You can see Shashi’s humility in this film, he has a wonderful role, but it is no bigger than anyone else’s, he easily shares screen space with Nawazuddin Shah, with Nafisa Ali, and of course with his own wife.
Junoon deals with messy human emotions because it is dealing with a messy point in history. Or else it deals with a messy point in history because it wants to deal with messy human emotions. I’m not sure which came first, the idea that the best way to represent the confusion of 1857 was through a confusing combination of humans, or that the best way to create this confusing combination of humans was through the confusion of 1857.
I was warned before I watched this movie that I should have an open mind. So I knew it would be seemingly “illogical” in how it handled relationships. But in fact, it all made perfect sense to me. I liked it better than other films I have seen that dealt with war, because they always try to remove the human from the war. The enemy is “the enemy”, we the audience can never sympathize with them. And the characters onscreen can never sympathize with them either, you love the man fighting with you and the people left at home, and hate the ones you are fighting against, and everything is very black and white.
But of course it’s not black and white. Especially in a Civil War, which in many ways is what 1857 was (as was the American Revolution, there were a fair number of neighbors against neighbors). That’s something that history films and history books try to skate around about colonialism, there is “us” the colonized and “them” the colonizers. But it’s blurry, these people are your friends and neighbors, sometimes your relatives. The cast of this film serves as an example, Jennifer Kendal who was raised in India and married an Indian man, and Tom Alter who is the second generation of his family to be born in India. Despite their white skin, they are “Indian” and tied into the fabric of the country. The two communities are intertwined and it takes more than a few moments of shocking violence to unwind them from each other.
What this film is dealing with is the possibility that a few moments of shocking violence can somehow pull two enemies communities tighter. The violence unbalances people emotionally, makes them open to new connections, makes them crave new connections, in a way they would never have considered before. I think that’s what people thought might surprise me or put me off, the idea of a love born of violence. But it is handled so well here, it is not violence one to the other that is pulling them together, some kind of odd power dynamic in that way. It is the shock of violence itself, the upheaval of the social fabric, which is making these two people suddenly crack and reform in a new way connected to each other.
What is really wonderful is how we have 5 central characters, 2 of them reformed by violence, and two others strengthened by, not changed into new people but changed into stronger versions of what they already were. The figure triumphant at the end, surviving it all, is not the one you would initially expect. But to get into that, I have to get into SPOILERS.
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I was initially thinking of watching Bombay Talkie instead of this movie since Jennifer Kendal has a larger part in it. I am so glad I went for this movie, because in fact Jennifer is the hero of it, much more so than Nafisa Ali or even Shashi. She is strong and wise and adapts to her situations and “wins” in the end. More so than anyone else.
We are introduced at the start of the film to a society that is about to rupture. Shashi is riding through these changes, but at the same time a part from them. He rides his horse through the village, passing the Muslim mystic preaching revolution, and then past the house of the wealthy British merchant Tom Alter, before finally reaching his home where he listens to but does not respond to the wild talk of his younger brother, former British soldier and current revolutionary Naseeruddin Shah.
In the British household, we meet Shashi’s match, Jennifer Kendal. Her mother Ismat Chughtai is an older Hindi speaking woman who is afraid of riots and violence. Her husband does not believe in the possibility of danger. Her daughter is alarmed by all of this. But Jennifer remains above it, listening to the opinions but not sharing in them.
I was thinking that it was an awkward explanation for the use of Hindi in the household to have Jennifer’s mother be a Hindi speaker. But as the film goes on, there is a deeper meaning to it. Everyone around Jennifer is trying to turn this fight into “us” versus “them”. But for her, there is no “us” and “them”. Her existence serves as an alarming contradiction to these simple rules. Her father was British, her husband was British, but her mother was part of the aristocracy of Rampur, Indian by birth and skin color.
And this is the contradiction that Shashi comes to live as well. Shashi is less a revolutionary than his brother, but feels a responsibility to maintain peace in his village. And so when he hears rumors of a British family hiding in the house of a merchant, he investigates and drags them out. Only to fall in love with young Nafisa, Jennifer’s teenage daughter, at first sight. He is now torn between his brother who is fully against all British, and his own heart, which has attached itself to a British woman.
