Sunday, 4 May 2008

After the sunset: Roberto & Sonali story

I had heard in the past about the famous Italian film director Roberto Rossellini and his Indian wife, Sonali. But I hadn’t really thought about it in any way. It had all happened when I was a baby and I hadn’t even realised that at that time there was a big scandal about their affair.

I rediscovered their story a few days ago when I read an article about the new book of Dileep Padgaonkar (Under her spell: Roberto Rossellini in India, Viking, 2008) at the Jabberwock blog, and read about the Roberto-Sonali love story. Jabberwock writes, “It was a relationship that caused an uproar in the Indian press at the time, Baburao Patel’s invective being only the most florid example of the many reports that appeared in newspapers and magazines. Eventually, Rossellini had to leave the country under duress... Perhaps Under her Spell is just a little too dry and restrained though, given that at the centre of this story is a tempestuous affair that complicated the lives of many people. We don't really learn that much about the Roberto-Sonali relationship, what drew them to each other and how the bond gradually deepened, and Padgaonkar is also reticent about their later years together.”

That stimulated my curiosity so I looked around on internet for more information about this story. It had all happened in 1957. Roberto Rossellini had come to India in December 1956.

Cover, Dilip Padgaonkar's book

At that time, Roberto was 51 years old and Sonali was 27 years old. She was married to Harisadhan Dasgupta, a respected documentary film director, 34 years old at that time, a close friend and associate of Satyajit Roy. She had two children when this happened, her younger son was not yet one year old.

The reports say Sonali had arrived late one night at Taj Mahal hotel with her younger son in her arms. It seems Pandit Nehru, India’s prime minister at that time, who had invited Roberto to India for making a film, helped the three of them to leave India for Rome, where they had got married and Roberto had legally adopted Sonali’s younger son. In India, Harisadhan Dasgupta had reacted by registering a police FIR for his missing wife. Later Roberto & Sonali had a daughter, Raffaella. Roberto died 20 years later, in 1977.

The more information I found, the more intrigued I was. Sonali, Roberto, Harisadhan and their children, had all been part of deep emotional cyclone but I was most curious about Sonali. She had two sons, but she could take only one son with her. That must have been terrible for her as a mother. It must have been equally terrible for the son who was left with his father. Kind of Sophie’s choice, except that this was no fiction.

How did Harisadhan feel about his wife not just leaving him for another man, older man at that, taking their son with her? How did they settle it, since Sonali couldn’t have married Roberto without a proper divorce from Harisadan? And how could Roberto legally adopt Sonali’s younger son, without her ex-husband’s consent? So this means that after their escape from India, Sonali and Roberto must have been in contact with Harisadhan in some way.

I remember my first journey to Italy in late nineteen seventies. There were very few foreigners living in Italy, there were no Asian shops, no Bengali communities, few who spoke English. How did Sonali fit in there?
Usually when lovers meet, they stand against the setting sun and it is supposed to end with “and they lived happy and content ever after...”, yet that is where marriages begin. So after the sunset, once the flash bulbs stopped, once the level of ho-ha lowered, how did Sonali feel? How did the young boy feel, once he grew up and realised he had a father and elder brother in India?

All these questions were going around in my head as I searched for answers. I could piece together many things because I could search in English and Italian, as well as some minor sources in Spanish and French that gave crucial information. This search was exclusively through internet. I didn’t find much about the emotional part of this story and perhaps it is better that way since I can imagine that even after all these years, many of these memories must be still very painful for all those who are still alive. Roberto died in 1977. Harisadhan Dasgupta probably died in 1986 or around that. It is not clear if Sonali Rossellini is still alive. Yet their children are around and probably they carry the scars of this event.

Journey to India: In 1956, Ingrid Bergam had restarted work in Hollywood with films like Anastasia, for which she received an Oscar and probably her relationship with Roberto was in crisis.

According to Palmira, Roberto’s gardener’s wife, Ingrid was supposed to go to India, to join Roberto in 1957. Instead, she decided to do a film with Lars Schmidt, who later bacame Ingrid’s third husband, and Roberto came back from India with Sonali.

Roberto was in India for almost 9 months, refusing to look at famous monuments and rather preferring to take a non-exotic view of India, by looking at lives of common persons. The Indian stay of Roberto led to two works, a documentary film “India – Matri Bhumi” (1959) and a TV mini-series “India vista da Rossellini” (India seen by Rossellini, 1959) broadcasted on RAI channel. The mini-series "India seen by Rossellini" broadcast in 10 episodes was produced jointly by India, Italy and France.

The episodes were: India without myths, Bombay Gateway to India, Architecture & costumes of Bombay, Varsova, Towards the south, Lagoons of Malabar, Kerala, Hirakud dam on river Mahadi, Pandit Nehru & Animals in India.

“India – Matri Bhumi” was a film in 4 parts. The first part took a lyrical look at the daily life of a mahout (elephant handler). Part two was about an East Bengal refugee who is working on a dam and after the work is finished, he is relocated to another construction site. Part three was about an elderly person contemplating nature in a jungle and finally, part four is about a monkey owner dying from heat and the monkey looking for another owner.

Sonali Rossellini: Today she would be around 78 years old. Palmira, Roberto’s gardener’s wife says, “Sonali was more solitary compared to Ingrid. However friendship between Ingrid and Roberto remained and even afterwards, Ingrid came with Lars to the villa. At that time, Roberto’s financial situation was not good and the villa belonged to the people who had given credit to Roberto. Ingrid even asked Lars to buy that villa to help Roberto.” Sonali was an aspiring actress when she got married to Harisadhan Dasgupta. She had studied at Shanti Niketan and Bimal Roy’s wife was her aunt.

It was a love story with a happy ending, or so it would seem. Yet, that happy ending was inextricably linked with pain and suffering for many of the protagonists. It would make for a wonderful novel, one of those melodramatic tomes that we feel are so unbelievable.

This post is an extract of a larger article, that includes some information about Gil and Raffaella Rossellini, Roberto and Sonali's two children, that you can read on


  1. वाह।।
    खूब खोजा...
    मुझे लगता है इस पोस्‍ट के विषय में तो हमें लिखना पड़ेगा।

  2. It must have been an interesting sojourn for sonali - I think she must have been slightly disappointed, in the end. not of leaving harisadhan, but leaving her motherland. i have to try & get a hold of matri bhumi

  3. check this out


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