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45 years of Julie: The anxieties around premarital sex and minority communities persist even today

Unwittingly perhaps, the film also raises some uncomfortable questions about the portrayal of women and 'others' in mainstream cinema.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

The year 1975 was a watershed, not just for India with the Emergency being clamped on the country in June that year, but also for Hindi cinema. Deewaar and Sholay, two films that redefined Hindi cinema, were released that year, along with Jai Santoshi Maa, a film no one had predicted would be such a runaway success.

That same year came Julie, which is remembered most for its modern music, especially the very hummable 'My Heart Is Beating' sung by Preeti Sagar, which became an instant hit. The music won newcomer Rajesh Roshan a Filmfare award for Best Music in what was only his second film.

Julie was a remake of the Malayalam film Chattakari (1974). Both films were directed by KS Sethumadhavan and had the South Indian actress Lakshmi playing the title role. She won the Filmfare award for Best Actress for Julie. The film deals with premarital sex and the mistrust between different communities, issues as pertinent today as they were back then.

Julie (Lakshmi) belongs to an Anglo-Indian family where the dominating mother Maggie (Nadira) longs to go back to ‘her’ country, England, and derides everything that is Indian. Her husband Maurice (Om Prakash) is an alcoholic railway engine driver but a lovable man, countering the stern nature of his wife with his happy-go-lucky behaviour. But it is Maggie who calls the shots in the household, deciding that the family will move to England, their ‘true’ country.

As a young, attractive woman, Julie has several suitors and encounters lecherous men who seize every opportunity to lay their hands on her. She is friends with Richard (Jalal Agha), who professes his love for her, but she falls in love with Shashi (Vikram), a young man who is also the brother of her closest friend Usha (Rita Bhaduri). Shashi belongs to a conservative Hindu family and his mother (Achala Sachdev) has a deep mistrust of Christians. She believes that with her short skirts and Christmas cake, Julie is the epitome of all that is unclean! Though she is made fun of by her husband (Utpal Dutt), her annoyance at Julie being in her house persists.

Though Shashi has precious little personality and is no comparison to the vivacious and, as we see later, compassionate Richard, Julie is inexplicably drawn to the former and seduced by him. When she realizes that she is pregnant, her world comes crashing down, and the only person she can rely on is her mother, who faces the situation head-on, taking decisive action to save face in the community.

The film explores the issue of premarital sex and pregnancy, which have been taboo in our society and, hence, films for a long time. From the beginning, Julie is established as an object of desire and there is something deeply disturbing about the lascivious gaze of the men who openly ogle at her. Though she engages in consensual sex with Shashi, she is clearly punished for this in the film and bears the consequences, while Shashi is only mildly admonished at the end.

The film seems to endorse the idea that women who dress a certain way will be seen as 'desirable' and 'open' and, therefore, must be punished for their actions. The stereotypical portrayal of the Anglo-Indian community in the film is similarly narrow-minded as they are shown to be living a more permissive life, with their women drinking, attending dance parties and wearing short clothes, as opposed to the sari-clad Usha and her ultra-conservative mother.

The deeply ingrained mistrust of minorities, which persists among some Indians to this day, is evident in the response of Shashi’s mother who comments about Julie bringing them Christmas cake, saying, “Cake khila ke inhone Hindu kam kar diye hain aur Christian badha diye hain [By feeding us cake, they have depleted the population of Hindus and increased the number of Christians]! Although comical and ridiculous, the statement does display the irrational fears some harbour about those who are different. It is not unlike today’s times when 'minorities' are demonized and all sorts of outlandish things are attributed to them.

In the end, though, both communities must overcome their differences and come together for a hopeful future, signalled, of course, in the fruit of their union, the child.

Julie also featured a young Sridevi as the heroine's younger sister, Irene. Sridevi, who started out as a child artist, was all of 11 at this point and already part of several films in the South. Although Lakshmi is the one in the limelight, Sridevi makes an impression in the few scenes that she has.

It is a bit sad to note that 45 years later, we still have a long way to go in changing societal attitudes towards women and the acceptance of minority communities in India.