Monday, November 13, 2006

Film classics: Junoon

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.

29 comments:

  1. Good review. Was a great movie.

    (Noticed this post carried at Blogbharti)

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  2. they seem overly concerned with saying Important Things and being the antithesis to the mainstream.

    there is a strain of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism in your writings, or is it that only I feel it this way?

    I had forgotten most of the details of this film, it feels good to be reminded.

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  3. I don't remember a lot of this film and your post was a good reminder... thank you!!

    I was a little miffed with this para though

    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.)


    it is not a fair criticism at all. surely you are exaggerating...

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  4. Great review..you write so well! Just one question..I've been reading your archives..and I came across ''main protagonist'' at a couple of places. Doesn't ''protagonist'' MEAN the central character? So doesn't that make ''main protagonist'' something like ''main main character?''. I genuinely am curious, hence the question..no offence meant.

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  5. Julien: oh, I'm most definitely anti-intellectual when "intellectualism" comes in the way of a film being a good film (and becoming a preachy document instead).

    Alok: What part of the para were you miffed by? Just to clarify again, I felt that the film provided no indication of Ruth feeling so strongly about Javed that she would spend a further 55 years of her life "wedded to his memory" (to put it dramatically). The very pointed "unwed" at the end of the title felt gratuitous somehow. I think the love story would have been every bit as poignant even without that word.

    Shikha: ya, that's a mistake. Didn't realise I'd done that. Am quite surprised...which posts specifically?

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  6. Did you know that the role of Mrs James was played by Ismat Chughtai? She co-wrote the dialogues of course, but most people don't know that she acted in the movie too.

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  7. I didn't mean to be overly harsh, but that line about true love and "male fantasy" felt a little jarring. It is a common element of standard romantic narratives, and it is hardly a cliche and often is quite effective, as I felt it was in this case.

    I agree however that, the word "Unwed" or the phrase "wedded to his memory" don't sound good and perhaps they should have been replaced by something else... I actually didn't really remember these exact words and came to know about it only reading your post.

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  8. River: thanks for that input! I never realised that - I did see Chughtai's name in the cast but there were so many other names there (Geoffrey Kendal, Shashi Kapoor's children etc) who I didn't see onscreen, I figured they all just had walk-on parts.

    Alok: no offence or anything, I just wasn't sure which part of the paragraph you were referring to...

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  9. What did u think of the Bond short story it was all based on? "Flight of pigeons" I think its called. One of the few things he written that's not a rewrite of night train to Deolali.
    DD

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  10. Nice review Jabberwock.

    I was profoundly affected by the movie when I first saw it in spite of its shortcomings. But I was a little disappointed with Shabana's role. Ray's Shatranj Ke Khiladi had Shabana play almost the same role - that of a wife whose husband is obsessed with something else. I don't remember which released first (I think Shatranj did) but I thought at the time that it was odd that Shabana had chosen to act in similar roles so soon. Maybe she was too overawed by Ray and Benegal to refuse.

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  11. I'm so sorry..I meant ''other protagonist'' (''main protagonist'' I read on another excellent blog :) )..but even ''other protagonist'' seems a bit incorrect..since ''protagonist'' denotes ''THE main character''..correct me if I'm wrong...

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  12. Thanks for the trip down memory lane - if I remember correctly this was Shyam Benegal's first big budget, almost commercial movie. Saawan ki aayi bahar is a lovely song (and whatever happened to Benjamin Gilani who played Naval's husband in the movie?) On a more Hello! OK! Filmfare note, I think it was also the start of the Shashi-Shabana affair.

    And on a completely different note - though I note that this blog often touches upon writing transgressions - today's TOI asks its readers "Has modernism robbed childhood". Since when did modernism and modern life become interchangeable?! For the sake of brevity, I won't go into the actual article.

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  13. DD: No, want to read it though. Was wondering how he had handled the love story.

    Shikha: I'm not sure that "other protagonist" is wrong. I know the word was originally used for a single person, but meanings and usage do evolve over time. These days the idea of a film/book having two or more protagonists isn't so uncommon.

    Shama: ref. "Has modernism robbed childhood", I'm speechless - as I so often am when looking through the papers in the morning. But I'm not especially surprised. This is a country where experienced sub-editors believe that it's okay to indiscriminately remove any article ("a", "an", "the") from a sentence or a headline if it needs to be shortened. When they don't know about the usage of those little words, why would they know what modernism is?

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  14. I was less than impressed with Nafisa Ali in the film, especially her grating, querulous cry of 'mamma' everytime Javed Khan stopped outside the gate to stare at her. Victorian modesty and all granted, she was still overdoing it by a long margin.

    But strangely, that's the only part of the film that's stayed with me since I last saw it more than ten years ago :)

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  15. I don't think she did much wrong, given what little she had to work with. Like I said, the role was underwritten - the querulous "mamma"s were problems of the script/direction more than the performance. Besides, let's not forget that she was playing a very young, impressionable girl, not at all comfortable with the environment - so the Victorian modesty probably wasn't overdone.

    Thought she got some of the gestures just right - the shy looks she gives her mother in the swing scene, for instance. In hindsight, maybe it was a good decision to not give her much dialogue...

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  16. Back blog-browsing after quite some time - Tzoi Orzoon, you have seduced me into evil ways again!

    The hell with Junoon (did I ever tell you about Nafisa Ali at 18?), I'll go watch Jaan-e-Mann.

    And thanks for the link to The Akhond's article on Dalrymple, I needed that after a solid hour of his prosing yesterday evening.

    J.A.P.

