Sunday, September 11, 2011

Junoon (1978), A Flight of Pigeons (Ruskin Bond)

Unlike the west, Indian cinema has seen very few books being adapted into movies. Shyam Benegal’s ‘Junoon’ is one of those rare features that sources its material from a book; Ruskin Bond’s novella ‘A Flight of  Pigeons’ being the subject of attention in its case. The book was written by Bond in the early 1970s, and is the story of the trials and tribulations faced by an English family during the Indian mutiny of 1857, in a small Indian town-Shahjahanpur. It is a true account told from the perspective of Ruth, the young daughter of an English officer, who witnesses the brutal killing of her father at the hands of the communal mob that breaks out during the mutiny. How she, her mother, and the rest of her family including her granny and a cousin manage to keep themselves alive over the course of the next one year, is what the book talks about. But more than being a story of survival and an account of human helplessness, Bond’s book is a showcase of how human compassion and empathy has no communal boundaries, and how true love can keep the worst in a man at bay.

It is a powerful written material that Shyam Benegal chooses to bring alive on celluloid.  However what he puts across in his film is an entirely different perspective that follows a texture that is far from what the book adopts. While the book has its focus on the humane relationships between people from two communities at war, the movie treats the backdrop of the 1857 mutiny as an opportunity to make some political points (including some slightly jingoistic ones) and centers the plot around the obsessive love (‘Junoon’) that Javed Khan (Shashi Kapoor as a dashing Pathan) had for Ruth (Nafisa Ali in her debut role). The movie is also an ‘Indian’ version in a way that the mutiny is shown in a highly positive light (something that was not done in the book written by the Anglo Indian Bond), and the atrocities that the British Raj committed on the helpless Indians are brought out emphatically. Also, while the book condemned the violence committed on Ruth’s family and their ilk, the movie somewhat justifies the virulent means adopted by the rebels lead by Sarfaraz Khan (Naseeruddin Shah is a role that seems to be written for him).

The movie takes off with a starting credit ‘qawalli’, featuring a vagabond fakir and introducing the protagonist Javed Khan on horseback. This qawalli is a really stretched one and tests the patience of the viewer, and in my opinion should have been done away with or compressed generously (I can imagine some people in the audience contemplating leaving the auditorium when the movie would have been playing in theatres). However, like in the book, the actual story starts off with the killing of Ruth’s father in a church, and her and her family’s subsequent surreptitious refuge in Lala Ramjimal’s (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) house. Soon their nervous and unsafe stay at Lala’s home ends when Javed Khan (one of the rebels who were fighting the ‘firangis’) discovers them and takes them to his place where his wife (Shabhana Azmi) welcomes them reluctantly owing to her fears about the supposedly illicit and open ways of the English women. Her fears prove somewhat right when Javed Khan admits being besotted by Ruth since a long time and expresses his wish to marry her and make her his second begum. This proposal by him starts a slight battle of egos and wits between him and Ruth’s mother (Mariam).

The movie from here on becomes a tale of Javed Khan’s unrelenting pursuit of Ruth’s love. Being a true Pathan he refrains from having her by force, and rather shows great dignity and poise when his people accuse him of putting his obsession over everything else. A great deal of spark is added to the proceedings by Javed’s wife Firdaus (played by Shabhana Azmi). She is quite expressive of her dislike for Ruth and her mother, and revolts quite vociferously in front of her husband, who determinedly ignores her constant complaints. Parallel to this, Sarfaraz Khan (the leader of the rebels and Javed Khan’s brother in law) is shown marshalling his troops against the British in Delhi, and subsequently in Kanpur.

Meanwhile Ruth’s mother and Javed Khan agree upon a condition that she would give him her daughter’s hand in marriage if the British lose the battle (otherwise Javed would never even think about her again). Javed Khan reluctantly accepts this agreement on the insistence of his ‘Chachi’, who incidently had grown very fond of Mariam and Ruth, and at whose place they both were residing for a while. So the fortunes of Javed’s love get attached to the sepoy mutiny that was burning in many of the country, and which was being brutally suppressed by the British troops at most places.

