On a train roaring at full speed, a young woman jerks awake. Her hair is disheveled; her saree is in disarray. Alone and anxious, she frantically gathers her things and gets off at the next station. But then she turns back, changing her mind. Running behind the train, she trips and falls. Empty before, the train is now full of jeering men, mocking her. The train makes a loud whistle and the frenzied woman wakes up with a start.
From the very first scene, Rajnigandha (1974) outlines the chief conflict of its narrative. Adapted from Mannu Bhandari’s short story “Yehi Sach Hai” (1966), Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha (Tuberose) is the story of Deepa (Vidya Sinha), a PhD student in Delhi, who is in a marriage-bound relationship with Sanjay (Amol Palekar). When Deepa applies for a teaching position in Bombay, she is reunited with Navin (Dinesh Thakur), a former lover who shows her the city and helps her secure the job. This rekindles her feelings for him, and she finds herself torn torn between one man from her past and one from her present. Each romantic partner representing the culture of the city he inhabits, Deepa is challenged to explore her own desire, as well as her place in society.
In translating the 19-page short story into a two-hour feature film, Chatterjee makes a few changes. Most significantly, Deepa’s Kanpur−Kolkata journey is transformed into a Delhi−Bombay trip. The cultural contexts of the two cities occupy an oppositional position in the Indian imaginary. Delhi was a Mughal capital until the middle of the 19th century. The city was seen as the heart of high culture and refined speech. Post-independence, Delhi became the capital of India, consequently making it the seat of all government affairs. Preserving its history, buildings, monuments, political institutions, and even residential architecture, Delhi did not undergo radical changes in its customs, culture, or way of life in the face of rising populations in the 1970s, like the country’s other states experienced. Even though the administrative designs effected ideas of stability, reason, and a politically thriving political public sphere, the traces of a poetic past never left public remembrance. The dominant population in Delhi at the time still comprised of those who came from generational wealth, or of babus (government officials), who lived and upheld a traditional nostalgic past.
In sharp contrast, Bombay, the seat of India’s stock exchange market, emerged as a commercial hub: a busy, progressive cosmopolitan city. The city, which is the center of India’s biggest film industry and the capital of the country’s wealth, is run by the sweat and blood of migrants. Its association with the film industry has granted Bombay the tag City of Mirages, continually luring the unassuming with false promises.
In the context of these larger cultural frameworks, the switching of Deepa’s original Kanpur-Kolkata trip to the two capital cities in Rajnigandha is crucial, as they serve as metonymic signifiers of the two opposing possibilities of romantic love. Though Rajnigandha only features two songs, they constitute some of the most complex moments of the film. These songs, set in the two cities and portraying two different romantic ideals, demonstrate the changing landscapes of intimate personal relationships in urban India in the 1970s.
The titular song, “Rajnigandha,” occurs when Deepa is at the home she shares with her brother and sister-in-law, after her boyfriend Sanjay, who brings her tuberoses at every visit, has departed. “Once I happened to mention that I like tuberoses very much, so he has made it a rule to bring a whole bunch every other day,” she tells us. Varied aesthetics are combined to produce a visual repertoire that draws from, and adds to, the cultural ideal of chaste romantic love. Deepa clings to the tuberoses as though they were the embodiment of Sanjay. She takes the flowers to her bedroom, gently caressing them. This invitation of the spectatorial gaze into a woman’s bedroom, and into her innermost thoughts, offers a novel mediation into the shifting sites of female sexuality in an urban landscape. The song is a rendering of her sensual fantasy⎯subtle, soft, supple, and coy. It is a language of desire, of the rituals of love, part invented and part universal, in the tradition of the rekhti1. A genre of feminist poetry, rekhti employs the dialect and idioms associated with feminine speech to challenge the elite language of men while openly exploring women’s inner lives. Using the language of the private, emotional, and imaginative domains to talk about sensual desires, rekhti excels in double entendre based in domesticities2.
I’m always consumed by the thoughts of him
Someday I wish, I come pouring down, into the inner-courtyard of his home, like a rainbow-filled cloud.
The chorus goes:
Just as these tuberoses perfume my life
I hope your love lingers on in my doting heart.
The term Deepa uses to describe her romantic self is anuraagi (doting, or affectionate), which is an interesting phrase in feminine expression, compared to the more commonly used deewani or premi⎯the former referencing madness, and the latter to the pleasure of emotional and implicitly sexual intimacy in a love affair. The term anuraagi indicates the earnestness of their bond—it is not a quick-burning passion, but a relationship that is nurtured by genuine affection, potential matrimony, faithfulness, and care. The reference to the aangan or the inner courtyard of the beloved’s house is a pronounced anticipation of the domesticity that Deepa eagerly wants to call her own. She refers to her beloved’s adulation as preet, a mytho-poetic allusion to the archetypal Radha-Krishna lila (love play). The Radha-Krishna allusion, a common reference in popular Hindi song, makes a marked departure from the rekhti’s subversive form, and points to a romantic ideal, which is mythical, pre-modern and elevating to their love.
Deepa speaks fondly about the pleasures and comforts of togetherness, about her lover claiming complete adhikaar on her every breath.
Ever since I acknowledged my beloved’s claim on my every heartbeat,
Since the day I got tethered to him,
I discovered what bliss lay in attachment.