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  17. Jabs: Didn't think much of Junoon when I saw it, bar the visual brilliance of it (was it another of Govind Nihalani's cinematograhies?). So it was good to catch this little jog back, which took on some things I didn't think much about at the time.

    Very fair observation about Shashi Kapoor as well, which is something I have thought about quite a bit for many days. Shashi Kapoor definitely, and Kulbhushan Kharbanda as well, who I remember talking to Ajitha about some time back exactly in this art-cinema bridging-the-divide context.

    And there was a very good reason for Nafisa Ali speaking only one full sentence in the film - she couldn't talk in any convincing sort of way. The only reason she fits in is that she looked the part. She certainly didn't score much with her acting or speaking.

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  18. BTW a gent who now teaches political philosophy in a famous German university risked expulsion from Prufuck's school (St. Xavier's Cal) by confessing his desire to sleep with Nafy in a school essay.
    DD

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  19. Hey, Jai. Thanks for writing about one of my favourite films. And no thanks for spoiling Junoon's ending for me. I guess you are probably right about the "male fantasy" thing, but it's one of the few things about the film that had stayed with me and I guess many in my generation. In fact, this friend of mine had ended a play he had written with the very same lines, "died,... unwed."

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  21. Tridib, that's so typical of guys of your generation. Such cloying sentimentality, tcha. I couldn't help comparing this with Titanic (as sentimental a film as they make them) which thankfully did not show Rose remaining an unwed martyr to Jack's memory all her life.

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  22. Rumman: Must clarify, I never got to watch the film as an idealistic youngster, otherwise my feelings about the ending might well have been the same as yours. I slept through most of it as a bored eight-year-old and then watched it properly only the other day, through cynical 30-year-old eyes.

    But hey, isn't that one of the great things about watching the same film at different times in one's life? You learn so much about yourself...

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  23. Great review as usual.

    Just a clarification.

    You've said Ruth's intentions are never clear. But that not what I remember. In the last scene Javed Khan confronts the mother in the church where she and her daughter Ruth are left to wait for the British. I don't remember the exact exchange between them but the mother is able to convince Javed to turn away. Just as he is about to do so, Ruth runs out of the Church and stares almost telling him to take her with him. He stares back and you can see on his face that he realises what a fool he has been and gets on his horse and leaves them.

    I have seen this movie 3 - 4 times and I distinctly remember this scene. So her intentions were made clear right at the end.

    Are there two versions of the movie?

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  24. Anurag: I never said Ruth's intentions aren't made clear. They are made clear at the end alright, but her transition from fear to love isn't convincingly done. That's what I meant by the last scene (including the church bit) lacking conviction. It's like the script has simply told the viewer "Okay, this is just the way it is, she DOES love him so much that she'll stay wedded to his memory for 55 years, and you just have to accept that." But we've never been given a sense of how this love develops.

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  25. Hi,
    Just wanted to know if this is teh same movie that was a take off of the novella written by Ruskin Bond, 'A Flight of Pigeons'? I do not remeber teh movie, but have seen it once as a kid.
    Ananya

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  26. Hi Jabberwock,
    Just read your fine review. I agree that the end is a bit abrupt - and I saw the whole movie without realizing that Ruth was played by Nafisa Ali, then a recent swimming champ and Miss India, and now a just-defeated MP candidate.

    BTW, I reviewed 'Junoon' myself, here: http://elite-irony.blogspot.com/2009/07/shyam-benegals-junoon.html

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  27. Hey Jai - the other day I read the interview of Naseeruddin Shah you had taken and I guess he was really pissed with Benegal. I was just thinking it was a bit unfair on his part to rubbish a director who gave him his debut, who actually made films due to which Naseer came to the notice of other art film-makers. Was just thinking why didnt you grill him more on the precise reason for his hatred for Benegal apart from auteur theory. Just a thought...you know i just have a feeling after i read that interview that there was something more to this

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  28. Junoon is a favorite of mine. I am glad to read your criticism of the "she never married" ending, as it also made no real sense to me in relation to the story as told. Also to me (but to no one else I know!), at the end -- I thought Ruth at the very end - only -- appreciated his love for her, and was moved by it -- till them she was scared of him; I didn't think she had exactly fallen in love with him.

    --Virginia from NY

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  29. Hey ,

    Sorry for nitpicking on this old thread of yours , but Sarfraaz was Javed's younger brother , wasn't he ? Not brother-in-law...

    I watched Junoon recently and fell in love with the movie specially with Jennifer Kendall . I too first tried to watch this movie as a 12 year old on DD and gave up less than halfway through it . The only thing that stayed with me (and with shock ) was how my mother told me that Jennifer in real life was Shashi Kapoor's wife and in the movie she was almost like his mother-in-law( you know how such things can mess up with your 12 year old mind :) ).

    But now as a 29 year old , I could understand and appreciate the movie , with the exception of Ruth's feelings for Javed (much like you) . I too never felt that she developed any strong feelings for him , at least the kind that would end up in making her stay unwed for the rest of her life . So , when she comes running to him , smiling , I had to rewind the scene twice to apprehend it better . But , I am a woman and a closet romantic at that , so it goes without saying that the "unwed" status of Ruth's life gave me a nice and warm feeling :).

    And when I learnt that this movie was based on a novella by Ruskin Bond , I couldn't help but think of that other movie based on another of his novellas . This movie seemed so complete , but throughout 7 Khoon maaf , I had a feeling that short novellas though with intriguing premises would not necessarily make good movies even when they are made by one of the best directors in the country. I am so happy I was proved wrong before I went ahead and started generalizing .


    Its good to come back and re-read your posts after watching the movie . The experience is so much better .

    Wow , the comment's got really long , and I only wanted to write about Sarfraaz and Javed being brothers :)

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