Junoon (Eng: Obsession) is a 1978 Hindi film directed by Shyam Benegal. Based on Ruskin Bond’s novella ‘A Flight of Pigeons’, the film is set around the Revolt of 1857, and a Pathan noble’s obsession for an English girl and the tragedy that war brings with itself.
Junoon gave the viewers an insight into the voyage of escapism, human relations, and infatuation that transcends the boundaries of race and religion. The film had a stellar cast and crew and is considered as one of the finest period dramas about the rebellion ever made in India. It went on to win many awards, including the National Award for Best Feature Film, Cinematography and Music.
- Shashi Kapoor – Javed Khan
- Nafisa Ali – Ruth Labadoor
- Shabana Azmi – Firdaus
- Jennifer Kendal – Mariyam Labadoor (Ruth’s mother)
- Tom Alter – Mr Labadoor (Ruth’s father)
- Ismat Chughtai – Ruth’s grandmother
- Kulbhushan Kharbanda – Lala Ramjimal
- Naseeruddin Shah – Sarfaraz Khan
- Sushama Seth – Javed’s Aunt
- Benjamin Gilani – Rashid Khan
- Dipti Naval – Rashid’s Wife
- Pearl Padamsee – Akhtarbi
- Jalal Agha – Kader Khan
- Rajesh Vivek – Fakir
- Direction – Shyam Benegal
- Story – Ruskin Bond
- Screenplay – Shyam Benegal
- Dialogues – Ismat Chughtai, Satyadev Dubey
- Cinematography – Govind Nihalani
- Editing – Bhanudas Divakar
- Music – Vanraj Bhatia
- Narrative – Amrish Puri
- Production – Shashi Kapoor
An unnamed quaint British cantonment town of North India is simmering with the flames of rebellion that has already swept Meerut and Delhi away. In this town, lives Javed Khan (Shashi Kapoor), a brave but indolent Pathan nobleman, with his childless wife, Firdaus (Shabana Azmi), and extended family in an adjoining house, his aunt (Sushama Seth), cousin Rashid (Benjamin Gilani), and his wife (Deepti Naval). Javed’s brother-in-law, Sarfaraz (Naseeruddin Shah), is a passionate rebel leader who despises the British for their atrocities and greed and wants to drive them out of India.
In the same town lives Ruth (Nafisa Ali), the beautiful adolescent daughter of a British Civil Servant, Mr. Labadoor (Tom Alter), with her Anglo-Indian mother Mariyam (Jennifer Kendell) and Grandmother (Ismat Chughtai). Javed has seen Ruth from a distance and has been obsessively smitten by her. Ruth in turn has seen the fierce-looking native and is afraid of him. The family finds comfort in the security of their British privilege and knows that they cannot be touched.
The Labadoor family is warned by their servants that an attack is going to happen and that they should not attend the Sunday mass at the church. However, trusting as they are of their regiment sepoys, Mr. Labadoor dismisses these warnings as rumors and on Sunday, the father-daughter duo arrives at the church for prayers.
As the prayers go on, Sarfaraz arrived with the rebels and attacks the congregation, and massacres everyone, including the priest and Mr. Labadoor. Ruth somehow escapes the carnages and runs back to her home. Upon reaching her home, she is distraught to find that it has been sacked and burned down. She is rescued by Lala Ramjimal (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), who is loyal to their family and is reunited with her mother and grandmother who are safe. The three find refuge in the house of Lalaji. However, the relief is short-lived.
When he hears of the massacre, Javed hunts for Ruth. He discovers that a money lender and family friend of the Labadoors has hidden them in his house. Taking them away from there by force, Javed installs the “firangees” in his own home, much against the wishes of his wife. The wife is even more upset when she learns of her husband’s desire to take the English girl as his second wife. The girl’s mother, too, is against the marriage, and with the help of Javed’s aunt, extracts a promise from him that Ruth will be his only if the sepoys take Delhi.
Meanwhile, Sarfaraz brings home the news of the war and is shocked at his brother’s disinterest in the fighting. Delhi is lost, he says, to the horror of Javed and the relief of Mrs. Labadoor.