A tale of fierce love that remains unrequited in an extremely volatile political situation, Junoon is more than an account of India’s first war for independence. It is a complex film, which has more meaning than what it conveys overtly through its narrative. Shyam Benegal has left it upon the viewers to form their own interpretations and opinions. One question that arises when you finish watching this movie is whether Javed Khan was justified in putting his love over all other rational and irrational things in the world. Frankly, there is no answer, to this- but this tale suggests that love may be a human failing, but it is also the most powerful emotion in the world. The last scene of the film, when Javed returns to the village while risking his life, to catch a last glimpse of Ruth before escaping with his family to safety, is one of the most powerful ones of the movie. While Mariam refuses Javed to meet Ruth even one last time, Ruth by herself disobeys her mother and lets the Pathan have a final gaze at herself, till he turns around and trots away on his horse. This gesture by Ruth is a silent acceptance of her love and affection for Javed. So while Javed loses Ruth, he does manage to win her love and devotion, and that too quite handsomely for it is mentioned that Ruth decided to remain unmarried for the rest of her life.

To do his bidding, Shyam Benegal chooses a splendid star-cast. While Shashi Kapoor (in his first film as producer) is phenomenal in the central role, Jennifer Kendel (Shashi Kapoor’s wife) who plays Ruth’s mother is heartwarming in her portrayal of a strong woman faced with a very difficult situation. Shabhana Azmi is energetic and excels in an extended cameo, while Naseeruddin Shah is his usual brilliant self in a powerful role of a leader of the rebels. Nafisa Ali, in a central role in her very first film, is raw and somewhat amateurish (her discomfort comes across more glaringly in company of seasoned actors as the rest of the cast). Deepti Naval, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, and Sushma Seth pitch in with solid supporting acts.

Shyam Benegal paints the movie on a very realistic canvas. The 19th century Indian town is recreated authentically, and the other elements of a good historical like the costumes, dialects, and vocabulary seem all in place. The music of the film is classical Hindustani, and may appeal to the connoisseurs of that kind of music.

Apart from giving a different tenure to the story, what Benegal does differently from Bond’s book is that he gives a lot of emphasis on the metaphorical title that Bond chose for his book (The flight of the pigeons). So while at one level Javed Khan is shown to be quite fond of his pigeons, on the other Sarfaraz Khan in anguish equates Ruth and her family to worthless Pigeons that had captured Javed Khan’s thought process. At another level, the film culminates on the note when all the local people are forced to flee from the town to save themselves from the fast approaching British troops.

Parting Note: For people who are interested in History, and do not mind a leisurely pace to the proceedings, Junoon is a must watch. And for anyone who is interested in reading, ‘the flight of the Pigeons’ is a must read (it’s a short novella and won’t take much time).


  1. I'd seen Junoon years ago, as a kid - I remember liking it very much, even then. And the scene of the carnage in the church affected me deeply (incidentally, there's a long-standing story that the church depicted was supposedly St John's Garrison Church in Meerut. It's the church my parents attend, and the pews on the sides actually have slots for soldiers to put rifles. My father said that before 1857, soldiers never brought weapons to church, but when the mutiny broke out and church congregations were trapped and killed, later arrangements were made to ensure it wouldn't happen again... so the slots in the pews.)

    Anyway, good movie - and a good book. I have the book lying at home; must re-read it sometime.

  2. Yes, the scene can deeply affect a kid, and I can understand if someone gets a bit shaken up after watching it- it might have happened with me had I not read the book beforehand-

    Thanks for sharing that bit of info- can't really understand what makes people go off like that on hapless and innocent souls-

    And ya it is a good read, you won't regret revisiting it :)

  3. Junoon is a cinematic epic which serves as a powerful eye-opener for the contemporary Indian filmmakers who, blinded by the glitz and glamour of Bollywood, seem to lack both the ideas and the resolve needed to make great cinema. Great Review!

    Here's is the link to my review of Junoon:

    1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. Great blog there- will check it out thoroughly in due time. Cheers!

  4. I absolutely love Shyam benegal and Shashi is my favourite actor but when I first watched this movie I was really young ( 8 years old I guess) and absolutely despised Javed but now I can empathise with him and the complexity of his character. The cinematography is a treat to the eyes, I love the old nawabi houses and the depiction of everyday living in that era,the soft lighting and just everything about the movie.

    1. Thanks for sharing your views here. Yes, even I loved the depiction of the social life during that era, it's a very authentic Bollywood costume drama from that perspective.

  5. Watched the movie in Doordarshan years ago when I was a kid. Now watching it again after the demise of the great Shashi Kapoor. The direction, casting , background music everything excellent. Its a must watch movie for every history lover