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Remembering Sonali Dasgupta-Rossellini

By Rinki Roy Bhattacharya
June 12, 2014 18:19 IST
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Rinki Roy Bhattacharya pays tribute to her aunt Sonali Dasgupta, who eloped with filmmaker Roberto Rossellini in 1956, and then made a life in Europe.

She deserves to be celebrated.

Her name was taboo at home. Even as outsiders claimed to be her imaginary relatives in the media, no one dared protest. Yet, quite often I remember my mother irritably exploding:

“You are just like Sonali. Not only do you look alike, you will bring us shame as did she.”

My mother’s ominous premonitions followed after the sordid Sonali Dasgupta-Robeto Rossellini affair. The Italian filmmaker was married to Hollywood diva Ingrid Bergman when he arrived in India in 1957. He fell in love with Sonali, who was married and had two kids. Sonali eloped with Rossellini taking one of her kids with her and settled down in Rome. He was 52 and she was just 27. They never married and he left her after 17 years for another younger woman.

I remember it as if it happened yesterday. Once Sonali left her home, our home phone rang nonstop The Indian press wanted her photographs. They quoted incredible rates. But all of them were ignored.

Meanwhile mother took the lead trying to prevent Sonali from leaving her husband and India. She asked for a private meeting with then prime minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Her request was to impound Sonali’s passport. It was at Panditji invitation that Rossellini came to make a documentary on India. He made the film, and found his muse -- Sonali.

All mother’s brave endeavours to foil her cousin sister from leaving, failed. Sonali mashi left India, her husband and son Raja. In one voice, the family damned her for this devious treachery. Sonali was a stain on our unblemished family. Her name was not mentioned. She was forgotten with haste.

We happened to be in London a year after her historic flight. I remember a beautiful double-page in Elle magazine of Sonali pushing the pram... but at home, no one showed any interest to welcome her back. All this at age 17 made me so curious that I decided to explore her secretly.

By a strange predicament, I proved my mother's suspicions right. I too eloped when other exit routes were blocked. It was after my elopement and subsequent social boycott that I experienced the profound sorrow of being condemned by one’s family.

And I understood the inhuman isolation Sonali suffered all her life. Elite European society however readily accepted her. Bergman whose husband Sonali snatched was charmed by my aunt. I met the famous Italian producer Carlo Ponti in Moscow. I mentioned that I had an aunt in Rome. Ponti was ecstatic knowing who the aunt was. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s plane developed a technical snag in Rome, Sonali was the PM’s official hostess.

She was a familiar figure and highly regarded in the European society. To Sonali goes the credit of being first Indian to popularise our exquisite textiles. Her boutique on Via Borgogna was a brand in itself. But the family never forgave her.

My determination to connect grew by leaps and bounds. From somewhere I got her Rome address. In my letter, I expressed my great wish to meet. Her reply flowed with warmth, bringing a rush of tears. Our communication did not last long but I cherished her reply encouraging me to visit any time. Except during summer, she wrote, when she holidayed in Greece with the children, including Ingrid Bergman’s daughter Isabella. That time never came.

I doubt if the story of my youngest aunt Sonali can be scripted in a conventional narrative. There are too many sharp edges, too many curious turns and twists and strange co incidents.
Being over five foot seven, she was too tall for Bengali men. She remained unmarried till her late twenties. This gave the family headaches. All of a sudden she was married to a promising documentary filmmaker Harisadhan Dasgupta and the couple moved to Bombay (Mumbai). Since we were the only close relatives, they were frequent visitors home. Ma took Sonali under her wings.

I bonded quickly with my aunt. Her sweet affectionate nature, her many talents -- her style, won everyone. Her choice of clothes made a style statement with dramatic impact. No wonder her unique experiments with Indian fabrics created a stunning effect and made her boutique a noted landmark in the Roman skyline.

Now she is gone (She passed away in Rome on Saturday). Silencing her hostile critics and her family who disowned her. During that difficult phase, not once did she complain, nor show displeasure. And though abroad, she took care of her elder parents. Sonali conducted her affairs, her life with exemplary dignity. She deserves to be celebrated. My humble tribute to a woman who found her pied a terre in an alien land.

Rinki Roy Bhattacharya is chairperson of the Bimal Roy Memorial Committee

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