The scandal that rocked Calcutta

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 1.06.08

Husain [M.F], too, was always around to lend him [Roberto Rossellini] a sympathetic ear, if not always to engage him in conversation. How they managed to communicate is a bit of a mystery. The painter spoke almost no English, while the director spoke it haltingly. Once, when they discussed the industry’s machinations against Rossellini, the director declared that producers all over the world were the same: stingy, short on imagination, loud, garrulous and petty-minded. The Americans were, of course, the worst of the lot, ready to sell their mothers for that extra dollar.

But the Italians, Rossellini contended, were hardly any better. When he began to privately screen Rome, Open City, exhibitors and producers made no attempt to hide their contempt for the film. When matters got out of hand, he faced them squarely, unzipped his fly and pissed on them — much as he had wanted to piss on the Indians demonstrating noisily under the window at the Taj Hotel.

Another favourite topic which the two engaged in passionately was sex. Husain recalled in a conversation with me how much Rossellini liked to harp on his sexual conquests. He had decided to bed Marlene Dietrich the moment he saw her — and he did. He had told a friend that Ingrid [Bergman] would be in his arms within a fortnight — and she was… He bragged to Husain about the size of his penis, his staying power, his inability to make a new film without a new woman…

Rossellini’s main preoccupation those days was how to get Sonali [Dasgupta] to Europe but Sonali couldn’t bear the thought of leaving India. She had had the opportunities to study abroad after her degree in Santiniketan but hadn’t once considered them. But now the situation in India had become untenable for her. By July she knew she was pregnant.

She worried that the crusader in the press and the pressures exerted on her by the film industry and her relatives would come in the way of getting a passport. “She had every reason to worry,” said Rinki Bhattacharya, Sonali’s cousin, and daughter of film-maker Bimal Roy. ‘My mother absolutely loathed Sonali, since she had brought dishonour to the family… I never quite understood this rage. I was young… But the way the family hounded her baffled me.’…

However, Sonali, like Rossellini, chose to fight back. She approached Nehru who had known her since her days in Santiniketan (as many as six of her uncles had taught at Tagore’s university). All Bengalis had pet names and Nehru’s pet name for her was ‘Monkey’. After a mock refusal to help her get a passport — ‘chocolates would be easier, Monkey’ — he made sure she obtained the document. And then he gave her a bit of advice: ‘Stay in touch. But stay in touch directly. Stay away from the embassy.’ The advice stood her in excellent stead later…

For years afterwards, Nehru and his daughter Indira maintained close ties with Sonali and Roberto, exchanging letters and gifts, especially mangoes that Indira sent to her friends in Rome.

Now that Sonali had her passport, Rossellini made plans to send her and her little son Arjun, or Gil, as he was later called, to Paris. He could not accompany her since several loose ends had still to be tied up in India. He turned to his friends — Husain and [Jean] Herman — to plot her escape. It was decided that Lila, Jean Herman’s wife, would accompany her to Paris. Husain would chaperone them up to Delhi.

‘Sonali travelled with me as Mrs Husain,’ the painter said in an interview.

‘Did she wear a veil?

“No, not at all. But no one asked any questions.’

Despite Sonali’s own assertions that she had a steady, secure life with Rossellini, rumours of a rift between the two began to surface as early as in 1962. Gossip mongers in the corridors of Cinecitta noted that Roberto’s companion hadn’t been spotted anywhere for an entire month. She was said to have shut herself up in her own faraway life.Once she appeared on the sets of his film and reportedly told his assistant: ‘It is terrible to feel lonely in a world that one is no longer able to understand.’…A sympathetic article in La Settimana spoke about the multiple activities she undertook to partially fill up the void she felt around her. Her boutique of Indian handicrafts and textiles on the via DellaVite had instantly attracted a large clientele of socialites and celebrities…

Once she showed up in the boutique with bruises on her face. To those who tried to commiserate with her, she explained that she had had a fall and that she would take care in future to mind her step…

She told me that she intended to write the story of her life in which, she emphatically added, ‘Roberto will not be the central figure.’ She said this without a trace of rancour. She said she continued to take pride in Rossellini’s work as a film-maker and recalled with obvious pleasure their collaboration on various film projects. But she had moved on. ‘Where and how did you acquire such a serene detachment?’ I asked. She answered with two short words: ‘I’m Indian.’’