First the story for those who don’t remember Basu Chatterji’s Rajnigandha (1974): it’s based on Mannu Bhandari book Yahi Sach Hai. Deepa (Vidya Sinha) and Sanjay (Amol Patekar) are a young, aspiring couple living in Delhi. He’s a jolly, outspoken civil servant driven by Unionist ideas and hoping to get the job promotion which, according to him, will make his marriage to Deepa acceptable.
Deepa is a rather quiet, intellectual girl who’s just got informed that her Psychology thesis has earned her an interview for a lecturer’s job in Mumbai. She lives with her sister and brother in law and Sanjay is now accepted as her suitor. It isn’t a 100% romantic affair and, rather realistically, Sanjay’s already hen-pecked for being chronically late, for not noticing the color of his fiancée’s sari, etc. We have flashbacks telling us about how they first met, at college, and then how Sanjay courted her with Rajnigandha flowers:
The film is told from Deepa’s perspective; she’s our viewpoint. Perhaps this is a pity because it could have been interesting to see her from outside too, or from the other characters’ perspective. This will have an importance when evaluating the film. Speaking of girls, there is a rather unusual character called Ira (Ranjita Thakur):
She’s Deepa university friend in Mumbai and while organizing her interview trip there, Deepa asks her if she can stay at her place. Ira’s married to a husband whom she says she doesn’t love, and whom we never see because he’s constantly travelling. She’s unusual because physically very free; they sleep together in Ira’s bed, and Ira is seen to appreciate a feminine presence:
Also she acts as intermediary (almost a temptress) between Deepa and her former love-interest called Naveen (Dinesh Thakur), even though she knows that Deepa’s now involved with Sanjay in Delhi. She doesn’t think twice before asking Naveen to fetch Deepa at the station, to take her around the city for visits, etc. The reason why Deepa and Naveen separated a few years back is that he was involved in a students’ union, and one day Deepa decided to go to college in spite of the blockade organized by Naveen’s union. Subsequently she left for Delhi and has met Sanjay.
Of course Sanjay knows about Naveen, but Deepa doesn’t like to recall him and even gets angry when Sanjay mentions him as the Mumbai plan is evoked. Clearly she’s turned that page of her life, and doesn’t wish to be exposed to him, so it’s an unpleasant surprise when he’s the first person she meets upon her arrival in the city. Naveen thankfully doesn’t refer to their past, and goes about helping her out, and Ira as well (she’s a busy professional) in a very friendly way. He knows the right people in Mumbai and flattens out difficulties until she does indeed get the position at the university. Naturally Deepa’s constantly reminded of their relationship, and we are given all the necessary flashbacks of herself in youthful ponytails:
But it isn’t the biographical reminders which contain the suspense: it’s the present of course, because here’s the prim Deepa, a little lost in the big city, without anyone but Ira the ambiguous girlfriend and Naveen the former boyfriend!
One very neat trick in Basu Chatterji’s technique is how he visualizes for us the internal monologues taking place in Deepa’s mind from time to time. They’re always concerning Naveen, her reactions to his silence, her hopes, her assumptions. When she needs to tell herself something about him which she can tell nobody else, and in fact when the film-maker needs to let us on to what’s taking place inside her thoughts, the picture freezes (or pauses), and we hear her voice continuing, as if another level of reality was activated. When she’s finished she scene defreezes, and we are back to whatever was happening before:
Chatterji uses this trick to a great effect especially when Deepa is in a quandary about what to do about the difficult situation which her stay Ira has forced her to go through. We follow her interrogations about her feelings, her desires, Naveen’s possible feelings, her own reactions to what she feels about him, and all this becomes a sort of investigation of a young woman’s problem confronted with two loves. Much of this problem comes from the very special circumstances of the story: Deepa’s shyness, Naveen’s shyness, Ira’s strangeness, the social conventions of India in 1974 (in which it was understood, I suppose, that it was a man’s job to speak first in a love relationship)… Much of all this revolves about the fact of saying, telling, speaking… or not. Even writing! It so happens that during the four of five days of Deepa’s stay in Mumbai, during which the old pair would have had a hundred opportunities to express themselves about their present situation… they say nothing. We witness their embarrassment, their calculations, their precautions, their increasing desire for avowal, and in fact their repressed love, but nothing is formulated!
