directed as Hamlet on the stage. So guilty was Oscarsson after dropping coffee on me that he drove 40 miles out of the way to drop me at my hotel and invited me for the weekend to his country cottage.

As we sat in the sun after lunch with his lovely wife and two huge Great Danes, my host asked me politely if I had done everything I wanted to do in Sweden.

“Except meet Ingmar Bergman,” I replied sadly.

“Would you like to speak to him?”

And before I could reply, he had fetched the phone and said, “Speak to Bergman.”

“Oh Mrs Malik. I have just read in the paper what you said about Satyajit Ray. I believe you want to meet me. Would you like to come to the studio tomorrow?”

“It will be a privilege,” I stammered.

Next day, I could hardly eat the gourmet lunch offered by Bergman’s PR, although the champagne helped.

After a long drive to the studio, we walked down endless corridors to the sets where Bergman was directing actress Liv Ullmann in the dying scene from Persona. After two failed shots, Bergman walked across, shook hands and said, “How nice of you to come” — clearly, the understatement of the year.

“You just ask questions in between shots. Don’t worry, just relax,” he said, putting his hand comfortingly round my shoulders.

Not daring to lug a mike around, I took down his answers in shaky longhand. The seventh shot was successful and Bergman said, “Cut” in his classic style and “Cafe, cafe”. “But you are an Indian, I shall give you tea,” he said.

Meanwhile, Liv Ullmann, having done her dying gasp to perfection, fished out a pear from her hospital gown and ate it hungrily. Bergman's den was small and elegant and on the walls were two photos: one of Chaplin, and the other of his guru Viktor Sjostrom.

“This has been my room for 25 years. I am superstitious,” smiled Bergman. “Do you have a tea ceremony?” he asked.

“No, that is the Japanese,” I replied. “But my mother blends her own.”

Bergman said he could not come to India because he hates flying. “I have refused Cannes several times,” he said. But he spoke admiringly of Satyajit Ray’s films and asked me several questions about his life and work.

He answered all the questions I asked him about his life and work. This was the first, and I believe, the last interview he ever allowed on the sets of a film and it remains the most difficult interview I ever got against tremendous odds. He will always remain one of the greats of world cinema.

Returning from Sweden, I sent Ingmar Bergman a packet of the best Darjeeling tea. Hope he enjoyed it.

Amita Malik is a veteran film critic.

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