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The frenzy of love in tumultuous times – Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1979)

We take a look at an earlier moment in history, the Revolt of 1857, in our continuing exploration of films that engaged with the birth of the Indian nation.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Based on Ruskin Bond’s novella A Flight of Pigeons, Junoon (1978) was set during the time of the Revolt of 1857 and localized the heightening tension between the British colonizers and the Indian populace to focus on the love of an Indian man for a young British girl.

A Film Valas presentation, Junoon marked actor Shashi Kapoor’s debut as a producer, a move that cemented his dedication to alternative cinema. 

Javed Khan (Kapoor) is a Pathan hopelessly smitten with Ruth (Nafisa Ali in her debut role), whom he wishes to possess at any cost. Under the wave of the Revolt, British families are being attacked by Indian soldiers and Ruth, along with her mother Mariam Labadoor (Jennifer Kendal) and grandmother (Ismat Chughtai) are on the run, after Ruth’s father (Tom Alter) is killed in a massacre at the local church.

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Vulnerable and alone, the women depend on the generosity of an Indian (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), who risks his life to offer them shelter. But Khan has his eye on Ruth and brings the women to his haveli, keeping them under his watchful eye and demanding Ruth’s hand in marriage, much to the chagrin of his heartbroken wife (Shabana Azmi).

While the men engage in fighting for the nation, the women’s bodies become another site for control, an ugly reality brought to the fore as Khan’s aunt (Sushma Seth) says, “Jab jung hoti hai toh aurat zaat par he qayamat toot-ti hai. Durgat unhi ki hoti hai [In war, it is the women who bear catastrophe. They are the ones who suffer]."

Ruth and Khan’s fate is bound together with that of the nation by her mother, who tells the Pathan, “Dilli aapki to Ruth bhi aapki [If Delhi falls to the Indians, then Ruth will also be yours]," and both families await the end of the crisis with trepidation and hope.

The largely derisive attitude of the Indians towards their British masters is quite apparent, but one isn’t quite sure what the British women think of the Indians till Ruth dresses up like an Indian and asks her mother how she looks, to which the latter disgustedly responds, “Like a nautch girl.” 

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The film explored the complexity of human relationships that reveal themselves in troubled times. Hindu, Muslim, and Christian faiths collide and learn to cohabit uncomfortably in one of the most turbulent times in our country's history. The atrocities of both the Indians and the British are depicted as the narrative reveals both sides to be bigoted and savagely violent. But even as the political sphere is simmering with rage, we are offered an unlikely respite in the women’s space, where, despite their differences and difficult positions, they are able to share a bond and be themselves, if only for a brief moment.

An ensemble cast brought alive each of the characters with their stellar performances. Kendal as the unyielding matriarch who holds steady even as the world as she knows it is crumbling before her very eyes is contrasted with the vulnerability and natural curiosity of newcomer Nafisa Ali's Ruth.

Correspondingly, the militaristic fervour of Naseeruddin Shah's Sarfaraz Khan contrasts with the masculinity of Shashi Kapoor's Javed Khan, whose passion lies elsewhere. Sarfaraz tells Javed, “Aap ek junoon ki giraft mein aakar apne aap ko daga dey rahe hain [You have become slave to passion and are deceiving yourself]." Sushma Seth, Jalal Agha, Deepti Naval, Pearl Padamsee, all left an imprint with their small yet effective roles.

Aside from the actors, the film brought together a powerhouse of talent with the direction of Shyam Benegal, dialogues by Satyadev Dubey, music by Vanraj Bhatia, and evocative cinematography by Govind Nihalani which mobilized spaces to convey the emotions of the characters. Within the confines of Khan’s home, Ruth watches the Pathan feed the pigeons and notices his affection for them as his wife catches him stealing glances at the girl, and we begin to sense an ever so subtle shift in the young girl.

The poignant ending of the film bears testimony to the irrevocable ways in which the characters are transformed through the incidents that change their lives forever. The film won three National awards, including one for Best Feature Film in Hindi for Kapoor, and for Best Cinematography for Nihalani, in addition to six Filmfare awards.

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