So a great deal of the movie’s suspense lies on this expectation: we watch Deepa weighing the increase of her renewed feelings for Naveen as opposed to her old feelings for Sanjay; sometimes the director makes us see the other man instead, in order for us to better understand what’s taking place in the girl’s divided loyalties; sometimes we see what could have taken place if, if…:
But most of the time, we follow an increasingly exasperating silence, and even two forms of silence, Deepa’s and Naveen’s, which we must try to account for: is it only shyness? Conventions? Dread? Fear of betrayal? You’ll have to watch the movie yourself to answer, because it isn’t easy to decide. Another (more Machiavellian) answer would be that Chatterji’s is withholding their declarations for the sheer pleasure of suspense, but I don’t think so. My hunch is that the story owes its particularity to the writer’s (Mannu Bandhari) own experience, and that perhaps some of the film’s unanswerable questions have their answers in the book. Still, even if one hasn’t read the book, the movie does have its own logic.
It seems that the film’s intention is to introduce us to the question of desire, and especially feminine desire. Subtly and in context, it suggests that we are guided by it, and not only by our decisions or our will. And our desires are guided by circumstances. If she was a 100% rational creature, Deepa wouldn’t let the ambiguous situation continue: as it is (by saying nothing) she knows she is enjoying a form of betrayal of her love to Sanjay, and she justifies it by telling herself convenient general truths such as “Ladki ka pehla pyaar hi uska saccha pyaar hota hain”. Of course technically, she isn’t married yet so this isn’t a Silsila situation…! Technically, she can enjoy the pleasure of letting the ambiguity serve her desire, and so she indulges… It’s more difficult to find a convincing answer for Naveen’s silence. But the film is from Deepa’s perspective, not Naveen’s. We don’t enter into his mind. For all we know, he might have a girlfriend himself.
This viewer believes the film deals with the question “Can a woman love two men at the same time ?”, and answers “Yes”… But this isn’t an issue. Of course a woman or a man can love two people at the same time. The issue is what should she do when this happens? How should she choose? And the film answers this: she favours the one who can tell her he loves her. Because if Naveen had spoken, the film makes it quite clear she would have left Sanjay and chosen Naveen…Hence the importance of language and communication. And in a way it’s ironic because Deepa is the first one to remain quiet. She might have said something!
So then, what’s so important about language that makes it essential to a romantic relationship? Can’t one “read” the other person’s intentions through feelings? Aren’t they truth enough? Feelings have a huge advantage: they don’t lie, they have a form of innocence and immediacy which words can’t boast, because words can so often be used to manipulate, or to lie, or to hide feelings. So why can’t one trust feelings only? Naturally for a lasting relationship one needs to rely on truthful feelings. But there’s a social necessity which demands verbal commitment. A relationship cannot be considered serious and last if it’s only ruled by feelings. It needs the seal of a verbal, socialized commitment from both sides, symbolized by this “yes” word which is so important at weddings...
So in the end, the film demonstrates that our desires are easily manipulated by circumstances and that contrary perhaps to a form of pseudo-honesty (“listen to your heart”), what is important is what people have said, and more importantly, have promised. If love cannot become a social event, then (says Rajnigandha) it’s only a transitory commotion of our senses, and should not be trusted. The trouble is (but this is perhaps a more Western view?) that more and more people accept to base their love-life on this dictatorship of their feelings. The resulting short-term type of relationship has now become so trivialized that it seems almost impossible to go backwards. People commonly believe that if they stop “feeling” anything for their partner, then their love is dead and they have a sort of right towards themselves to quit. But this question goers beyond the scope of what Rajnigandha had to say.