It’s now exactly 30 years since the death of Mircea Eliade (1907-1986), the world-renowned Romanian philosopher, religious historian and writer. This year also marks the ground-breaking publication in English of one of his first novels, The Diary of a Shortsighted Adolescent, by Istros Books.
The Romanian Institute in London do a great job at marking these anniversaries, to underline the breadth and depth of Romanian culture. One Eliade event organized as part of their monthly cinematheque was the screening of the 1988 movie The Bengali Night, based on Eliade’s 1933 autobiographical novel Maytreyi and brought to us by French director Nicolas Katz.
Eliade is a cultural heavyweight. His seminal works Yoga (1936), The Myth of the Eternal Return (1949) and History of Religious Ideas (1978-1985) are still standard works for the study of Eastern religion. His contribution here is so vast that few would even stop to consider his cinematographic legacy. Yet Maytreyi (or La Nuit Bengali – the novel’s most famous 1950 French translation) and the movie it inspired were the most controversial events in Eliade’s life and brought him international fame.
From 1945 Eliade chose exile from Romania, wary of the imminent Communist regime and feeling that his work needed to break the provincial constraints of his country. His scholarly and literary output had been defined by a trip to India (1928-1932) that fundamentally shaped the course of his career, causing his exile in France and his later move to the United States where he established the department of The History of Religions at the University of Chicago.
Maytreyi tells the story of Allan, a European in India, who works for local engineer Narendra Sen. After a bout of illness he’s invited to live at Sen’s house where he falls in love with his eldest daughter Gayatri. The outrage of this liaison – a profound breach of traditional etiquette – leads both to Allan’s expulsion from the house and the death of Sen’s youngest daughter; it brings great shame on Sen’s family and an uncertain future for Gayatri herself.
While slightly fictionalized, the story was based on true events (on a scholarship to India Eliade did indeed fall in love with his mentor-and-hosts’s daughter Maytreyi Levi) – something later confirmed by both Eliade and Levi herself in versions that differed regarding whether or not the relationship was ever physically consummated.
Maytreyi made Eliade promise the novel would never be translated into English during their lifetime and wrote her own version of what happened: It Does Not Die (1974). Though the making of the movie and its limited release happened two years after Eliade’s death, it still secured him the dubious reputation of a pornographic writer. It’s an extraordinary and incongruous fate for a scholar of Eastern Religion.
Bengali Night stars the young and effervescent Hugh Grant as Allen while Gayatri is played by the famous Indian actress Supriya Patak. Though agreeable and inoffensive enough, Grant’s characteristic antics don’t come close to showing us the complex character Eliade intended Allan to be. The defiance masking reverence for a culture he can’t penetrate, Allen’s sensual turmoil and poetic infatuation with Gayatri’s physicality: neither of these things are given to us by Grant. While Suprya Patak dazzles with her beauty and exhibits the ambiguous naivete we expect of Gayatri’s character, Katz never manages to capture the painful sensuality of the tale, with the movie stopping a few good layers short.
The Bengali Night is too overshadowed by the novel that spawned it to stand up on its own. But this perhaps is no bad thing: it serves as an excuse to go back to the novel and its intoxicating poetry and also embark on an exploration of Eliade’s other works – not an easy task in Romania where Eliade’s status has been as problematic as his novel. Later in life he was accused of fascist sympathies and very few of his titles were published in his homeland or – in the case of his foreign work – translated into Romanian.But things are slowly changing, and – characteristically, given his life – Eliade’s revival is more prevalent outside the country of his birth.
The Bengali Night (Katz, 1988) was screened as part of the ongoing cultural programme at the Romanian Cultural Institute, London. Diary of a Shortsighted Adolescent is published by Istros Books, priced at £9.99.