Sixty years ago this month, an affair between the great Italian film director, Roberto Rossellini, then married to Ingrid Bergman, and a young Bengali woman, Sonali Dasgupta, wife of the filmmaker Harisadhan Dasgupta, made headlines in the yellow press in India and in Britain and America. The coverage was a potpourri of innuendo, xenophobia, envy and outright fabrication.

One individual who witnessed the scandal from its genesis to its denouement – a young Frenchman called Jean Herman, later renowned as a prolific and much acclaimed novelist, filmmaker and screen-play writer under the name Jean Vautrin -passed away at his home in village near Bordeaux in south-west France on Tuesday.

I was privileged to get his account of what had transpired during those turbulent months in the course of an extended conversation in a cafe located right across the Montparnasse railway station – a conversation that subsequently figured in my book on Rossellini’s passage to India. The film director, hailed for his ‘neo-realist’ films made in Italy in the wake of the
%Second World War, had arrived in Mumbai in December 1956 at the invitation of Jawaharlal Nehru to produce a series of documentaries as well as a feature-length film in four episodes that would showcase the country a decade after it won its independence from British rule.

Rossellini has first asked Francois Truffaut, then an enfant terrible among French film critics who went on to become one of the leading lights of the French New Wave Cinema, to work as his assistant in India. But Truffaut had other fish to fry. He therefore suggested the name of his friend Jean Herman, a dropout from the French Institute of Higher Cinematographic Institute and a lecturer in French literature at the Wilson College in Mumbai, as his replacement.

Herman had married a fellow student at the Institute, Lila, an Indian, done the French sub-titles of Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and published articles on cinema in the Illustrated Weekly of India. This periodical, then a highly-valued brand of the Times of India Group, also carried the photographs he had shot during his travels across India.

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No sooner had Rossellini offered him the post of assistant director than he resigned from his lecturer’s job to follow, as he told me, in the foot-steps of the new Messiah. The two walked the streets in Mumbai from dawn to dusk.

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