In 1974-75, Krishna Shah, a name not heard before in the film industry, came to Bombay, and through some well-calibrated publicity, he sent out the information that he was making an “international caper film” that would have Indian and foreign stars.
The industry’s interest was tickled. Who would these stars be? Gradually the names emerged – from India, it would be Dharmendra, Shammi Kapoor, Premnath and Zeenat Aman. And the international stars would be – Rex Harrison – everyone remembered My Fair Lady – John Saxon, whose Enter the Dragon had been a hit and, it was leaked, Gina Lollobrigida.
This last name created a sensation. Lollobrigida, the international sex symbol, star of Come September and Solomon and Sheba and so many famous Italian films? Coming to Bombay? (very few stars came to India).
Shah was as good as his word. He brought Gina Lollobrigida down to Bombay and it caused a sensation. She was ultra-glamorous, stylish and carried herself like the star she was. What she said in the press conference did not matter – everyone was just looking at her.
Bunny Reuben, the astute film publicist, created a fake rivalry with Zeenat Aman, and for an industry party, attended by the crème-de-la-creme, put it about that neither would arrive till the other did. Both were photographed in shimmering gowns that would look ‘bold’ today. The headlines in the next day’s eveningers (the staid and sniffy morning dailies did not carry this kind of stuff), were no less suggestive. All probably written by Reuben.
At the Delhi festival, the flutter her visit created was described by India Today in these words; “the appearance of the Italian sexpot-turned-photographer Gina Lollobrigida saw a sudden and unprecedented turnout of pressmen at a routine PIB Press conference” causing an official to comment that “not for presidents and monarchs and leading statesmen of the world had so many members of the Press turned up all at once!”
Meanwhile, when Lollobrigida left Bombay after her press conference here, a press entourage followed her to the hotel, and the staff came out in full strength. Shah escorted her with a smile – perhaps he knew she was not going to be in his film. His film got advance publicity, though it flopped after release.
But Gina Lollobrigida left her mark on all those who saw her in Bombay that day and also left behind some of the sheen that she always carried on her person.
Nicknamed ‘Lo Lollo’, Gina Lollobrigida (95), was one of the biggest stars in the European film firmament. She died in a Rome clinic on Monday, January 16. Evocative pieces are being written about her life. BBC has described her as “one of the last surviving icons of the glory days of film”.
Italy’s culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano said on Twitter: “Farewell to a diva of the silver screen, protagonist of more than half a century of Italian cinema history. Her charm will remain eternal.” Lollobrigida was born on July 4, 1927, to a furniture manufacturer. Gina went on to study sculpture at Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that “the exotic charms of the dark-haired, independent beauty made her an international sex symbol of postwar cinema.”
BBC says that it was a talent scout who offered her an audition at Cinecitta – then the largest film studio in Europe and Italy’s thriving “Hollywood on the Tiber”. Variety wrote that her first American movie, shot in Italy, was John Huston’s 1953 film noir spoof Beat the Devil, in which she starred with Humphrey Bogart and Jennifer Jones. Humphrey Bogart is known to have said that she “made Marilyn Monroe look like Shirley Temple”. The same year she starred with Vittorio De Sica (of Bicycle Thief fame) in Luigi Comencini’s Bread, Love and Dreams, for which she won a BAFTA for best actress in a foreign film.
Lollobrigida starred in director Robert Z. Leonard’s Italian-language The Most Beautiful Woman in the World (aka Beautiful but Dangerous), for which she received the best actress award at the inaugural David di Donatello Awards in 1956.
Lollobrigida married a Slovenian doctor, Mirko Skofic, in 1949 and it is said that he gave up his practice to serve as her manager. They were divorced in 1971.
As her movie career faded, her peak being in the 1950s and 1960s, Lollobrigida pursued other interests, including photojournalism and sculpting. BBC writes that she also did a rare photoshoot and interview with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. “We spent 12 days together,” she is quoted as saying. “He didn’t interest me as a political leader but as a man. He realised that I hadn’t gone there to attack him and he readily accepted me.”
She worked for Unicef, the United Nations and she also took a stab at politics, and ran, unsuccessfully, for a seat in the European Parliament. She remained active in politics – as recently as in 2022, when she stood for the Italian Senate, but did not make it.
This article was first published on The Wire.
Featured image: Gina Lollobrigida on the steps of the Jama Masjid while on a trip to India in 1974-75. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Instagram/@Pablo Bartholomew