Thursday 18 March 2021

On demand: "Rajnigandha"

Basu Chatterjee's 1974 film Rajnigandha is a breezy, summery love triangle that feels as if Éric Rohmer had headed East in the wake of his compatriot Louis Malle's Phantom India. Postgraduate student Deepa (Vidya Sinha) looks out onto a fork in her lifepath, caught as she is between two cities and two men. In her native Delhi, she's wooed by the well-meaning but less than reliable Sanjay (Amol Palekar, shaping up as Indian cinema's go-to milquetoast), whom she seems set to marry. Then a job interview in Mumbai brings her back into contact with worldlier, beardier old flame Navin (Dinesh Thakur), a prospect who immediately distinguishes himself over Sanjay by showing up everywhere on time, but still can't seem to say the words our heroine longs to hear. Gorgeously dressed in the attire of a young middle-class woman keen to make an impression, Sinha remains a wholly modern screen presence, and Chatterjee honours her with a full and rapt attention. There's something so lovely - so loving - about the way his camera stays behind in Deepa's apartment after Sanjay leaves for the night, or notes her quiet pride at being mistaken for Navin's girlfriend; on this evidence, Chatterjee may have been the best confidante a girl in Seventies India could have wanted, prepared to freeze-frame any of his close-ups to better hear out its conflicted subject. What marks the film as quietly progressive for 1974 is this fond fascination with Deepa's responses to the possibilities opening up before her, modest as some of them are. In a flashback, we're shown how touched Deepa was when Sanjay played Prince Charming during a rainstorm, never mind that his umbrella is more hole than canopy. What the film evokes isn't movie love - illustrated during a night at the Delhi talkies, where Sanjay shows up mere minutes before the intermission - but street-level affection: imperfect, non-glossy, tentative and temporary, and somehow all the more cherishable and affecting for that. Preserved in sticky, still-tangible Eastmancolor by cinematographer K.K. Mahajan, the locations alone (parks, coffee houses, railway stations) must make this a film with enormous nostalgia value for anyone who lived - and courted - in these cities through the early 1970s.

Rajnigandha is now streaming via Prime Video.

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