This simmering historical film by Shyam Benegal, set among the Muslim elite in the mid-nineteenth century, explores some of the tensions between the British colonial regime and the Indian resistors who fought against it in the wake of the rebellions portrayed in the film Mangal Pandey. Like most of Shyam Benegal’s best films, though, Junoon (“Obsession”) examines its sweeping political subject via a close study of the interactions among a very few people.
Ruth (Nafisa Ali) is an Anglo-Indian girl, the teenaged daughter of a British captain living near Lucknow in north central India. One morning, a group of rebelling Hindustani soldiers launches a bloody attack on Ruth’s church, killing everyone except Ruth, who looks on in horror as her father is hacked to bits. Ruth, her mother (Jennifer Kendal), and Ruth’s Indian grandmother flee, and eventually are taken in by a Pathan named Javed Khan (Shashi Kapoor) who has had his eye on Ruth for some time; he is obsessed with her, and determined to make her his wife, to the disgust of the wife he already has (Shabana Azmi). Ruth (who is still suffering massive PTSD from the church attack) has no interest in marrying Javed, and so begins a kind of a chess match as Ruth's mother negotiates with Javed to avoid the marriage, and Javed’s obsession with the girl grows in intensity.
Junoon seems to be taking place down the road from Umrao Jaan. But unlike Umrao Jaan, which despite all its melancholy is still a lush fantasy in some respects, Junoon is gritty and raw. Though its characters occupy the same social stratum as Umrao’s resplendently dressed patrons, Junoon presents them in plain, unadorned clothes that are slightly shabby and threadbare.
The genius of Junoon lies not in its grit, though, but in the delicacy with which Shyam Benegal presents his characters. Shashi Kapoor’s performance as the possessed Javed is masterful. As Javed struggles against his desire, he makes himself vulnerable, laying his weakness bare for all to inspect. Shashi carries that vulnerability in his face and in his body. It’s a rare treat to see an actor able willing to portray male frailty with such conviction. Jennifer Kendal (Shashi’s real-life wife) delivers, too, in a performance marked by a quiet strength and dignity that I often think of as a hallmark of Shabana Azmi’s iconic performances. Meanwhile Shabana, here as Javed’s wife Firdaus, skulks darkly in corners, shrouded in her anger and hurt, and only occasionally asserting herself in sporadic attempts to remind Javed of her status.
Junoon is a beautiful film, sad and compelling, and it twists elaborate metaphors into the relations between Javed and Ruth, Javed and Ruth’s mother, the English women and the Indian women, and beyond, as these relationships stand as allegory for various aspects of India’s relationship to its erstwhile colonial rulers and to itself. The bargain that Ruth’s mother strikes with Javed makes this explicit; if the Hindustani rebels take Delhi, Javed can have Ruth; if the English hold the capital, he must let the women go.
For more on Junoon, please read the excellent comments of my insightful friend Darshana and others on the BollyWHAT? discussion forum. Also please forgive me one small moment of fan-girl excess: Shabana looked so lovely in this film that I can't resist adding another picture.