Sonali Dasgupta

An affair to remember

Print edition : July 11, 2014

Sonali Dasgupta with legendary filmmaker Roberto Rossellini in Rome. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Educated in Santiniketan, refined and cultured, tall and lissome, Sonali Dasgupta personified the West’s perception of the enigmatic Indian beauty, which Rossellini obviously found hard to resist.

WHEN a demurely beautiful young Bengali lady, Sonali Dasgupta, left her husband and her elder son to elope with the great Italian filmmaker Roberto Rossellini in 1957, it was a scandal that rocked not only the conservative Bengali society of that time, but also caused ripples in the literary and cultural circles all over India. Such was the impact of the affair that 57 years later it is still talked about as a sensational event in Bengali society. On June 7, Sonali Rossellini passed away in Rome at the age of 86, once again bringing forth to the public memory, one of the most famous affairs of its time.

Rossellini had met Sonali during his visit to India in 1957 through her husband, the talented and acclaimed documentary filmmaker Harisadhan Dasgupta. The story goes that it was love at first sight for the great Italian director, who is credited with being one of the creators of neorealism in modern cinema.

Educated in Santiniketan, refined and cultured, tall and lissome, Sonali personified the West’s perception of the enigmatic Indian beauty, which Rossellini obviously found hard to resist. When they met, he was 52 and his marriage to screen legend Ingrid Bergman was on the rocks. Sonali was just 27 with two sons, one six years old and the other an 11-month infant.

As news of the affair broke out, Hollywood tabloids went to town with the story. Sonali found herself condemned by her family and society. According to the veteran journalist Dileep Padgaonkar, who wrote a book on Roberto Rossellini’s visit to India, titled, “Under Her Spell: Roberto Rossellini in India”, the government was put under pressure by some quarters to deny Sonali a passport, so she would not be able to leave the country.

Finally, it was with the intervention of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, whom she knew since her childhood days in Santiniketan, that she was able to get a passport and the necessary documents required to leave the country. Rossellini, who still had work pending in India, immediately arranged for her and her younger son to be sent to Paris. M.F. Husain, who was a close friend of Rossellini’s, helped Sonali escape the media glare by accompanying her to Delhi, with Sonali posing as his wife. Sonali kept in close touch with both Nehru and Indira Gandhi throughout their lives. Soon after, Rossellini joined her in Paris, where they stayed for a while in the studio of photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, a friend of Rossellini’s, before shifting to Italy.

For 17 years Sonali lived in the shadow of her illustrious husband. They had a child together, Rafaella Paula, and Sonali took care of not only her own children, but also the children from Rossellini’s previous marriage to Ingrid Bergman, including Isabella Rossellini, who later became a famous actress in her own right. Her relationship with her elder son Raja Dasgupta was not a close one. Dasgupta, who is a noted documentary filmmaker based in Kolkata, said in an interview after her death, “I felt no great affection or rancour against her. She did not miss me and I did not miss her….” But he apparently remained in touch with Rafaella and the other children of the Rossellini family. His younger brother, Arjun or Gil as he was called after he was adopted by Roberto Rossellini, was also a filmmaker and producer. Gil died in 2008 after a prolonged illness.

Sonali set up a successful boutique in Rome in the 1960s. However, her marriage to Roberto Rossellini ended in 1973. Though she spent the rest of her life in anonymity, she never completely disappeared from public memory. Of all the affairs and marriages that Rossellini had had, it was his relationship with Sonali that lasted the longest. “He was the storm and she was the eye of it,” wrote Padgaonkar.

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