How Rajnigandha and Choti Si Baat Gave Us Vidya Sinha, the Original Girl Next Door


How Rajnigandha and Choti Si Baat Gave Us Vidya Sinha, the Original Girl Next Door

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

I have a rather fond personal memory of the first time I watched Basu Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha. It is one of the few movies that I distinctly remember watching with my father: I was barely 11, and even though the details are mostly blurry, I remember a comment my father made while watching it with startling clarity. 

It was towards the end of the film, when Vidya Sinha’s Deepa is torn between her past and present. “Wait till Rajnigandha comes back”, my father had said, as a veiled advice to Amol Palekar’s Sanjay, Deepa’s present love interest and the harbinger of the ubiquitous Rajnigandha in the movie. I lost my father long before I arrived at an age where I could seek his advice on the messay terrains of love and dating. But this throwaway comment that suggested he was rooting for the underdog who was boring and flawed, but was devoted and real, is perhaps the best pointer I could hope to get from him on the subject. And it is no coincidence that it happens to be through a movie that is the highlight of Vidya Sinha’s filmography.

As the news of Sinha’s demise grabbed headlines last Thursday, I couldn’t help but realise that Vidya Sinha was an Everyman’s heroine. Over the years, she perfected the art of playing the “girl next door” with élan, except that her version of the girl next door was a clear derivative of the ’70s equivalent of urban middle class chic. Rajnigandha – her breakout film – established her as the perfect archetype of an educated, modern, working woman who was not shy of flaunting her degree or exercising her agency when it came to choosing her suitor. It was a role that she was cut out for, oozing femininity that was distinctly Indian while embodying a sort of reckless abandon that was almost postmodern in its emancipation. 

Rajnigandha was a Vidya Sinha movie through and through: Upon a rewatch, I was struck by the amount of time Chatterjee spent on capturing the various moods of Deepa in long, lingering shots, externalising her internal battle and building the entire narrative arc around her. It is refreshing to see a story that focuses on a woman’s choices, temptations, and struggles, be straightforward about its intentions and not make a big deal about it. Adapted from a short story by the legendary Mannu Bhandari, Chatterjee’s Rajnigandha readily makes space for Deepa’s flaws without judgment or moral qualms, recognizing her autonomy and including her right to make mistakes as a fundamental truth. 

It is not hard to relate to Deepa. Not just because Vidya Sinha is a natural at juxtaposing innocence with temptation and desire, but also because her struggle of choosing between two men who reflect passion and stability feels so real, even today. Sanjay’s bland ordinariness is set off by his uncomplicated devotion and disarming charm while Naveen (brilliantly underplayed by Dinesh Thakur), Deepa’s past lover is presented as his polar opposite. 

Vidya Sinha is a natural at juxtaposing innocence with temptation and desire, but also because her struggle of choosing between two men who reflect passion and stability feels so real, even today.

An advertising professional, Naveen is not a conventional charmer, but he is smart; an intellectual whose subtle intelligence and relatively glamorous life seems naturally tempting. Unlike Sanjay, he is also attentive and punctual. In other words, he is an urban middle class dream, and it’s not hard to reconcile with Deepa’s infatuation towards him despite her commitment to Sanjay. Thematically, the story is very clear in its leanings. It positions Naveen as a dream, an illusion that is fascinating in the short-term but is unreliable when it comes to long-term commitments. Sanjay, on the other hand, is the obvious choice – a grounding bond that may be ordinary but is still real and reliable. 

I followed up my rewatching marathon with Choti Si Baat, the next outing of the Basu Chatterjee-Vidya Sinha-Amol Palekar trio and it dawned on me that the film is a fascinating extension of the universe that Rajnigandha establishes. Vidya Sinha’s Prabha, who is once again torn between the affections of two men, is essentially Deepa who has come of age and is more confident of her place in the world. Sinha infuses Prabha with a playfulness that is almost coquettish except like most of Chatterjee’s heroines, she retains her dignity and grace along with her inherent innocence even as she embraces a modern lifestyle. Even here, Chatterjee’s lingering shots of Sinha revel in the beauty of her simplicity and celebrate the times when romance blossomed on the Mumbai streets sans the crowd and congestion. 

Yet unlike Rajnigandha that manages to largely sidestep the misogyny and stereotypes of its times, Choti Si Baat falls into that trap headfirst, with imperfect interpretations of consent, agency, and questionable seduction techniques. Despite its shortcomings, the film still remains a relevant take on the idea of courtship and if one knows what cues one has to take (and what needs to be ignored), Choti Si Baat can teach everyone – irrespective of their gender – a lesson or two about courting and winning their love. 

Rajnigandha and Choti Si Baat are hardly feminist: Their universes are flawed, just like the times they are set in. However, these are also stories set in a remarkably inclusive universe, where characters are allowed to breathe and live as they deem fit. Prabha and Deepa are both women who lead lives that feel like our own despite the fact that they are decades behind our times. Perhaps, it is this sense of universality and timelessness that makes these two films so evergreen.  

Recently, someone on Twitter recently observed that that watching films by Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee makes you feel nostalgic for a home that never really belonged to you – a home you never had but could still come back to. Vidya Sinha was one of the pillars of this brand of cinema; an icon of the simpler times. Her filmography may be limited but she stands tall as a symbol of a cinema that mirrored its times as beautifully as it celebrated it. While Vidya Sinha may be no more, Prabha and Deepa are going live on forever, on our screens and in our hearts. Art after all, is eternal.