A bad listener is the first indication of a potentially bad relationship.
In Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha (1974), Sanjay (played by Amol Palekar) is not only a poor listener, but insensitive in other ways. Perhaps it’s all part of the same terrain. However, he is consistently committed to Deepa (played by Vidya Sinha). So, what saves the day for him, and why is this elegant and intelligent woman so beatifically tolerant of him?
It is with some such lack of charity that I watched the beginning of the film, that had stayed in mind for decades as a mélange of images, but remained unfamiliar in terms of lines of the narrative. Upon re-visiting the film recently, I was struck by how comfortably Deepa meets Sanjay at her home, and how she plans to appear for an interview for a job in Bombay (while she lives in Delhi) at a time when such decisions were even more unusual than today. However, the idea of a relationship and marriage are a given; so, there’s no point in my fussing over that issue. It is when she finds herself attracted to her ex-boyfriend Navin (played by Dinesh Thakur) in Bombay that the film acquires huge interest, as not only one about romance and choices; but about the remnants of desire and silent ways in which it steals upon her.
Who draws boundaries and who breaks them? Who reminds us of monogamous commitments and also its difficulty? How is both policing and transgression of boundaries in the same heart, that strains to jump free, and returns? An enormously timely and expressive song manages to say all this. The song starts almost mid-conversation,
Kai baar yun bhi dekha hai, yeh jo man ki seema rekha, man todne lagta… anjaan aas ke pichhe, anjaani pyaas ke pichhe… (It often happens that the heart breaks its own boundaries and thirsts for the unknown)
The love at India Gate is different from love at Gateway of India. Sanjay, whom Deepa has left behind for five days in Delhi, acquires a haziness in her mind. She finds herself selecting the saree that Navin likes, and is reminded of how oblivious and inattentive Sanjay was to her desire to be seen and noticed. Sanjay couldn’t have enough of whining about his office; the lack of promotions, the cut in dearness allowance. His garrulity drowned out Deepa’s responses; and her studied silence remained unnoticed. On other hand Navin is sensitive; quiet, not making gaffes about women working, or earning, and simply plays a gracious host. He is worldly wise and confidently strides through the advertising world of Bombay.
Given Chatterjee’s penchant for cities, we see one pair walking through New Delhi’s Lodi Garden and a reconfigured pair walking in Hanging Garden of Bombay. The companionship shifts with each urban landscape, and Deepa finds herself being drawn to Bombay as a city where she experiences sensuality. She longingly looks to Navin to say something to her; but in vain.
Meanwhile, her home, back in Delhi, is filled with rajnigandha (tuberose) flowers. The song that had played in the first few scenes merging as it were her love for the flowers and Sanjay, is muted. I refer to the famous song, Rajnigandha phool tumhare mehke yuheen jeevan main…
The flowers now appear to surveil Deepa’s desire for Navin, whose letter she waits for. She has to turn her back on the flowers to indulge in fantasies about Navin. She hopes the letter would make love to her but instead, it ends before it begins.
Meanwhile, the rajnigandha flowers are as regular and constant as Sanjay and both remain in her life. This was the truth of her life. Yahi sachi hai, as the title of the story by Mannu Bandhari goes, and forms the basis of the film. As spectators of today, we are left somewhat bewildered by such narrow possibilities of truth, that lies between two men of which neither is good for the woman.