ZIYA US SALAM
Dileep Padgaonkar, is as comfortable in the kitchen whipping up a delicacy as he is in the drawing room, talking about his favourite movies and director. Excerpts from an interview…Rossellini was truly charismatic, a superb conversationalist, full of anecdotes, a man who kept everybody spellbound with his talk.
To begin with an understatement, it is an education on cinema to speak to Dileep Padgaonkar. “Film criticism does not exist now. Sound bytes are often more important than sound sense. One cannot always blame the critics because cinema itself is so shallow. There is a smart aleck-ness in cinema, so also in film writing.”
This singular thought is backed by a torrent of words when he talks of the celebrated filmmaker Roberto Rossellini, the subject of his latest book, Under Her Spell: Roberto Rossellini in India. It is about an hour for sunset in New Delhi when Padgaonkar starts talking about Rossellini. Such is his passion that he can do that up to dinner and beyond. And not repeat an instance or an expression. Unfortunately, the vastness of his ability — much like the celebrated Italian director — is matched by the paucity of time. So, one gets down to talking of the easiest: the women in Rossellini’s life. Immediately he removes one misconception. “It is wrong to say that Sonali Dasgupta believed that Rossellini needed a new woman for every new film. It was said by Jean and it was anyway a bit of an exaggeration. Though it is true in early youth, he was a bit of a predator and dissipated some of his talent.”
On Rossellini’s women, Padgaonkar says, “His first wife very early accepted him for what he was. With Ingrid Bergman, after the first flush of romance had faded, he could not understand her behaviour. There were different cultural traits to their personalities. He believed the whole world was divided between stitched and unstitched civilisations. The former were hard-working, dull and boring, the latter more relaxed, imaginative but not as efficient.”
And what about our own Sonali Dasgupta, a married woman with two kids from the bhadralok section of society? Also a woman who defied all convention to have a relationship with the filmmaker! “Sonali foxed him completely. She was not as voluble as he was. Candour was not her strong point. She spoke in allusions and often remained silent. It turned her more enigmatic. She reincarnated what was noble and uplifting about India. Sonali, on her part, never thought of the future of the relationship. She was so fed up of the press, her family, her relatives. She wanted an escape, redemption, a freedom to be her own person. She got no money or glamour by being his companion. By the time she met him he was already on his way down.”
What about Rossellini himself, who came to India on the invitation of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to make a film, “India: Matri Bhumi”? Incidentally, for all his aversion to clichés, it was a film with an abundance of them. Says Padgaonkar, “Rossellini was an incarnation of the intellectual ferment of post-war Europe. He did not want to be labelled under any category: Marxist, Catholic, Neo-realist, though at that time neo-realism was the buzz word. Yet, he resisted the nomenclature of arts. In fact, he resisted the very idea of cinema. It appears a contradiction but then, as I have said in the book, he was large enough to contain those contradictions.”
Appreciating living culture
One such contradiction comes across in the manner in which he took the author to monuments in Italy, in a manner that would be the envy of any guide. Yet Rossellini himself did not exhibit any taste for Indian history when he came down to the Taj, Ajanta caves or Madurai temples. “The buildings he showed us back home were ‘live’, they were part and parcel of every day life as he believed all history is contemporary and tradition matters only as far as it is part of a living culture. Other than that, monuments are just artefacts. Here, he was not denigrating the Taj, Madurai or Ajanta. He was determined to avoid anything that recalled clichés of exoticism. Back in Rome, the gardens of Tivoli meant a lot to him. They had a personal meaning. Once, driving there with his companion Anna Magnani, she stopped the car, asked him to get down. As he started walking, she pressed on the gas. He ran exhausted, sank on the floor. She burst out laughing…calling him back. They had a tempestuous relationship.”
The former editor of The Times of India, who has also won the highest French civilian honour, is clearly an admirer of Rossellini. Says Padgaonkar, “He was the earliest to see that the future was with the Third World. His films had been shown at the first international film festival in Bombay. He used reason to understand the world, yet believed in the power of intuition. He believed in the virtues of laziness, saying far from being a synonym for sloth, it stood for a meditative mind.”
Did India change the way he saw cinema? Or was India benefited by the filmmaker’s visit during which he made friends with the likes of K. Asif, M.F. Husain, Bimal Roy, not to ignore the obvious, mutual admiration club with Nehru?
“I don’t think it mattered very much at the outset. But those who know his later cinema, including Sonali, believe India did impact his vision. Coming to India was a fantastic opening for him, renewed his idea of cinema and ‘Matri Bhumi’ laid the foundation for his subsequent work. Our own directors realised the virtues of working with non-actors, location shooting and the like. When he was in Benaras with Husain, he captured some scenes on camera. Husain asked him why he was shooting something he would never use. Rossellini replied, ‘the biggest enemy of cinema are pretty pictures.’ He did not believe in editing, holding that a film had images with 8 to 10 elements and needed no fiddling. But honestly, Rossellini conned a lot of people. He is hailed for location shooting yet did a large body of his work in studios. He charmed people, he conned the same people too. He was truly charismatic, a superb conversationalist, full of anecdotes, a man who kept everybody spellbound with his talk. There was a contemplative still lake side to his personality just as there was a volcanic side with all its rumblings. Yet his films were contemplative, deeply connected to ethical parameters. For instance, in ‘Germany Year Zero’ he adopted a profoundly contemplative style. A strong moral fibre was always present in his work. Yet again, that moral fibre did not stand for any goody-goody reason. His morality was very Rossellini.”
And he had an idea of the shape of things to come. “He proved prescient. He believed he had not come across more rational people than Indians. He was convinced India was destined to take its place in the comity of nations,” says Padgaonkar. It has been more than a while since we last saw the sun on the well manicured lawns of India International Centre. Padgaonkar can go on talking about Rossellini, Sonali, ‘Matru Bhumi’… Well to just forget the understatement for a little, it is actually an education on life itself to speak to Padgaonkar, he who, in today’s age, can talk about neo-realism with as much ease as Marxism, distinguish between a dhrupad and khayal, can whip up delicacies in the kitchen. Then step out to write a book on Rossellini. Contradiction? Forget it. Just remember what Padgaonkar has written in the prologue of the book: Quoting Walt Whitman, Padgaonkar says, “I am large enough to contain all contradictions.” He says it about Rossellini. You could as well say it for him.