My friendship with Fellini

Federico Fellini

Federico Fellini   | Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Maybe I was Dante in my last life,” Fellini quipped when we commented on the many copies of The Divine Comedy he owned

Federico Fellini, the Italian maestro, was notoriously famous for refusing interviews. I was warned about his aversion to the press—evident in his film La Dolce Vita in which the paparazzi are in for a grilling. Actually, the word owes its origin to the name of the pesky photographer in the film, Paparazzo (literally a fat mosquito) who accompanies the journalist played by Marcello Mastroianni.

An Italian journalist told me that it would be futile to even try. “Try calling, he won’t come to the phone. And if he picks it up he will pretend to be the maid.”

But then why admit defeat before even trying. I wasn’t tilting at the windmills. I had a card up my sleeve. An astropalmist whom I had interviewed for The Statesman (he had predicted the birth of Bangladesh and the rise of Mujibur Rahman) offered to arrange a meeting with Fellini in Rome. It wasn’t an idle boast. The number he scribbled on a note was bang on. The voice at the other end was of a man trying to sound like a woman, a maid in fact.

Several attempts later, it was always the ‘maid’. Angry after the fifth attempt I mumbled “Forget it, I might as well go to the Vatican and seek an appointment with god, who may be easier to meet…” Just as I was about to hang up, the late director found his own voice and asked me to come around to his office on via Corso d’Italia.

Finally, it’s him

Fellini, accompanied by an interpreter, opened the door into a cavernous room with light streaming in from the French windows. I stopped in my tracks as soon as we stepped over the threshold. On the wall by the door was a calendar art painting of Radha and Krishna. Next to it was a photograph of the Pondicherry Mother. Further along the wall some Jungian configurations. The office was full of Buddha heads placed on small tables, books on Hindu philosophy and mythology. And, several copies of Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The interpreter didn’t get a chance to open her mouth. Fellini’s English was fine.

This was in September 1983. It was a despondent Fellini. There was no film on the horizon, and no funding—just a commercial for Campari, with the androgynous British singer Boy George as his star. His bugbear at the time was television. For much of the interview he vented his anger about the small screen: “Television is like an open mouth which vomits everything into your home, all the time… There are so many television channels. They are flooding us with this garbage constantly. Television is changing us. It is creating a new creature out of man.”


The next time we met, two years later, Fellini was a changed man, involved in what constituted life for him: making a film in Cinecitta Studios in Rome. The maestro was getting his sweet revenge on that vexing little box. The film was Ginger and Fred, with his wife the petite and talented Giulietta Masina and the impossibly handsome Marcello Mastroianni. The two play has-beens (Amelia and Pippo) reunited after 40 years to reprise their music hall act emulating Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire for a television variety show—We are Proud to Present.

In the flamboyant, well, Felliniesque, satire on the vulgar excesses and brain-deadening effect of television, the aged dancers are just one among the many acts in this freak show: midget tango dancers, a man responsible for edible, vitamin-enriched panties, look-alikes for Rita Hayworth, Marcel Proust and Clark Gable.

Federico Fellini was most at home in Cinecitta studios because he was in total control here. He could create his own world and move his actors around like puppets. Pointing to the darkening sky he explained, “I can play God here. If I don’t like the moon where it is, I can move it a little to the left, and if I want the sun more to the right I can move it exactly where I want to.”

For and farther

God, cardinals and Catholicism were always problematic in Fellini’s films. He was drawn to religion and rituals. Yet, he wanted to distance himself from both. The director’s trying and complicated relationship with Catholicism, due perhaps to his devout mother and upbringing, is evident in most of his films—La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, , and Amarcord, amongst others. While Catholic imagery and subjects can be found in most of his films, several were considered blasphemous.

This contradiction spilled over to Fellini’s life. The interview spread over three days, including lunch at one of his favourite restaurants. He was talking about another subject dear to his heart: Italy. “Why do you think tourists come to Italy. It is not for pasta or for Michelangelo. Look behind us on the wall, there is Christ on the Cross and on the table in front of us all this food…They come for this sense of equilibre, balance…We have communists and those on the right—and they all exist side by side.”

Jung, astrology, mysticism and the paranormal also attracted Fellini. Had it not been for the Indian astrologer he consulted and gave a blank cheque to (according to the astropalmist), I may have never met the maestro. He might even have half-believed in reincarnation. “Maybe I was Dante in my last life,” Fellini quipped when the photographer and I commented on the number of copies of The Divine Comedy in his office. It was only half a joke.

Fellini never visited India, despite the romantic lens through which he saw the country. The painting of Radha and Krishna and the photograph of the Pondicherry Mother in his office were not mere artefacts of interior design. “I will go there in my next incarnation,” he said more than once. His fear of flying prevented him from leaving Europe. But perhaps he did not need to travel: his mind and feverish imagination transported him wherever he wanted to go.

There was another reason he seldom left his beloved Roma. There was ‘no room’ in his mind for new images and experiences. “I feel I am in a machine. My mind is always working, always making images. There is no room for more images… So, I don’t need to travel.” All he had to do was to dig into his repository of memories to pull out images and characters, like rabbits out of a magician’s inverted top hat.

Would he ever, I asked, stop that machine and look around him in the here and now for fresh images. Fellini didn’t think he needed to, yet. “I am in a hot air balloon which keeps rising. I fear that one day a beautiful woman in the sky will prick the balloon and I will come crashing down to the ground.”


Fellini died in 1993, in his beloved Roma. It wasn’t until after 2007 when I came across the massive illustrated volume Federico Fellini The Book of Dreams, published by Rizzoli, that I discovered the source of many of his bizarre images and caricatures. The machine he kept referring to was a dream factory: his dreams.

An Italian psychoanalyst had suggested in 1960 that he keep a notebook by his bed and write down his dreams. Fellini went further: he also drew the images that surfaced from his subconscious. In Technicolour. There it was a gigantic image of bosomy, blonde figure with enormous thighs floating upwards in the cloud-filled sky, with Fellini in a hot air balloon looking up at her, just below. He is being admonished by a cardinal-like figure because he was looking at her.

The writer is Editor of The Indian Quarterly and author of The Kapoors: The First Family of Indian Cinema.

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Printable version | May 29, 2020 6:00:45 PM |

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