There are love stories and then there are love stories. In 1930, a young Romanian came to the doorstep of an Indian philosopher to learn about Hindu mysticism and spirituality. Unexpectedly, he fell knee-deep in love with his teacher’s demure daughter. They led a clandestine affair, till the young man was thrown away when her father learnt of the romance. The girl was married off to a doctor. More than 40 years later, egged on by her husband, she travels across the globe to face him one last time. Their epic romance spanned four decades, two books and two movies. The second of these movies starred Salman Khan and Aishwarya Rai. The first featured Hugh Grant and Supriya Pathak.
Lovers’ spat. Through the ages.
There’s actually a branch of academia called Indology that deals with the study of Indian philosophy, religion, culture and literature. Mircea Eliade from Romania was one of the most prominent Indologists ever known. He authored countless books on the religious practices, rituals and mysticism of the Orient. But in 1933, he published in Bucharest a book that stands out from his other work – a Romanian novel called ‘Maitreyi‘ that went on to be called La Nuit Bengali (Bengal Nights) in its French translation. In the book, a young engineer named Alain enters the tutelage of Narendra Sen, a celebrated engineer from Calcutta. He meets his daughter Maitreyi, and is instantly taken by her unconventional appearance. What follows is a somewhat sexist narrative of the erotically charged advances of Maitreyi and how Alain gave in to her charms. Sen discovers their amorous adventures and Alain has to depart with a heavy heart.
Well, it wasn’t a just a “novel”, so to speak. Just 3 years before he wrote the book, Mircea Eliade was in Calcutta, learning Sanskrit and Hindu philosophy under Surendranath Dasgupta, an illustrious thinker and philosopher of the time. Dasgupta’s daughter Maitreyi was an intellectual in her own right and at the tender age of sixteen, had established herself as quite the poetess. She was a protégé of Rabindranath Tagore and that’s how she is remembered today. Mircea and Maitreyi met and sparks flew. He was 26 and she a wide-eyed adolescent. A torrid romance ensued, the details of which are sketchy at best. As Dasgupta got wind of the affair, he couldn’t stand a westerner leading his young daughter astray. Mircea had to leave. The lovers were separated and Mircea traveled through India, undergoing some spiritual and not-so-spiritual experiences that eventually shaped his worldview.
Soon after, Maitreyi was married off to Dr. Manmohan Sen, an emerging quinologist – an expert at the application of quinine, a known drug prescribed to malaria patients. Considering Dr. Sen’s rather unexciting vocation, he must have been a sharp contrast to Mircea and his intellectual fervour. But he was deeply in love with Maitreyi Devi, and bestowed her with the affection she deserved and craved.
Through the years that followed, Maitreyi ran into a number of people who told her how Mircea had “dedicated” a book to her. But it was only in 1972, when the true extent of it unfolded before her. Sergiu Al-George, a friend and colleague of Mircea came visiting, and he told her about the book he wrote centered on her, portraying her as quite the nymphoniac, sensuous Indian beauty who led him on. Understandably, Maitreyi Devi – now a revered intellectual in her 50s – was livid.
Ably supported by her husband, she tracked Professor Mircea Eliade down at the University of Chicago and confronted the man she once loved. Apparently, Prof. Eliade promised her he won’t allow an English translation of the book in her lifetime (which would have allowed wider circulation in India).
Back in Calcutta, Maitreyi Devi was still restless. How could she trust a man who let her down so spectacularly? She made up her mind. In 1974, she wrote a Bengali “novel” of her own, Na Hanyate (roughly translated, “That which wasn’t to happen”. The English translation is called It Does Not Die). The book was her version of events, where a European called “Mircea Euclid” seduced Amrita, the Bengali daughter of his master. While Mircea’s book reads like a young man’s fantasy, Maitreyi’s version is a bold admission of her platonic love for the unruly European she once met.
And thus the two lovers fought. Through their books. Through the ages.
Hugh Grant comes into the Picture
It was the late 80s. Apart from an award-winning turn as the homosexual Maurice Hall in James Ivory’s eponymous film and a lead in the delightfully vicious The Lair of the White Worm, Hugh John Mungo Grant was mostly appearing in inconsequential parts and TV shows. This was when he got an offer for an international film project, a French-English movie scripted by the legendary Jean-Claude Carrière, who had collaborated with Luis Bunuel, no less. It was based on the book by a Romanian philosopher. The film was titled as the name of the French version of the book, La Nuit Bengali. A dead philosopher. Mircea Eliade had died that very year. It was his wife who sold the film rights to the book.
Maitreyi Devi, now well into her seventies, was distraught that despite Mircea keeping his word of not translating the book, a whole film was being made on their lives, right in the heart of Calcutta. She fought tooth and nail to stall the proceedings, including a long-drawn battle in the court. While she failed in prohibiting the film from being completed, it was banned from release in India. But out of respect for her wishes, the makers changed her character’s name to Gayatri.
A rather shoddily made film, La Nuit Bengali did have an illustrious cast. Apart from John Hurt starring as Hugh’s friend, the film featured seasoned Indian actors like Soumitra Chattopadhyay, Utpal Dutt and Shabana Azmi. Gayatri’s sister was played by actress Bhagyashree’s real-life sister, Poornima Patwardhan. Maine Pyar Kiya was still one year away. And the heroine, Gayatri, was played by Supriya Pathak – yes, the same Supriya Pathak who plays Ranbir’s mother in Wake Up Sid, or Hansa in Khichdi, or lip synced to ‘Sasural Genda Phool’ in Delhi 6. She was Hugh Grant’s first leading lady, so to speak.
The film came and went, without a blip. Few remember it, least of all Hugh Grant.
The following year, Maitreyi Devi passed away.
Maine Pyar Kiya had released, and Salman Khan was the newest star on Bollywood’s firmament.
Salman Dil De Chuke Sanam
21 years after the release of La Nuit Bengali, a film called Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam came about, known – among other things – for the genesis of Salman Khan’s admiration for his co-star in the film. The film generously borrowed from Na Hanyate, including minor aspects like the library scene and the ‘mirchi’ eating scene, and bigger ones like a foreigner (an NRI in this case) coming to India to learn (music) and falling for his master’s daughter, their separation and then the shareef husband taking her to meet her estranged lover, halfway across the world. The resemblances were too many and too obvious to ignore.
There were some who spoke of the uncanny similarities and accused Mr. Bhansali of plagiarism, but just like the earlier film and the curious love story that inspired it, these claims were soon forgotten.
(Note: Anyone interested in knowing more about Mircea and Maitreyi’s story can read about it in this very elaborate piece by Ginu Kamani. This blogger has generously borrowed from it.)
Coming soon: “In A Cult of Their Own”, my book on Hindi Cult Films featuring interviews of Naseeruddin Shah, Aamir Khan, Tinnu Anand, Rajkumar Santoshi, Sai Paranjpye and many others. For more details click here.