Shashi’s solution is to take the British woman into Indian society. To propose that she become his wife. Jennifer resists this. She straddles the line between the two groups, and she wants her daughter to choose only one side, the winning side. And so she suggests a simple deal. If Delhi is in the hands of the revolutionaries, than Nafisa will marry Shashi. If Delhi returns to British hands, then Nafisa will not become Shashi’s.
The film becomes a battle of wills between the two. Jennifer, through sheer force of personality and confidence, takes the upper hand. Bargains with Shashi first for the pure safety of their family, that he will not kill them as the other British were killed. Then to delay his marriage to her daughter, although she is entirely in his power and he could force it with no consequences. Then to give her mother a Christian burial after her death, done in secret in his house. And finally, in the end, she forbids him even a glimpse of her daughter’s face when he wishes to say farewell.
It’s easy to see their relationship as a metaphor for colonized and colonizer. Shashi has the upper hand, it is his house. But through force of will and taking advantage of his hospitality, slowly Jennifer convinces him that she is the one truly in charge. And in this metaphor, it is Nafisa, the innocent daughter, who represents the country, the culture, everything that is “Indian”.
Nafisa has a fascinating character to play. She is in the background the majority of the time, we almost never have a sense of her thoughts and feelings. But slowly through tiny moments we begin to see how her identity is being broken down, how she is falling in with Shashi’s household and lifestyle, turning “Indian” (whatever that means).
Nafisa is the character who is first broken by violence. She goes to church with her father, and witnesses a massacre. This is why the 1857 setting is so important. The later revolutionaries, Bhagat Singh and the Indian National Congress, they were not as brutal as the 1857 fighters. They do not raise the question of whether being in the right justifies wrong means. Surely it cannot be right for armed men to storm into a peaceful gathering and terrorize people inside, killing unarmed men and (possibly although we do not witness it) women.
But as the film goes on and Nafisa’s character develops, the question rises if perhaps the violence was, ultimately, the better path. Nafisa has been shocked out of the spoiled disdainful person she was before. She is tormented by nightmares, but she is also starting to enjoy playing games, singing songs, living the life of an Indian woman in an Indian household. And most of all, she is beginning to fall in love with Shashi, against her will, without her knowledge even. The violence opened her up to all this, to a new world and a new life.
And if Shashi had given in to violence sooner, perhaps he would have won her over. Instead of pacifying and bargaining with her mother, if he had just taken her. That is what the final scene asks us. After all of this, after Nafisa has changed from a spoiled girl in church to a young woman in a Salwar comforting a young bride whose husband has died in the war, she is forced back in to those European clothes and back into that church. And it no longer fits her. Shashi comes to see her one last time, and despite her mothers orders not to, she runs out after him. But he does not take her with him, he bows to her mother’s authority. And the end credits tell us that he died soon after, while she lived a lonely single life for 55 years until her own death.
Over the course of the film, we go through a journey of being as horrified at the idea of this marriage as Jennifer is, to wishing that it would happen. To seeing that society and life has broken down, and perhaps these two people could find a new life together. We go from hoping that Shashi will restrain himself to wishing he would not, wishing he would simple take this young girl and marry her and keep her in his household, where she has been happy, instead of sending her back to a world where she no longer quite belongs.
The recurring image of the film, and the title of the short story on which it is based, is “A Flight of Pigeons”. We see the pigeons flying free above the sky, and we see the pigeons that Shashi keeps in his courtyard, which his family declares he has become obsessed with. It appears that Nafisa is that pigeon, which should fly free but which Shashi wants to keep caged.
But it is the opposite. She is free when she is in Shashi’s household. The cage is everything else, being driven back to Europe where she no longer belongs, being forced to leave the life in India where she floated above it all, European and Indian at the same time.
I have to wonder if it is all of this that brought Shashi and Jennifer to this film. Because it is their story, after all, only with a happy ending. Despite logic and reason and tradition and family, they were meant for each other. And they did not bow to outside authority and pressure, they fought for each other and found happiness together.