While the masses loved it, the elite were riled up by Jugnu’s provocative framing of sexuality and depiction of college as a space for free intermingling of sexes. Several provincial governments banned the film, forcing the distributors to chop it drastically to rid it of ‘vulgarity’.
Jugnu (Firefly, 1947) was an important film in many respects. It was the first box office success for Dilip Kumar, then a newbie in the industry, and the last film of singing star Noor Jehan before she permanently left Bombay for Karachi. Jugnu was peculiar in another regard. It was among a few films that were conceptualised and made in pre-independence India but were released in theatres after the dawn of Independence and the pain of Partition.
The response to Jugnu – the love it received from the masses, the ‘moral panic’ it evoked among the elite, and the punitive action it invited from the young government – was an outcome of the time of transition that the country was going through. It also set the tone for the censorship project that Independent India would embark on –aiming to protect the ‘fragile morality’ of the ‘gullible masses’ – and continues to obsess itself with even today.
The present-day audience would likely judge Jugnu as a run-of-the-mill romantic comedy (which like many latter films of Dilip Kumar ends in a tragedy) that ticks some boxes and misses a few. The film produced and directed by Shaukat Husain Rizvi, then-husband of Noor Jehan, has a simple story. Dilip Kumar’s Suraj and Noor Jehan’s Jugnu study in separate colleges located on the same campus and fall in love. Jugnu is an orphan and Suraj is the only son of an ostensibly rich raisaheb who has accumulated debt. The family has planned to marry Suraj to a girl from a wealthy family hoping to receive dowry that will end their financial troubles. The circumstances mean that the lovers can’t marry each other and must feign unfaithfulness. The mutual heartbreak, ultimately, leads the couple to their tragic ends.
Although a mixed bag in terms of performances, the film is salvaged by the comedic episodes in the first half and a couple of good songs in the latter.
While the newspaper advertisements from the time tell us that the film, branded as ‘The Song of the Youth’, was celebrating ‘Silver Jubilees’ in multiple cities, it was also evoking an adverse response from the elite for depicting ‘college’ as a place of the intermingling of the sexes, and its provocative framing of youthful sexuality. It portrayed Indian youngsters as carefree romantics for whom the only thing that mattered was the success and failure in love.
Another topic of contention, repeatedly raised by its critics, was its depiction of a romance between the ladies’ hostel matron, played by Ruby Myers, and a professor from the boys’ college. There were still others who blamed it for slandering India’s higher education institutions by not focussing at all on learning activities that, ideally, should go on in a college.
A peek into the archive tells us that popular periodicals like Filmindia were routinely receiving letters from its English speaking readers complaining about Jugnu. While some wondered how such a ‘vulgar film’ was cleared by the Censor Board. Others demanded that it should be re-examined. Readers would reproduce the lyrics of an entire song (Loot Jawani…) to prove their point of Jugnu’s indecency and its portrayal of college girls as ‘courtesans’. Even Indians residing in Singapore and Colombo wrote with angst that the film was spreading the “wrong impression about college life in India”.
“Believe me, Mr Patel. The whole audience was exasperated – barring a few perhaps – when they saw a college girl dancing with the full garb of vulgarity in a drama staged in the college… Patrons of Indian films here like good stories with melodious songs and not historical distortions and semi-nude dances,” wrote M T Piyaseela from Colombo, in a letter published in the October 1948 issue.
Shiv Das Singh, a student from Jodhpur, feared that Jugnu might affect his educational prospects. “What would be the effect on our parents’ minds seeing the film…Will our parents then be ready to allow us to continue our studies further?” he wondered.
After a successful north India run, Jugnu was released at Bombay’s Capitol Cinema on October 1, 1948 but was pulled off the theatre within four weeks “in the midst of its triumphant run” after Filmindia editor Baburao Patel wrote a scathing review headlined ‘Jugnu: A dirty, disgusting, vulgar picture!’.
“Jugnu…tells us that college life in India is nothing more than a long sex hunt in which boys chase girls, explore their hand bags, rob their tiffin boxes and sing suggestive love ditties while making vulgar gestures; while girls sigh about heavily, seduce boys to tea, pimp for their friends, puncture their cycle tyres and sing songs of frustrated love,” Patel wrote in the review, adding, “no decent exhibitor with any pride for his profession or any self-respect should exhibit it in his theatre.”
Interestingly, Patel was Noor Jehan’s neighbour in Oomer Park, Warden Road, Bombay.
In fact, Patel informs us in the review, that he had sent an ‘advanced copy’ of the write up to the then Bombay Home Minister Morarji Desai who watched the film on October 26 and issued a ban three days later under Section 21 of General Clauses Act of 1897. This led to a lot of protests from the film producers and distributors for the ‘arbitrary action’ by the Home Minister on a film already cleared by a ‘full board’ of the censors, but to no avail.
After Bombay, several other provincial governments banned the film. The distributor – Bharat Pictures, Akola – was forced to re-submit the film for certification where it was chopped off significantly. Records show that when the film obtained its first Censor certificate from the Bombay Board of Film Certification on July 7, 1947, its total length was 14,093 feet. After revisions made following the ban, it was reduced to 11,559 feet. In terms of the run time, the film lost 28 minutes of its original duration of 156 minutes. The film returned to the screens after a few months in truncated form.
In many ways, the extent of criticism that Jugnu received seems disproportionate to the provocation contained in the film. This response can be understood in two contexts. Firstly, the elite discourse in the newly-Independent India was focused on ‘nation building’, a project that would require the energies and services of the youth. Jugnu’s celebration of youngsters as carefree lads inclined to shrug off responsibility in favour of romantic pursuits did not go well with the government and others with a say.
Secondly, the decision by the film’s female lead Noor Jehan and producer-director Rizvi to choose Pakistan over India left little sympathy for them and their product among the Indian elite. For example, in its review of Jugnu, Patel made a misplaced and far-fetched connection between director Shaukat Rizvi and Qasim Rizvi, the head of extremist, separatist Razakar movement in Hyderabad.
In the pages of Filmindia, which was the most powerful film magazine at the time, Muslim filmmakers who were travelling between India and Pakistan in the fog of the Partition (some of which decided to stay back in India) are repeatedly referred to as ‘fifth columnists’ who need to be watched to ensure that “they do not use the powerful medium of the films” for nefarious purposes.
“The censors must watch carefully such anti-social and anti-religious activities of these fanatic producers who live with us to stab us from day to day,” warns an editorial in the November 1948 issue of Filmindia.
Notwithstanding the legal and circumstantial impediments, Jugnu went on to become one of the biggest films of the time and launched Dilip Kumar’s career in the true sense. In fact, it was a large poster of Jugnu put up in Bandra that broke the news to Ghulam Sarwar ‘Agha’, the fruit seller from Peshawar, that his son Yusuf had entered the film business and had become a star.
(This story appeared on indianexpress.com as ‘How Dilip Kumar’s Jugnu lost 28 minutes to confused morality of a young India’ on July 17 2021)