In the 1970s and 80s, when potboilers were the norm in Bollywood, Basu Chatterjee was quietly carving out a niche for himself by highlighting stories of the Indian middle class. The stories, submerged in realism, offered a softer side to the extraordinary stories of ordinary people. In an era where Bollywood heroes were beating up bandits, Basu Chatterjee’s male characters were making trips to life coaches to gather the courage to declare their love.
Yet what sets apart a Basu Chatterjee film from the lot is the indispensable role of female characters in his stories.
Chatterjee’s film Rajnigandha, released in 1974, is centred around a woman’s dilemma and her inner turmoil in love. The film’s protagonist, Deepa, portrayed by Vidya Sinha, is a research scholar based in Delhi dealing with her conflicting feelings for her fiancé and the resurfacing feelings of her past heartbreak. Deepa is in love with her partner Sanjay who is never on time and often careless about a lot of things. When Deepa reaches Bombay for a job interview, she meets her past lover Naveen years after being separated and old memories resurface as he shows her around Bombay.
Deepa, unlike the typical Bollywood heroine, allows herself to acknowledge her resurfacing feelings and chooses the careless man who cares about her enough to bring her Rajnigandha flowers every day over a man who always reaches on time but also broke her heart and left her humiliated in the past.
It’s a story about Deepa’s dilemma and at no point does the story stray away from being her story. Portrayed with such nuance that at no point do you find yourself judging Deepa — a woman living in the 1970s in India — who’s not only courting Sanjay but also acknowledges her resurfacing memories and feelings for her past lover while doing so. The story is not about Sanjay or Naveen, it is about Deepa. It’s about a woman wondering what life could have been with a past lover but also about a woman who sees a future with her fiancé. Deepa has agency over her own decisions, not just in life but also in love.
Chatterjee’s lens acknowledges female temptations and desires, independent of judgement of any sort.
In the film Chhoti Si Baat, released in 1976, Prabha, portrayed by Vidya Sinha is subjected to the affections of two men polar opposites of each other. The film has problematic ideas of consent and wooing a woman, yet that kept aside, Prabha’s character is in control of her choices and enjoys the affections and attention without being coy. Prabha is not timid in any way, she not only acknowledges the advances made toward her but also teases and flirts back, which was largely contrary to the norm at the time. The film treats Prabha’s character with such normalcy that her behaviour — even though it’s unlike the societal expectations of women at that time — doesn’t stand out as being out of the ordinary.
Be it, Chhoti Si Baat (1976), Swami (1977), Chitchor (1976), Baton Baton Mein (1979), Rajnigandha (1974) or any other films under Basu Chatterjee’s filmography — all the female characters are allowed to be as they are. His female characters took the forefront of his everyday life stories and were in sync with the full spectrum of their emotions. They are not just aware of their feelings but are also in charge of them, they not only participate in familial decisions and pursue careers outside the home but also unabashedly express their needs, wants, and desires.
Basu Chatterjee’s female characters transcend time and were portrayed with such nuance and sensitivity that it’s difficult to not resonate with them. The Indian women in his stories were independent individuals who had agency over their lives — they took the centre stage and were not afraid of taking up space or time.
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