Friday, July 3, 2009

Shyam Benegal's 'Junoon'




Having established in Bhumika that not even the strongest imaginable women can successfully challenge patriarchal norms for long - Benegal now explores in Junoon what could challenge an existing patriarchy - and answers: an alternative patriarchy backed by politico-military power. He introduces two other sociological variables into the mix - race and religion. And to fully explore the issue, he situates his movie at a time of great military-political upheaval in India - the Mutiny of 1857 (now called the First War of Independence), when the existing politico-military order that the British have established in India comes very close to being overthrown.

Junoon is a complex word with the combined sense of mania, obsession, chaos, and rebellion. Indeed, the English version of the title 'Junoon' is The Obsession. But the sense of Junoon here is closer to 'Obsession in the Time of Mutiny'. Benegal places the action in Junoon in a British cantonment somewhere near Delhi, where the local 'nobleman', a Pathan played by Shashi Kapoor, has become obsessed with the daughter of a local British official.

Benegal carefully establishes how, by the time the Mutiny has broken out in 1857, the British had begun to segregate themselves from the 'natives', and this meant, most of all, keeping the 'natives' away from British women, especially those of marriageable age. But Benegal also establishes that this was not always so. He introduces the character of the grandmother of the girl in question - as an Indian lady who had married the British officer that is her grandfather. At least up to the 1820s and 1830s, this situation was not unusual: British males in India took both 'native wives' and 'native' mistresses openly.

By the 1850s, however, the British now go 'out of their way' to protect the 'honor' of their females, and to 'reserve them' only for other British (or other European) men. Quite literally in one scene - where a girl and her British father are going to Church - two Indians approach on the road. The Britisher immediately, and instinctively, puts himself between the approaching Indians and her. They pass by most innocuously - but the incident underlines the ridiculous extent to which British males had by then begun to conceive of traditional 'gallantry' toward the 'fair sex'. By now it had gone over to risible levels of chauvinism, mixed with intense feelings of racial superiority - a potent poison, as seen in so many other contexts, notably the American South.

That the father-daughter pair were going to Church when the incident occurs is also significant, for the Church is thus shown to be the symbolic upholder of an intensely racialized patriarchal system. It is an all-white Church.

Not surprizingly then, (and however dastardly it might seem in retrospect), the Church becomes the locus of an attack by Indian armed rebels - where British officers and their families are massacred while at Mass. The girl in question sees her own father being viciously slashed to death by a rebel in the Church, dying in her arms.

The girl, and her mother and grandmother (who were elsewhere at the time) are rescued by a local Indian businessman her father had once favored with Cantonment business contracts. They receive sanctuary in his home. But the nobleman played by Shashi Kapoor gets wind of this. Anxious to possess the object of his desire, he kidnaps the girl, her mother, and her grandmother and brings them to his mansion. Here, in a long sequence of scenes they are shown to slowly acculturate into the Indian Islamicate culture of the UP Pathan: they discard their 'European garments', and begin to wear the same clothes that other women in his household do; they socialize with them, are inculcated into the habits and entertainments of the zenana woman. What Benegal establishes here is that the three have simply traded one set of patriarchal norms (British, Christian) for another (Pathan-UP, Muslim). They remain secluded from almost all men, as indeed they were before, but now to an even more ridiculous extent - they actually enter the purdah.

The Pathan presses his case on the mother of the girl he is obsessed with - he says he seeks an 'honorable marriage' (nikaah) with the girl - probably 16 or 17 in the movie, while he is closer to 40 himself. The mother refuses, on the ground that he is too old, is already married, and moreover, that they are Christian while he is Muslim. What remains unsaid, of course, but amply evident in the context, is that they are white British while he is 'Indian'. For an Indian, however, Shashi Kapoor is as 'fair' and 'handsome' as it is possible to imagine anyone being; he is moreover a 'nobleman' - with wealth and power - yet the British woman of much more modest class standing (played, with considerable irony, by Kapoor's own then wife, the British actress Jennifer Kendal) refuses him permission to marry her daughter. And this is even while, in every way, she is beholden to him for her own (and her daughter's and mother's) security.

The Shashi Kapoor character is shown to be intensely conflicted: on the one hand, his obsession is eating him up, what with the object of his desire living in his own zenana; on the other, there is his sense of fairplay, that without her consent, and her mother's, a formal marriage simply cannot go ahead. He offers her full formal recognition as the second wife, along with title to a specified share of his property, and a bride price, but the mother is unyielding. And he is frankly incredulous: he just cannot fathom what possible considerations the British woman could possibly be weighing in turning down his 'honorable match'. Eventually, the mother appears to relent, but lays down her condition: the girl can be his if the Indian rebels (who at the time have reinstalled Bahadur Shah Zafar on the Delhi throne) are able to withstand and repulse the British siege of the town.

