Roberto, Nehru and Sonali

In his eyes, her beauty, intelligence, grace and, not least, her wondrous enigma incarnated the very soul of India.
As we all know, Bong girls are more daring than most (and prettier than most, though personally speaking, we fancy Vidya Balan).

Questions: she was obviously seduced but what gave her courage to jump into the fire feet first and settle down with a rogue? Yes, girls are fascinated by bad boys, but it seems there is something more than meets the eye. Given Nehru’s background and role as a family friend, was it right and proper for him to aid and abet adultery (ho ho ho)? Finally, why did Sonali’s daughter pick up a rigid form of Islam- was it a reaction to her mother’s wayward ways? It would have been nice to hear her speak as well. Finally, dont pay any attention to hand-wringing libs, nice (dull) boys do finish last.

It was the scandal of the ’50s: a doe-eyed
Bengali beauty leaves husband, child to elope with celebrated Italian
filmmaker Roberto Rossellini. But for Sonali Dasgupta, who died in Rome
on Saturday, the love story didn’t have a happy ending.

Except for a few months in 1957, when she was thrown in the vortex of
a scandal that made headlines in the yellow press across the world,
Sonali Dasgupta lived her life behind a thick veil of anonymity. Before
the scandal erupted, she led the humdrum existence of a housewife,
resigned, unhappily no doubt, to playing second fiddle to her husband,
Harisadhan Dasgupta, a gregarious, ambitious and talented documentary

She had studied at Shantiniketan and took a lively interest in Indian culture.

But no opportunity came her way to turn that interest into a
vocation. Her lot was to bask in the reflected glory of Harisadhan —
first in Kolkata, where he had founded a film society along with
Satyajit Ray and Chidananda Dasgupta, and later in Mumbai, where he
directed documentaries for the Films Division and for major business

His success allowed him to socialise with Mumbai’s commercial film
industry circles, including, especially, with fellow Bengalis like Bimal
Roy who happened to be a relation as well. It is at a film party, held
in December 1956, that he learnt of the imminent arrival in Mumbai of
Roberto Rossellini, the great Italian film director, to direct, at the
behest of Jawaharlal Nehru, several documentaries, and perhaps also a
feature film, to mark ten years of India’s independence. All that
mattered to him now was a chance to serve as an assistant to Rossellini.
That would be another feather in his cap.

But that was not to be since he was in the midst of shooting a film
for a corporate house. So he tried another tack: persuade Rossellini to
hire Sonali to help him write the scripts for his films even though she
had no experience in script-writing.

Nor did she fancy herself in that role.

Not that Rossellini, whose marriage to Ingrid Bergman was on the
rocks, needed much persuasion. The very first time that he set his eyes
on Sonali he was seized by a mighty passion to seduce her.

In his eyes, her beauty, intelligence, grace and, not least, her wondrous enigma incarnated the very soul of India.

Discomfited yet flattered by the attention Rossellini lavished on her, Sonali succumbed to the charms of the Italian.

Her chagrined and outraged husband threw her out of the conjugal
home. Soon two scandal sheets — RK Karanjia’s Blitz and Baburao Patel’s
Filmindia — ran a series of salacious and concocted reports for weeks on
end. That prompted Hollywood gossip columnists to join the fray.

Pressure mounted on the government to cancel Rossellini’s visa. It
was Nehru who saved the day. He had known Sonali whom he affectionately
called Monkey.

She was given a passport and arrangements were made to dispatch her
to Paris along with her younger son — then a mere toddler. Rossellini
joined her a few weeks later.

Not long afterwards they shifted to Italy where she gave birth to a
daughter, opened a fashion boutique that boasted of a high-end
clientele, helped Rossellini in his novel film ventures and got along
famously with his children from his two previous wives. But the idyll
didn’t last long.

One tragedy after another marked her final years: Rossellini,
estranged from her, succumbed to a heart attack; Harisadhan, wasted by
drink, died in appalling penury; Gil, her younger son, passed away after
a freak accident. Her daughter, who trained in the theatre, reportedly
embraced a rigid form of Islam and migrated to the Middle East.

I met Sonali two days running in Rome while doing research on
Rossellini’s sojourn in India. She was poised, serene, stoic. She spoke
little. But the little she spoke was singularly free of bitterness,
remorse or chagrin. She had fulsome praise for Rossellini’s
accomplishments as a filmmaker. But at the end of our last conversation
she also said with just a hint of irony: “Ask me what it means to live
with a genius.”





Brown Pundits