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In Basu Chatterjee’s indelible Rajnigandha (1974), where every frame hums with yearning, a very specific moment acutely captures the essence of his urban romances. In the back seat of a taxi rumbling through Marine Drive in Mumbai, Deepa (Vidya Sinha) gazes through the car window while sitting next to her former lover Navin (Dinesh Thakur). The tension is palpable, so much so that it tunes out the noises of the city, now replaced by a gentle Salil Chowdhury composition sung by the legendary Mukesh.

Travelling to the Maximum City for a job interview, Deepa is torn between her love for her fiancé Sanjay (Amol Palekar) in Delhi and her rekindled attraction towards the raffish Navin. As the song speaks of unquenched desire, the handheld camera lingers on Deepa’s fluttering blue sari, worn specifically for her former boyfriend, and Navin’s hand on the seat beside the quivering fabric, barely touching it. The scene is an editing masterclass, zigzagging between the sights of Mumbai, Deepa’s hand gingerly placed on the edge of the car’s half-wound window shield and her furtive glances at Navin, all of which convey an air of private erotic tension seized within a public urban space. My mind always returns to the fluttering sari whose erratic movements mirror Deepa’s racing thoughts, taking her back and forth between her present with Sanjay and a possible romantic future with Navin.

On the one hand, the scene precisely captures a condition of city living where the hustle and bustle strangely allows for private contemplations. On the other, the sequence also exemplifies the genius of Chatterjee’s filmmaking. The car trip, metaphorically and literally, typifies his ‘middle-of-the road cinema’, which straddles the frugal realism of arthouse films and the spectacle of mainstream masala flicks. In Rajnigandha, Chatterjee marries elements of popular Hindi cinema with innovative formal touches, including freeze-frames and spoken inner monologues. The result is an intimate portrait of urban middle-class lives, full of seemingly ordinary incidents, a milieu Chatterjee continues to explore in other unforgettable films such as Baton Baton Mein (1979) and Chhoti Si Baat (1976), the latter of which is a remake of the British film School for Scoundrels (1960).

Baton Baton Mein (1979)

In Rajnigandha, the city is a site of both professional obligations and personal pleasures. In Delhi, Deepa’s relationship with the lovable but forgetful Sanjay is plagued with her beau’s constant talk of office politics. He is so absorbed in discussing his work that he neglects to comment on her new saris. Nevertheless, amid the capitalistic demands of urban living, there is still room for amorous gestures. Unlike a masala hero, the affable and mild-mannered Sanjay might not rescue Deepa from terrifying dacoits (bandits), but he will bring her gorgeous bunches of rajnigandha – tuberoses – whose fragrance effaces her surliness and sustains her loyalty when she is being swayed by the more gallant Navin. The softness of the flowers also contrasts with the concrete apartment buildings of Delhi, embodying a dependable ritual of gentleness and care.

For young professionals, Mumbai proves to be just as demanding as Delhi – Deepa’s friend can’t meet her at the station because she is stuck at the office – but the nature of the work appears to be more varied and exciting, at least within the characters’ middle-class environment. Navin, a director of adverts, takes Deepa to parties where people talk of the latest plays or arthouse films. It is worth noting that Chatterjee himself contributed to the vibrant cultural scene of 1970s Mumbai. As a part of the Film Society Movement in India, an effort to create a more robust and diverse screening culture, Chatterjee was integral to Film Forum, the largest film club in Mumbai, which at its peak boasted nearly 2,000 members. The emotional tug within Deepa then does not solely concern her two paramours. She also wavers between the two cities: a Delhi that appears more realistic and stable, and a Mumbai that is simultaneously full of excitement and possibilities for heartbreak.

While the spirits of Delhi and Mumbai differ, Chatterjee remained especially attuned to the rituals of urban courtships found in these metropolises. As Deepa, Sanjay and Navin are all college-educated professionals, their romantic overtures display a bookish and metropolitan chicness. Their dates consist of love notes hidden in textbooks, public transport flirtations and cosy restaurant meetings where each is more interested in drinking in the other’s gaze than actual nourishment. Here, as in many of Chatterjee’s films, the cinema is the darkened greenhouse for blossoming romance. In the early days of Deepa and Sanjay’s relationship, the two accidentally find themselves at the same screening of the 1968 potboiler Kahin Din Kahi Raat.

While the showing is full of melodramatic dialogues, including a saucy musical number between the starry Biswajit and Helen during which Sanjay briefly leaves the cinema, this is not so much a positioning between so-called mainstream film and Chatterjee’s more low-key examination of middle-class lives. Rather, it is a testament to how cinema, regardless of genres, can foster meaningful bonds. As Sanjay insistently tries to offer Deepa a bar of candy, to the annoyance of fellow moviegoers, the moment is hilarious and real, an endearing quirk of human idiosyncrasy that bucks against societal codes. In Chatterjee’s world, cinema is an indispensable part of urbanism, and the director lends a sparkling dose of movie magic to those humdrum city lives.