Before Hugh Grant became an international star with the success of Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), he had been acting for over a decade in British films. During this period, he made his debut as a leading man with Shabana Azmi, Supriya Pathak and Soumitra Chatterjee in a French movie that was shown once at a film festival in India in 1989, and later released in France.
La Nuit Bengali (The Bengali Night), directed by Nicholas Klotz, was filmed in Kolkata in the winter of 1987. Grant plays Allan, who falls in love with Gayatri (Supriya Pathak) while residing with her parents Narendra (Soumitra Chatterjee) and Indira (Shabana Azmi). Allan’s forbidden love for Gayatri is revealed by Gayatri’s sister, and the revelation turns the household upside down. The cast includes John Hurt.
The movie is based on Mircea Eliade’s Romanian-language novel Bengali Nights, published in 1933. Eliade died in the year of the novel’s publication. In 1986, Klotz contacted widow, Christinale Eliade, for the rights.
The novel had been controversial, and its publication gave rise to a spate of allegations and counter-allegations. Gayatri’s character was reportedly inspired by the author’s affair with Bengali poet and novelist Maitreyi Devi. Devi did not take kindly to her private matters being discussed in an East-meets-West romance. She wrote her own account of the events in 1974 in a Bengali novel Na Hanyate.
Maitreyi Devi was traumatised by the news that a movie was being made on the book and was being shot in Kolkata. “Christinale has hurt me very badly,” she wrote in 1988. “She gave permission to a French company to film La Nuit Bengali (French translation, 1950). They came to Calcutta for shooting and gave huge publicity pointing at me as the heroine.”
The Bengali writer claimed that Mircea Eliade had breached his promise to never allow the book to be published in English during Maitreyi Devi’s lifetime, let alone permit a film made on it. Maitreyi Devi filed a case against the producer, Philippe Diaz, in the Kolkata courts, accusing the film of having “anti-Hindu and pornographic” content.
Not everybody agreed that La Nuit Bengali needed to be banned. Satyajit Ray visited the sets of the movie, and supported the production by lending out his technicians for the shoot. The movie is available on YouTube: be your own judge.