It's true that Vidya Sinha embodied a certain 1970s woman: middle-class, office-going, boyfriend-having, in splashy floral printed saris, accessorised with dark glasses and handbags
A woman, asleep on a train, wakes up suddenly to find she is the lone passenger. Terrified, she tries to pull the chain but it is broken. The train pulls into a station. She gets off, but it is eerily deserted. As the train leaves, it is suddenly full of people, leaning out, waving, laughing. Desperately, she chases after the train. Abruptly, she wakes up. It was a nightmare.
This is how the film Rajnigandha (Tuberoses) begins: inside the mind of its protagonist Deepa, played by one of Hindi cinema's most unusual heroines, Vidya Sinha, who died last week.
Rajnigandha, based on a short story by the celebrated Hindi writer Mannu Bhandari, remains true to its beginning. It features several train journeys, but is essentially a young woman's internal journey as she tries to figure herself out.
Deepa is engaged to the prosaic Sanjay (Amol Palekar). He brings her tuberoses, a flower whose appearance, like his, is unassuming, but whose fragrance, like him, is steady. In Bombay for a job interview, she reconnects with an ex-boyfriend, Navin (Dinesh Thakur). Once a woke bloke, Navin broke up with her for political reasons, when she refuses to support his strike. She is extravagantly heartbroken, as befits an extravagantly romantic woman, willing to be pyaar mein pagal. But clearly, she moves on, as a matter of course. Now in advertising, he is stylish, sexy, and headily attentive. Deepa feels her romantic nature, often disappointed with Sanjay, quicken. She is consumed by sensual quandary.
It's true that Sinha embodied a certain 1970s woman: middle-class, office-going, boyfriend-having, in splashy floral printed saris, accessorised with dark glasses and handbags.
But perhaps, most striking is how often in Rajnigandha and elsewhere, we saw her just thinking: while waiting for the bus, at her office desk, in a restaurant. She picks up books, only to abandon them for the almost sensual activity of being lost in her own thoughts. She does not always confide her feelings in anyone. Yet, she's not that other cliché of womanhood: mysterious. She's simply attending to her thoughts, trying to understand herself.
This is clearest in the song, whose lyrics go, "Kai baar yun bhi dekha hai, yeh jo man ki seema rekha hai, man todne lagta hai" (the heart sometimes exceeds its own limits). In a cab, intensely aware of Navin, their hands just close enough to touch. Will he? Should she? Her pensive face says. But what about Sanjay? "Kisko meet banaoon, kiski preet nibhaoon?" (Whom should I make my sweetheart, to whom should I be true?). A song about Deepa's state of mind, it is sung in a man's voice (Mukesh), in a gender-agnostic cinematic moment, inviting everyone to engage with her inner life.
This seema rekha is not cultural but entirely personal, emotional (mann ki). This interiority is elusive today, where women onscreen are often a new catalogue of types—badass, ditzy, heroic, victims—symbolising something rather than being someone. As central characters, their journeys are weighted with socio-political significance, their crises represent cultural clashes, not individual dilemmas. This mirrors our exteriorised culture, insisting we announce our thoughts, clearly aligning with singular political meaning. So it is, that I am grateful for Sinha's fleeting cinematic visit, for all those shots of her as a woman, thinking, absorbed by herself, not the world.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com
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