A relic of the seventies, “Rajnigandha” is a gentle walk-through of the emotional turmoil experienced by a twenty-two year old woman when she unexpectedly meets an old flame.

The movie depicts the perspective of Deepa, a woman who’s about to finish her education and is looking for a job. Living in Delhi, she’s going steady with one Sanjay, who is employed as a clerk and primed for promotion. Sanjay’s daily ritual of bringing her a bouquet of the Rajnigandha flower is a recurring symbolism of his dedication to Deepa. The flowers act as proxies for his presence and their recurring nature is a symbol of the stability that he brings to her life, albeit with some leeway in terms of punctuality. Making headway in her attempts to land a job, Deepa gets called to interview at a college in Mumbai, which Sanjay supports wholeheartedly. On reaching Mumbai she’s introduced to her old boyfriend, Naveen. Finding out that she’s appearing for an interview, Naveen uses his connections to ensure that she has an easier time getting the job. During her stay there, Naveen also escorts her sight-seeing and even takes her to a party or two. Throughout her stint in Mumbai, we’re treated to Deepa’s internal monologue, which is constantly trying to make sense of her renewed attraction for Naveen. As her stay progresses, it becomes clear that Naveen also has interest in courting her. At the end of her stay, when parting ways at the railway station, she yearns for him to acknowledge his feelings, but to no avail. Only when the train is leaving the station and she has tears streaming down her cheeks, does Naveen start running alongside the train in order to reach her. Clearly, this was before DDLJ made it cool to do so. Unfortunately, he’s unable to reach her, which foreshadows the events to come. After returning to Delhi, Deepa again finds comfort in Sanjay’s arms. The story concludes with Deepa convincing herself that Sanjay is the right choice for her and that all the yearning that had surfaced in Mumbai was a fluke.

The movie’s goal is to portray the difficult choice between a passionate romance and a stable livelihood, specifically when they’re presented as mutually exclusive. Deepa comes to Mumbai in stable relationship, already mentally prepared to marry her current boyfriend. Her friend Ira often alludes to her own loveless marriage and prods Deepa to hang out with Naveen throughout her trip. All in the vicarious hope that Deepa will fall for Naveen.

The film has a particularly small cast and only three major characters. The screenplay is simple, relying more on direction than on intricate plot setups or fancy dialogue. The first and last acts are effective and depict real chemistry between the leads.

The movie’s only real problem is that of a lukewarm second act. Given the structure of the plot, the entire weight of the film falls on the time Deepa spends in Mumbai. This act’s singular job is to build exactly the right amount of tension between Deepa and her ex-boyfriend Naveen. If the tension is too high, her subsequent decision to go back to Sanjay feels like a cop-out and leaves the audience unsatisfied. If the tension is too less, her decision makes sense; but the story instantly becomes boring as then it is just about a guy being courteous to his ex-girlfriend. It is fine if there is no dialogue; it is okay if there is a song; you have all the freedom in the world, but the tension must escalate. Given the screenplay’s minimalist dialogue, the responsibility of portraying this tension falls on the direction, at which it fails. Even after having all the subtext going for it!

One possible reason for this failure at directing the tension is that they overdid the “cool guy” aesthetic for Naveen. Initially, Naveen is introduced as a saviour, guiding Deepa through all the ways Mumbai is different, unsafe and urban. Later on, he’s mostly aloof and made to wear sunglasses for all exterior scenes. As a result all of his close-ups are blank expressions, which are completely incongruous with Deepa’s perpetually expressive eyes. All of their conversation is meaningless filler as well, so the only thing that should be the focus is the emotional subtext of their interaction. Instead, what we get are shots of Naveen where he’s simply standing around wearing sunglasses, usually with a cigarette in his mouth. Even in the interior scenes, there is always some random extra who is interrupting the characters with some mundane dialogue. Very few real words or meaningful interactions are exchanged on-screen and even those that are, tend to be relived memories in Deepa’s mind. Now Naveen’s demeanour would’ve made sense if he wasn’t actually interested in her and was helping her only as a courtesy. But the parting scene where he chases after her train removes any such doubts.

The screenplay also has a few extraneous elements which could’ve been removed in favour of spending more time establishing Naveen and Deepa’s relationship. For example, Deepa’s neighbour and her kid appear twice, but have no real bearing on the plot. No aspect of Deepa’s character established through her interactions with them, comes into play. Another example from early in the film is Deepa’s recurring nightmare of being abandoned on a train. The metaphor is never clear and is all but forgotten later on.

The film had some potential, the screenplay could’ve done more to pull the film’s weight instead of leaving it to the direction. I guess it’s still worth a watch for all the progressiveness it portrays, for it’s time. I’ve heard the source material called “यही सच है” by मन्नू भंडारी is better in every regard, maybe it is worth checking out.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ (Average)