The term adhikaar, though literally translating to “rights,” can also be extended to stand for “ownership.” It tells us that Deepa has willfully submitted herself to Sanjay and the social constraints that define their relationship, in exchange for the security of the conventional.
There are several images in the song that highlight Delhi’s cultural influence on their romance. Deepa is bidding goodbye to Sanjay from her balcony, a site that has been identified by critics as an important site of feminist geography3. Given women’s restricted access to public space, the rooftop and the balcony are urban structures that are simultaneously interior and exterior and which connect domesticity to the city4.
Though offering a space for women to engage in public life while remaining in the private, housing in North India (including Delhi) is premised on a way of communal living. Houses are constructed tightly together, making it easy to travel between homes. This blurring of geographical boundaries translates to the elimination of all private boundaries. Deepa’s nosy neighbour, Mrs. Mehta, happily drops in unannounced, often during Deepa’s dates with Sanjay, and frequently sends her son Bunty over to be babysat. But the introduction of Bunty during Deepa’s song is not an impediment to her fantasy, but a welcomed signifier of her maternal desires. She is shown putting the boy in her lap and telling him a story. This image completes the ideal family picture of Deepa’s imagination.
The song “Rajnigandha” thus expresses conflicting desires. Deepa’s open sensuality towards her tuberoses, the visualization of her fantasy, and the use of the rekhti form, suggest a hidden erotic energy beyond the chaste domesticity and conventionality in Deepa’s lyrics.
The song “Rajnigandha” thus expresses conflicting desires. Deepa’s open sensuality towards her tuberoses, the visualization of her fantasy, and the use of the rekhti form, suggest a hidden erotic energy beyond the chaste domesticity and conventionality in Deepa’s lyrics. Everything about her existence is safe, comfortable, and held together by social forces—this security is more powerful than Deepa’s desires, and she clings to it dearly. As such, Deepa is reluctant to leave Delhi, especially on her own, when she hears of a job interview in Bombay.
While her relationship with Sanjay begins Deepa’s narrative, it is wrapped up within the first thirty minutes of the film. That the rest focuses on her relationship with Navin speaks volumes. Deepa’s life in Delhi is equated with stability, and is given less screen time, while the all-too-familiar romantic narrative plays out for the spectator. By the 1970s, this type of courtship is a socially acceptable one, even within the conventional patriarchal Indian middle-class which otherwise saw love and marriage as distinct concepts.
From first setting eyes on Navin, Deepa’s mind wanders to their past, to their relationship and to its heartbreaking end. Struggling to interpret his motives, Deepa begins imagining whole conversations between herself and Navin, fabricating a reignition of their romance. On the day of her interview, Deepa offers to take Navin out in thanks for his help during her visit, and she again delves into her ruminations. This is the moment for the second song of the film, “Kai baar yun hi dekha hai,” (“It so happens sometimes”). The song describes how sometimes in the quest for a strange, uncertain, wild desire, the heart begins to transgress its boundaries. Where love in the Delhi song expressed willful submission, love in the Bombay song takes Deepa’s subconscious desires and presents them in full bloom, placing more emphasis on yearning and agency, through phrases like anjaani pyaas (unfamiliar thirst), and anjaani aas (foreign temptations).
Earlier, as we saw in the first song, Deepa’s daydreaming comprised of sweet fantasies with her lover intertwined in her domestic nest. In Bombay, now even her ruminations occur in transit, in an automobile while navigating the public cityscape. The city has now become the locale of the romance. There is a moment early in the film when Sanjay and Deepa are strolling in Lodhi Gardens, a popular lover’s point in Delhi, and Sanjay tries to bring her closer, but she immediately shrugs him off. By contrast, in Bombay, Deepa imagines intimacy with Navin inside a cab in broad daylight.
Though both songs are fantastical setups of intimate moments imagined with her lover, the lyrical, aural, and visual tropes in the two songs are remarkably different, emblematic of the larger cultural issues the film attempts to address. In Delhi, Deepa identifies herself as a respectable bourgeoisie wife-to-be, who restricts her passion to the private domain of the home. In Bombay, she ventures outdoors.
Deepa’s public-private dilemma is harnessed not only by a moral discourse around the “woman of the public” versus the “woman of the home,” but also must be analyzed through representations of Bombay’s cosmopolitan image. Deepa accompanies Navin to an advertising shoot that he is working on. The shoot takes place on a beach, where a man and a woman, dressed in swimwear, run towards the camera, holding each other’s hands and gleefully laughing. This exuberant display of sexuality arouses Deepa’s desire to imitate the same with Navin. Bombay offers her the possibility of exploring and enacting a non-normative sexual experience. It exists as a representation of available sexual freedoms—both their powers and their temptations.
It is clear that each lover stands for a different romantic ideal. The recurring lyric jaanun na, jaanun na (I know not what to do), indicates the ambiguity Deepa is at pains to deny. Ultimately, she shuns the illusion and chooses the real, which is cast into relief through the promise of Sanjay’s committed, stable and lasting love.
But what sets Rajnigandha apart is its introduction of a new definition of fidelity itself. By giving the heroine the right to seek, to experiment, to make mistakes, and to be flawed, without judgment, it shows that a woman’s primary relation in life is not “only restricted to men but to the ever-changing world—both the world outside, but also the world within”5. In showing how proximity, distance and loneliness work to bring to the fore different emotions, it provides an excellent study of a young woman’s flickering, wavering consciousness. Fidelity now not only means fidelity to the other, but also to the self.