Javed Khan keeps his word and leaves Ruth alone. It is only when his cousin dies in a battle with the British that he decides to fight along with the rebels. A big battle ensues in which the rebels are routed by the British. Sarafarz is killed and the sepoys are scattered, vulnerable to the brutal retribution of the British army.
Javed comes back to the town and finds it deserted. Everyone has fled due to the terror of the British troops. Javed searches like crazy, his only desire being to find where the “firangees” are. Finally, when he hears that they have stayed back, waiting for relief, he finds them in the Church.
Javed knocks at the door of the church and pleads to be able to see Ruth one last time. However, her mother refuses and asks him to leave. As he turns away dejected, Ruth calls his name and comes running out to him. He keeps his promise to her mother and with one last look at her beloved, turns back and rides away. We come to know that he was killed in a battle soon after. Ruth went back to England and died 55 years later, still unmarried.
“Jab Jung hoti hai to sabse pahle aurat jaat pe hi qyaamat toot ti hai”
– Sushma Seth’s character in the film
The forces of the Taliban had just started rolling into the city of Kabul as I watched this scene and the irony was made even starker by the fact that little seems to have changed between the 19th and the 21st centuries. Women are the first to bear the brunt in the wars that are started by their men, either as the collateral casualty, or the war booty or as the ones who are left behind.
Junoon is the story of many women caught in the middle of a conflict that they neither wanted nor were ready for. On the front, we have people like Javed Khan, his brother-in-law, or the cousin fighting their battles but the undercurrent is essentially about what the women have to go through. Ironically, some of these women do not even have a name, for example, the character played by Deepti Naval; they are just known to us by their relationship with the protagonists.
While the characters of males in the film remain mostly unidimensional, it is in the characterization of the women that Bengal scores remarkably. Right from the Labadoors to the ladies of the Ramjimal, and Pathan households, the women of Junoon are complex, multifaceted characters, capable of raising the viewer’s admiration, ire, and sympathy at will.
Dilli Aapki to Ruth bhi Aapki.
Through the greatly symbolic bargain between Mrs. Labadoor and Javed Khan, Benegal draws an interesting understanding of the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized that was established once the revolt of 1857 was crushed. The fate of Javed Khan’s obsession and that of the sepoys get intertwined at this juncture. When Delhi is lost, all hope is lost. Not only does he lose any chance to get Ruth, but the Indians lose Hindustaan to the “firangee”, forfeiting any claims of equality that they had prior to the rebellion.
Junoon had an ensemble cast, some of the best of Indian Parallel Cinema, and the actors have given stellar performances that does justice to their well-etched roles. Shashi Kapoor gives a restrained and professional performance as the obsessive but honorable Javed Khan. This was the first film of Nafisa Ali and she did not have much in terms of acting, however, she makes up for being hauntingly beautiful. Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi prove once again why they are among the finest actors of India. However, it is Jenniffer Kendal who shines above all in her portrayal of Mariyam Labadoor, a polished, nuanced performance that makes us rue why we did not see more of her in Bollywood. Other actors like Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Deepti Naval, Benjamin Gilani, Sushama Seth, and Jalal Agha do justice to their roles.
Apart from the cast, Benegal is ably aided by the crew that helps make Junoon the gem of Indian cinema that it is. The cinematography by ace filmmaker Govind Nihalani makes the best use of natural lighting in scenes that linger on much after the credits have rolled. The music score by Vanaraj Bhatia and the writing of stalwarts like Satyadev Dubey and Ismat Chugtai help establish the credibility of the film and keeping it true to the period that it tells the story of.
In conversation with the team of Junoon (MAMI 2015)
Awards & Recognition
- 26th National Film Awards (1979) – Best Feature Film
- 26th National Film Awards (1979) – Best Cinematography (Govind Nihalani)
- 26th National Film Awards (1979) – Best Audiography (Hitendra Ghosh)
- Filmfare Awards (1980) – Best Film, Director, Dialogues, Editing, Cinematography, Sound Recording
- 7th Indian Film Festival, New Delhi (1979)
- XIth Moscow International Film Festival (1979) – Official Entry
- Montreal Film Festival (1979)
- Cairo Film Festival (1979)
- Sydney Film Festival (1980)
- Melbourne International Film Festival (1980)