Here Benegal explicitly drives home the idea that patriarchy is undergirded by politico-military power, and, faced with two alternative patriarchies, some women may follow a strategy of hedging their bets before deciding who to ally with. By foregrounding race, Benegal also shows how it can be a 'trumping variable' - that a British woman and her daughter, even when under the protection of an Indian, and even while acculturating to his tradition, can still trump him, literally frustrating him - by virtue of nothing more than their race. Even while the British Raj in India appears to be crumbling, as it did for a while during the Mutiny. The grandmother character has done the reverse - born into a Muslim noble's family, she marries a British officer and accepts the status that gives her. Why this cannot happen again, with the granddaughter marrying the Pathan, is beyond his understanding, and as the film frames the paradox, the audience also shares the befuddlement.

But not race alone, religion as well - the British women's Christianity is shown to matter - while for another woman in the noble's zenana, who had been born Hindu, it is shown not to have mattered very much at all: she simply converted on marriage. This is driven home in another way: the grandmother, who had, at least nominally, converted to Christianity at marriage, is buried according to Christian, not Muslim rites, even though she was born a Muslim.

Benegal shows in Junoon that, race becomes a compellingly relevant variable in gender relationships, and that the logic of the racial hierarchy is internalized by women dominated by the patriarchy: the Jennifer Kendal character appears adamant that her race (and religion) is indeed superior, never mind how thoroughly the patriarchal norm dominates her own life, and how much she is beholden to the Kapoor character for her own security, and her daughter's. Her daughter is taught to reject the Shashi Kapoor character solely because he might be Indian, and Muslim. Not until the movie's last scene does it become clear that she might have come to develop feelings for him - which had until now remained suppressed within her. In that scene, which appears when the tide turns against the rebels, and the British appear to be re-establishing their authority - we see the Kendal character and her daughter escaping the nobleman's household, and seeking refuge again in that same Church where the father was slaughtered. In other words, back they go into their old world of the racialized religious patriarchy, seeking refuge in its central legitimating institution.

The situation as Benegal paints it is rich with symbolism - the strong doors of the Church appear to be holding the girl back from truly being in touch with her own feelings for the nobleman. At considerable risk to himself, he had gone looking for her, and begs and pleads to be allowed one last look, from outside the Church. When at last the girl realizes that she feels for him, she breaks her mother's resistance to open the door. But he has given up and is shown riding away; one later learns, to his death - in battle against the now victorious British returning from their sack of Delhi. The narration tells us that the girl returns to Britain to die a spinster, letting us wonder about the depth of the feeling she comes to develop for him.

In addition to acting as the Pathan, Shashi Kapoor also produced Junoon. It plays out on a much larger canvas than any of Benegal's films thus far: there are many more people in the movie, very realistic depictions of cavalry charges and artillery barrages, many 'crowd scenes' - and among other things, the movie also has documentary value as a picture of how things were during the Mutiny. Most of the team which Benegal has worked with before return in acting parts: Shabana Azmi (who's just back at the time from acting in another movie about the Mutiny - Ray's Shatranj ke Khilari) plays the wife of the nobleman (Shashi Kapoor); Naseeruddin Shah plays a rebel leader with great distinction (again); Amrish Puri is cast as a Sufi mendicant (a terrifying figure, as Puri plays him, with his trances and dances and his bulging eyes - played extremely well by Puri, but one does wonder why Benegal felt the need to include such a character in the movie at all - other than as a vehicle for Puri's extraordinary talent - the character is by no means integral to the story); Kulbhushan Kharbanda plays the businessman who initially shelters the British family.

Junoon
has a slightly different character from Benegal's other films thus far, in that it can also be seen simply as a 'historical romance' or even just a docudrama on the Mutiny. What provides a sense of continuity with themes that have occupied Benegal in his earlier movies is that: in Junoon he examines the interaction between race, religion, social class, and gender at a time of great economic and military-political upheaval. He shows that, in spite of all the change that the Mutiny appeared to promise, even for women well placed by birth, class and race - it simply meant trading one religious, racialized patriarchy for another. That so much might have changed, but did not, is a rather disheartening message overall. And in its last scene, of eventually-requited-but-never-consummated love, across the race and religion barrier, Junoon really drives home the point.

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