Vienna: When the digitally cleaned up 'India, Matri Bhumi' was screened at the ongoing Viennale, Austria's international film festival, it revived memories of the sincere way that films were made in Europe soon after the tragedy of the last World War.
'India, Matri Bhumi' is a 90-minute documentary shot in 1956 by Italian film maker Roberto Rossellini, father of neo-realism. In contrast to escapist fictional films, Rossellini's cinema is celebrated for its honesty and for his focus on activities of concern to ordinary citizens. Therefore, admirers of the film have cleaned off the dust it was collecting on the shelf to fine tune the soundtrack, sharpen the images and to restore the print for audiences of the day.
Hans Hurch, director of the Viennale, discovered 'India, Matri Bhumi' a few months ago at the Venice film festival and felt that he had to screen it in Vienna.
"This is perhaps the best film of Rossellini. It is evergreen and it is as fresh as creation itself," Hurch raved to IANS after the Wednesday screening, when an audience of more than 750 watched the film.
A second screening is scheduled Oct 31 at the festival which concludes Nov 2 with George Clooney's 'The Ides of March'.
What Hurch likes most about 'India, Matri Bhumi' is the sincere interest of Rossellini for another country, culture and people. Rossellini makes no pretense of knowing anything about the people or way of life of a world so strange and different to his own.
Hurch appreciates the very original approach of Rossellini which is detached and documentary-like and which seems to invite viewers to together discover with him the colourful world of India so full of contradictions.
"But the real reason for including the film in the Viennale is my love for the elephants," smiles Hurch, referring to the many elephants that are shown on screen helping to log wood in the 1950s before diesel, electric saws and gasoline arrived in the Indian forests.
"The film is an idealistic and uncritical look at India in 1957," adds Claus Tieber, who teaches Indian cinema at the University of Vienna and who came to the screening to see how another Westerner looks at India.
"The best dialogue in the film is where a character says that this world is big enough for all of us human beings, animals and nature," gushed Elisabeth Penzias, an art historian.
The screening of 'India, Matri Bhumi' has also revived memories of the torrid love affair between the much married Rossellini and 27-year-old Sonali Dasgupta during the making of the film.
Rossellini was invited by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1956 to document India as the country prepared to celebrate its first decade as an independent country. Rossellini spent nine months in India, avoiding the usual tourist traps and more curious about what life was like for the majority of Indians who lived in the bowels of the country.
Rossellini made a ten part mini-series for French and Italian televisions, and 'India, Matri Bhumi', a feature film in four parts. Part of the film crew helping Rossellini in India was Sonali, a graduate of Kolkata's Santiniketan, and his script assistance.
It was love at first sight for Rossellini, who was 51 years old at that time and married to the gorgeous Hollywood actress Ingrid Bergman. He was the father of four children. Sonali too was married and mother of two. But none of this prevented the lovers from returning to Rome together with Sonali's infant son.
The late M.F. Husain was a friend of Rossellini and had travelled with him all over India. Sonali posed as the wife of Husain, the late master painter who escorted her in a train from Mumbai to Delhi after which she left with Rossellini for Europe.
For 17 years they lived together and had a child, Rafaella. Then Rossellini moved on to other women and marriages. Sonali stayed on in Rome and opened a boutique of Indian clothes and antique jewelry.
She is about 80 years old now. Rossellini died of a heart attack in 1977.