It is 1857. But Javed Khan has other things on his mind than the Sepoy Mutiny. He is waging his own battle to win over Ruth Labadoor, a pretty English girl. But he knows that if the Indian mutineers succeed in defeating the British, he will win over Ruth. And that becomes his ‘junoon’ (obsession).
Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1979) was based on Ruskin Bond’s novella A Flight of Pigeons, which he wrote in the early 1960s. Different from Bond’s unfettered world of hill stations and jalebi shops in the bazaars of Dehra, A Flight of Pigeons is about a girl and her family on the run from mutineers. According to Bond, the girl had a premonition of the massacre in the church. “I came across various accounts of the 1857 uprising and I was particularly interested in the events involving the young girl Ruth Labadoor in small town of Shahjahanpur partly because my father was born there. Ruth and her mother were the only survivors of the massacre inside the church. My novella was based on actual events and the people who were killed in that massacre”.
During a recent conversation at the Kolkata Literary Meet earlier this year with Ruskin Bond and Shabana Azmi, Bond shared, “Shyam Benegal wrote to me sometime in 1977/78 wanting the film rights to this story. It had been recommended to him by Ismat Chugtai.”
Changes were made in the film and Bond accepted that. The Javed Khan of his book was a violent anti-hero. In the film version, he was a lot more palatable. “Having grown up with films I was quite prepared for changes,” said Bond.
But the process of adapting a book to the screen needed mutual trust between the writer and the filmmaker and “The changes Benegal made didn’t destroy the fabric of the story or what I was trying to bring out in it,” acknowledged Bond.
Both Junoon and A Flight of Pigeons had a dual track — battles and a love story. According to Shabana Azmi, “The background of the 1857 uprising was extremely important. The situations that were created between Javed Khan and Ruth wouldn’t have happened otherwise. So, the two tracks complemented each other.”
Sharing an anecdote about Junoon , Shabana revealed how till a few months before its release, the film didn’t even have a name. “Shyam Benegal had a tradition of gifting ₹500 to anyone who suggested an appropriate title. And my husband Javed Akhtar won that amount for suggesting Junoon !” In a laughing retort, Ruskin exclaimed, “I didn’t get paid much higher than that for the book rights!”
The original handwritten manuscript of A Flight of Pigeons was recently auctioned and the proceeds from it was given to charity.
Stories and cinema
A mysterious lady comes visiting Ruskin Bond one afternoon. She comes by foot but leaves on a broomstick. Bond’s short story The Black Cat was made into a short film with the same name by Bhargav Saikia. It won two awards at the Critics Choice Short Film Awards 2018. It was also one of Tom Alter’s last films. Bond gave away the story rights free.
Based on a real-life person he knew, Bond wrote a short story called Susanna’s Seven Husbands. It was about a woman who married seven times and each of her husbands vanishes mysteriously. Bond and Vishal Bhardwaj once again collaborated on this story and the result was the film 7 Khoon Maaf. Bond made a cameo appearance in the film.
What happens when a shopkeeper tries to steal a little girl’s blue umbrella? Bond’s The Blue Umbrella , turned into a touching film by Vishal Bhardwaj, about a conflict between a young girl and a mean old man in a small hill town in Himachal Pradesh.