Under her spell | Dileep Padgaonkar
If you’re the sort of book buyer who tends to go by the blurbs on the cover then you are in luck. Padgaonkar’s book has four on the back cover by assorted luminaries—film-makers Mani Kaul and Shyam Benegal, biographer Tag Gallagher and Italian film historian Adriano Apra. And, all of them are remarkably accurate. They call it a “painstakingly researched work” tapped from a “wealth of new sources” through “original inquiry”.
Not a single page goes by without several quotes and anecdotes by people who were witness to director Roberto Rossellini’s turbulent stint in India in the late 1950s. Journalist Dileep Padgaonkar tries to capture that time in Under Her Spell.
Rossellini, Sonali and their beagle at home in Rome
A surfeit of quotes and anecdotes is also the problem with the book. Rossellini first came to India in 1956 to make a film at the behest of Nehru. But, bewitched by a married woman, he finally returned to Italy without a complete film, but with his Indian muse. The India he left behind, the young nation he so eagerly wanted to portray in his film, was scandalized and amused by the turn of events.
Rossellini is an enigmatic figure in post-World War II film history. He was a man who made films and lived his life with passion and intensity. He was also a man who, as Padgaonkar suggests in this book, liked to portray himself either as someone in control of himself and those around him when things went well or as a victim of circumstance when things soured.
Rossellini’s first tryst with India, so to speak, happened in 1931 when he met Gandhi in Rome. At that time, Padgaonkar points out, he was quite the party animal: “At the age of twenty-five (Rossellini) had gained notoriety for his lavish and reckless lifestyle. He often used cocaine…chased girls, frequented brothels, drove his sports cars at break-neck speed, piled up debts, which his father had to settle and showed no signs of pursuing any career.” Yet, he was touched by the Mahatma. He said, and Padgaonkar quotes: “There was nothing detached or immaterial about (Gandhi), rather the sensation of a presence awake to the world.” By 1955, Rossellini was an acknowledged (if not universally so) master of Italian neo-realist cinema—a genre born out of post-war national strife and reflective of the desperation and psyche of poor Italians (and of many other Europeans). During a London meeting with Nehru in September of that year, Rossellini expressed his wish to “document India’s progress as a young, independent nation on film”.
So, he arrived in India in December 1956, and settled into his suite at the Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai (his penchant for poverty, desperation and austerity seldom extended outside his scripts and films). And in the process of drawing up his crew, he met Sonalini Dasgupta. Sonali, as she was called, was the wife of Harisadhan Dasgupta, a documentary film-maker and one-time assistant director to Jean Renoir.
Rossellini was bewitched and, over time, so was she. He demanded that Sonali be his scriptwriter even though she had little experience (all this while, pictures of his wife, Ingrid Bergman, and their children were placed prominently in his hotel room).
Padgaonkar manages to hold the plot together admirably till this point in the story. Once the backdrop moves to Rossellini’s film set for India—Matri Bhumi, the book slows down considerably. Padgaonkar tries to pad up the central theme of the book, Rossellini’s torrid affair, with mundane and repetitive details of the filming. The director’s eccentricities drag on from page to page till we don’t care any more. By now, you want the couple to just pack their bags and get up and go to Rome.
Under Her Spell proves that an eccentric genius or intriguing turn of events or meticulous research don’t necessarily make a good book. Sonali’s character is poorly etched; their relationship is almost always seen from other people’s eyes. Under an able director though, Padgaonkar’s book might make an interesting movie.