On June 4, I recommended a friend to watch Rajnigandha. The next day, on June 5, I woke up to the news of Basu Chatterjee’s death--the director of Rajnigandha.
I write today to thank Basu Chatterjee for creating this film which has over the years been a reminder of self-exploration and self-love for me. The torchbearer of the ‘middle-of-the-road’ movies, Chatterjee will always be remembered for a unique kind of cinema—ranging from Chitchor (1976) to Ek Ruka Hua Faisala(1986). However, as a woman, trying to negotiate living alone in a city while struggling with questions of love, desire and self-fulfillment, for me, Rajnigandha has been a movie I revisit again and again.
A Woman’s Love Story
Mainstream Bollywood cinema has been notoriously patriarchal. From Raj and Simran to Rahul and Anjali, these movies have narrated stories only from a man’s perspective. In most of the box-office hit movies, ‘the actor’ is the one who falls in love, convinces the woman (to the extent of stalking and harassing her), overcomes the hurdles and then finally marries her. ‘She’ only exists on sidelines as an object of his affection with little or no agency. In a rather reductionist approach to love and desire, men have been mostly shown as the active agents and women as passive participants in the story.
But Rajnigandha broke this mould as Chatterjee created a love story around a woman and her dilemma as the central theme.
Deepa, a PhD scholar based in Delhi, is in love with a rather careless Sanjay. Sanjay is never on time, forgets movie tickets on dates and losses attention easily. On the other hand, there is Deepa’s former college partner, Naveen, who is a student union leader turned ad filmmaker. On her trip to Bombay for a job interview, Deepa meets Naveen after five years and memories of their teenage love rekindle. Ultimately, Deepa finds herself in a dilemma. 'Kya sach hain?' (what is the truth) A person who pays attention, always reaches on time, but who also broke her heart and humiliated her. Or the person who forgets many things, but also brings her Rajnigandha flowers every time without failure.
Unlike the classic Bollywood love triangle narrative, the story of Rajnigandha is entirely about Deepa. Neither of her love interests—Sanjay or Naveen—are the focal point of it. It is Deepa’s journey about confronting her emotions of a past relationship and re-discovering her present. ‘Kai baar yuhi dekha hai, ye to man ki seema rekha hai’—it is the song of Deepa’s dilemma and her journey.
Mannu Bhandari’s Original Story
The film is based on noted Hindi writer Mannu Bhandari’s story Yahi Sach Hai. In Bhandari’s story, Deepa is much more radical than the one depicted by Chatterjee in his movie. Unlike the film where Deepa lives under the hadow of protection of her brother, Mannu Bhandari’s Deepa lives alone in Kanpur. After the death of her father, her ties to her brother have been severed. She lives alone studying and coping with nose-poking habits of the neighbors. On the contrary, on some occasions, Chatterjee’s Deepa may come across as a naïve, shy, stereotypical Bollywood heroine.
Yet it won’t be wrong to say that the film was progressive and unique especially in the era in which it was created. The film was released in 1974, an era where the lead actors were saving the day with their hyper masculinity. Women’s characters and their stories occupied little or no space in the mainstream (although you had a remarkable parallel cinema movement). In such an era, a woman trying to choose between two loves is remarkably refreshing. In fact, an idea that there is not ‘one and only one’ love for women itself was new for Bollywood.
And finally, the most remarkable thing about the film is its avoidance of usual noises and hullaballoo of mainstream love stories. The film conveys emotions of affection, anger, waiting, and dilemma beautifully through most mundane of things. Curtains, almirahs, books, clocks, and flowerpots are all participants in Deepa’s journey. Such a mature take on love has been rare to come by.
It is for movies like Rajnigandha that I want to thank the master storyteller and chronicler of everyday stories. Rest in peace.
(Surbhi Karwa is an alumna of NLU-Lucknow and NLU-Delhi. Law and cinema have been her area of interest. Views expressed are personal.)
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