Friday Review

Blast from the Past: Junoon (1978)

Junoon's poster

Junoon's poster   | Photo Credit: 11dfrjunoon

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The cast was stunning! Could the movie have been any less engrossing? Given the plot and its treatment by two of the most innovative masters of their vocation, Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani, this period film is a grand tribute to some stalwarts from the theatre. With their well-acknowledged prowess, they enrich the recounting of a turbulent phase in India’s history, the story an adaption of Ruskin Bond’s A Flight of Pigeons.

Bond wove a tale of love, obsession, deceit and battle-field atrocity, marking a time when the British faced the First War of Independence around 1857. We have seen many filmmakers deal with this subject but few with the canny eye of a Benegal or Nihalani. The cast apart, every technical aspect of the film belongs to the highest category with Vanraj Bhatia’s background score keeping a gripping hold on the audience.

Shashi Kapoor is Javed Khan, a fiery Pathan who has an ironic liking for pigeons, considered a symbol of peace. His lovely wife Firdaus (Shabana Azmi) pines for his attention but Javed has set his eye on a British, Ruth Labadoor, played brilliantly by debutant Nafisa Ali. A noted swimmer and a national champion in her teens, Nafisa was able to make her mark in the movie, her eyes speaking for the character.

Junoon was a gem that highlighted Benegal’s ability to elicit the best out of even the ordinary and here we experience his repertoire. The movie’s forte was the meticulously assembled line of actors, who rise to the occasion on the strength of their theatre background.

Jennifer Kendal as Mariam Labadoor, Naseeruddin Shah as Sarfaraz Khan, the leader of the rebels, Kulbhushan Kharbanda as Lala Ramjilal, Ismat Chugtai as Ruth’s grandmother, Tom Alter as Ruth’s father, all come up with convincing performances. The cast is completed by cameos from Deepti Naval, Benjamin Gilani, Jalal Agha, Pearl Padamsee and Sushma Seth, every moment of their screen presence showcasing their talent. Padamsee is outstanding in her brief appearance as a bitter woman who can’t stand the British. “Kya sab kuch karke haath bhi naa dhooun. Kaagaz se ponchte hain yeh behude phirangi” she chirps.

The story is about Javed’s obsession to possess the ravishing Ruth, who is devastated after witnessing her father being slain in a church, attacked by rebels led by a fanatical Sarfaraz. She is frequently shaken by disturbing memories of that Sunday which transforms her life, not to speak of the impact it has on her mother. Mariam is a widow with an enormous responsibility to protect Ruth from Javed, who forces the British family, having sought refuge in the kind-hearted Ramjilal’s house, to change home. The helpless women have little choice as Javed pursues his obsession to take Ruth as his second wife.

Ruth lives in fear even as Mariam repels every Javed move to achieve his desire. Mariam is driven by a fierce resolve and leads her to even kill an intruder when hiding in Ramjilal’s house. She takes on Javed and makes a challenging proposal. The battle for Delhi shall resolve the issue of Javed marrying Ruth. If the rebels win, Mariam promises to relent. “Dilli aapki to Ruth bhi aapki,” she assures a smiling Javed, who leaves to assist the rebels. “Do you think Javed will return safely,” Ruth asks her mother. It is a subtle indication of Ruth developing a soft corner for the spirited Pathan.

Elsewhere, the British are engaged by the rebels, who, however, are fighting a lost battle. Sarfaraz, dreaming of driving the British away from his homeland, meets a gory end in the battlefield. Javed knows he has lost Ruth since Delhi is reclaimed by the British. In a stirring sequence, Sarfaraz vents his ire on the poor pigeons even as Ruth protests his cruel acts strongly. When Javed steps in, Sarfaraz screams, “Hum Dilli har gaye hain (We have lost Dilli).” Javed’s world crashes.

In the closing frames, Javed’s family, wife and aunt, flee from the British but the Pathan makes one last ditch attempt. He keeps his word of not compelling Ruth into marrying him but yearns to have one last look of her. Sadly for him, Mariam blocks his way. A dejected Javed walks away but stops in his steps as Ruth rushes out of the church to acknowledge him for the first time ever. His wish granted, Javed rides into oblivion. We are informed he met martyrdom while Ruth died unwed 55 years later in London.

Shashi Kapoor and Jennifer give a stellar display of their acting skills. Nafisa is perfect in her role as a bewildered and panic-stricken girl. Naseeruddin Shah comes up with one of his finest shows. But the star of the movie is Govind Nihalani, his cinematography an icing on the cake that was so aesthetically prepared by Benegal and his subjects.

Genre: Historical drama

Director: Shyam Benegal

Cast: Shashi Kapoor, Nafisa Ali, Jennifer Kendal, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Ismat Chugtai, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Benjamin Gilani, Sushma Seth, Tom Alter, Deepti Naval

Screenplay: Shyam Benegal

Story: Based on Ruskin Bond's novella

Dialogue: Satyadev Dubey, Ismat Chugtai

Music director: Vanraj Bhatia

Lyricist: Yogesh Praveen

Box office status: Average

Trivia: Won National Film Awards for Best Feature Film, Best Cinematography and Best Audiography.

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Printable version | Oct 14, 2018 9:40:19 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/blast-from-the-past-junoon-1978/article6196818.ece

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