Watching Shyam Benegal's Junoon (Obsession), about a weave of complex human relationships under the shadow of the 1857 War of Independence, I was reminded of Shashi Kapoor's dichotomous film career. At a time when the lines between "commercial" and "parallel" (or "art") cinema were very clearly defined, Kapoor was among the few actors/producers who bridged the divide, or tried to. In the late 1970s and early 1980s he was, on the one hand, doing a long line of now-forgotten commercial films (if you 're a Bolly-buff, check the 1975-1980 titles in his filmography and see how many you recognise), besides playing the thankless role of Amitabh's grinning jack-in-the-box sidekick in movies such as Suhaag, Trishul and Imaan Dharam. "You're like a taxi," big brother Raj told him once, meaning he would sign on with any producer who hailed him. But with the support and encouragement of his wife Jennifer Kendal, Kapoor used the money he made from commercial films to finance projects that were dearer to his heart (including critical successes such as Junoon, Kalyug, Vijeta and 36 Chowringee Lane), and to keep Prithvi Theatres running.
Some of the “art” films of the 1970s and 1980s don’t hold up very well today – they seem overly concerned with saying Important Things and being the antithesis to the mainstream. However, Benegal’s movies generally managed to strike a balance. Junoon is an absorbing, very atmospheric film that nicely contrasts the grand and the small, the political and the personal. The theme of individuals finding grace even when the groups they belong to are busy killing each other requires the film to constantly move between a large canvas and an intimate one, and the director handles this shift very well.
As the story begins, the Mutiny has just begun, and Mariam Labadoor's (Kendal) husband is murdered by Indian sepoys in a church massacre. Living in an area that's in the eye of the storm, Mariam, her mother Mrs James (an Indian woman who married an Englishman decades earlier) and her young daughter Ruth seem destined for a similar fate but they are saved by an Indian acquaintance who risks his life to give them shelter in his house. A pathan, Javed Khan (Kapoor), soon discovers their whereabouts and takes them to his haveli; he is smitten by young Ruth and demands her hand in marriage. Mariam strikes a deal with him: "If the Indians succeed in capturing Delhi, Ruth is yours," she says.
This agreement is the film's strongest comment on the link between the personal and the political, but circumstances will later force Javed to wonder whether there should be any connection between the larger conflict and the relationships of the individuals caught up in it. These feelings are reflected in the film’s tone: it's almost as if war is a separate entity, a self-created monster that has nothing to do with human beings. But this is a whimsical, idealistic notion, as Javed will have realised by the end of the film.
Junoon is an acting powerhouse. Besides Kapoor and Kendall, there’s the luminous Nafisa Ali as the English rose, Ruth; she’s perfectly cast, though the character is underwritten. Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah have small but very effective parts respectively as Javed Khan’s insecure wife Firdaus and his bloodthirsty brother-in-law Sarfaraz. As the Englishwomen's kindly saviour Ramjimal there’s Kulbhushan Kharbanda, another actor who tried to bridge the parallel-commercial gap; his role here is worlds removed from the cartoonish villain Shakaal he played the following year in Ramesh Sippy's Shaan (yet another film that had Shashi Kapoor in an inconsequential role). And there are tiny parts for Pearl Padamsee (spewing venom at the debauched ways of the British, who “kiss each other on the mouths and use paper to clean themselves”), Sushma Seth and the young Deepti Naval.
One problem with the film is that the central relationship between Javed Khan and Ruth is not very convincingly handled. In Shashi Kapoor's performance there is a sense of obsessive lust slowly turning into something more tender and protective, but we never get a real insight into Ruth's feelings, of how and why her initial fear of Javed turns into love. The script gives us shorthand instead of believable emotion – at one point when Javed has ridden off into battle, Ruth asks her mother, "Do you think he will return, mama?" (incidentally this is the only full sentence I can remember Nafisa Ali speaking in the film) and we must be content with that as an indication that she's genuinely concerned about him.
As a result, the last scene lacks dramatic weight. The final title card informs us pedantically that Javed was killed in battle and that "Ruth died 55 years later in London, still unwed", but nothing earlier in the film ever pointed to such intensity of feeling on her part. The title feels like it was written to cater to male fantasies about young girls who "save themselves" for their True Loves, or eternal romantics who dream about love conquering race, religion and even time. (Lagaan had an equally unconvincing coda about the Rachel Shelley character vis-à-vis Aamir Khan’s Bhuvan.)
But it would be a pity to judge Junoon by its abrupt and unsatisfying ending. There’s much to admire in this film, many scenes that linger in the mind: the perpetually worried look on Mariam’s face (a single glance from Jennifer Kendal could convey as much as another actor armed with pages of dialogue); a mad prophet rolling his eyes wildly and predicting that the British time in India is over; the English refugees and the Indian women washing their clothes in separate corners of a courtyard; Ramjimal saying farewell to Mariam and telling her “bitiya ko mera salaam kehna” (the “bitiya” being a young girl who doesn’t even share a language with him); Javed Khan trembling with unrequited passion as he talks about wanting to possess Ruth; Sarfaraz’s assault on the caged pigeons, whom he blames in his madness for the sepoys having lost Delhi; Ruth’s recurring nightmares (including one about rape, and another of Sarfaraz snarling and animal-like, bound to a British cannon and being blown to pieces); the look on Firdaus’s face as she realises how completely lost Javed is to her.
And then there’s one of the quietest moments in the film, a charming little scene by a swing in a garden, where four women (two Indian, two British) find a few moments of peace and companionship by, in turn, singing songs from each of their traditions. It doesn’t matter that neither song can be fully understood by all the women. What matters is that for this brief repose the battle cries have been pushed into the background. In the languor of this moment it’s even possible, very briefly, to believe in Javed Khan’s grand conceit that individual feelings can be separated from group dynamics in times of war.