Saturday, September 15, 2007

Junoon

In a movie that stars Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Naseeruddin Shah, and Deepti Naval, isn't it something that it's a much less accomplished film actor who steals the show? Everyone in Junoon is excellent, but it was Jennifer Kendal that impressed me most. Previously I'd only seen her in a tiny role in Ghare-Baire. (I have some James Ivory to catch up on, but I kinda burned out on Merchant Ivory in college back when we all wanted to be Lucy Honeychurch, you know? It's good, but I'm not sure I'm ready to dive back in.) She was best known around here as an unfugged costume designer (Fakira, Kabhi Kabhie) and T(rue) F(or) R(eal) S(ignificant) O(ther) of ascendant FPMBF Shashi Kapoor.* From the little I have read about her (and I haven't yet gotten my hands on the Kapoor dynasty biography - somehow the Illinois university library system doesn't have it, leading me to wonder where exactly my tax dollars are going), she has a professional and personal life enviable not only to anyone interested in international theater but also, of course, to us dreamy-eyed firangi filmi fans.

All of that can be put aside. Now when I think of her, I'll think of her smart, strong performance as Miriam Labadoor, a widow of the British Raj who must protect her shattered daughter, Ruth, and elderly mother as they hide out during the revolutions of 1857. They are given shelter by a noble, Javed Khan (Shashi), who is desperate for closer proximity to Ruth. His feelings for her (I hesitate to say "love" because we see little evidence of actual affection or fondness - "lust" is probably more accurate) are the obsession referred to by the title of the film. (Any thoughts on what other obsessions/madnesses the title includes?) Though left with nothing, Miriam manages to navigate safely through a system that is at best stacked against her and at worst out for her blood. Miriam's Anglo-Indian (mostly Anglo, from what I understood) family is vulnerable both as political enemies of the revolutionaries (led by Naseeruddin Shah) and personal enemies of the household that they cannot safely leave. Javed's walls may keep them relatively safe from violence, but Javed's wife Firdaus (played with sympathetic petulance by Shabana Azmi) makes it clear that these foreigners and a potential second wife, especially Ruth, are very unwelcome. Javed is vile, showing true affection only for his pigeons, and seems conflicted about his new role in the society of his house and community, a rebel who is afraid to fight and an egotist who flares up at any questioning of his decisions. Miriam ably stands up to fiery, unstable Javed, giving him enough hope of getting Ruth that he maintains the Labadoors in his house. She is weak but firm, and he is powerful but unsteady. Her best lines come in frank, controlled exchanges with an unhinged and confused Shashi, and I wonder what performing scenes like that opposite your real-life partner must be like. I don't think a viewer who was unaware of their relationship off-screen would ever guess that these two were a couple.

Jennifer and Shashi, compelling as they are, are just two of a slew of interesting people in the movie. Ruth, played by Nafisa Ali, may the focus of Javed's madness and by extension the reason the Labadoors and Khans are thrust together, but I thought that the story (at least as it is presented in the movie) happens around her more than it directly involves her. The meat of the interactions are between the adults as they take on various identities of aggressor and protector in the interactions at war, at home, and between these two arenas. For example, Firdaus and Javed's marriage seems tenuous before Ruth emerges as a threat, and there are brutal scenes between them as Javed spews his dismissal of Firdaus and lust for Ruth. I was also interested in the contrast of the Labadoor family's initial savior, Lalal (Kulbhushan Kharbanda), who is genuinely kind but does not have the social power to guarantee their safety, and Javed, whose status makes them safer but whose motivations are dangerous in other ways. The movie shows many different kinds of love and hate, confinement and escape. Speaking of which, as in Umrao Jaan, there's a motif of birds: Ruth develops an affection for Javed's pigeons, the only real bridge between them, but Firdaus hates them and refuses to care for them, preferring her own caged parrot.

Definitely one to watch when your brain is fueled and ready to participate. There is a very thoughtful discussion of the film on Bollywhat, which I highly recommend. Of the good points raised there, I was particularly struck by the question of what Javed's obsession represents in terms of Indo-Anglo relations, us/them, affection/lust, etc. Believe me, there is a lot going on in this movie; the more thought I put into it, the more I'm going to get out of it, even if some of that thinking is about some complicated and painful ideas.

Aside #1: I have two gripes about the movie that I couldn't figure out how to integrate into the rest of what I wanted to say. First, the background score is too melodramatic for my taste, and I didn't think it always suited the complexity of the story, interactions, and themes. Second, the battle at the end wore heavily. I think the same impact - war sucks, sacrifices can be painful, freedom/victory but at what cost, etc. - could have been made with less footage.

Aside #2: is Amrish Puri the narrator? I'd say that voice is unmistakable, but I've yet to find any evidence in print.

* That's right. You read it here first. Akshaye's on his way out. It's not me - it's him. Details not available at press time.

7 comments:

a ppcc representative said...

Ah yes, this was actually the first Shashi Kapoor film I saw (not counting In Custody, where he's unrecognizable, see below), and I enjoyed it quite a bit, though it did drag a little at times. (I had by that time been spoiled by Karan Johar films.) I actually thought his real life wife was Nafisa Ali, which was an interesting idea (husband playing an obsessed stalker of wife) until I realized it wasn't true. Another error I made which nonetheless led to an interesting idea was Naseer's performance re: Shashi's. In an interview somewhere, Naseer said his favorite actor was Shammi Kapoor, and when I watched the film, I was still thinking Shashi was Shammi. You do notice some similarities in their delivery, even though, again, I was wrong about the facts.

An interesting comparison to Junoon would be Shashi and Shabana's later film, In Custody. Number one, because of how far apart Shashi and Shabana (Shashana?) look in age, you forget they used to play more... er... balanced-looking couples. Number two, the leit motifs of pidgeons (again!), Islam, unhappy couples, even a bit of Anglo-Indian relations (less so in In Custody).

Beth said...

ppcc - Okay, first, I hope you actually like Shashi, because if not I don't think we can be friends. In retrospect, this is not what I would choose for anyone's first Shashi movie. Mine was Shaan, which, great as it is, is really not his finest performance by a long shot.

Naseer's favorite actor is Shammi? Fascinating! I definitely need to know more about that.

Have you seen Fakira? That's my only other experience with Shashana (but not Shoshana, because that's that girl who makes handbags and used to date Jerry Seinfeld). I don't think it has a single thing in common with Junoon except the birds, though granted they're harbingers of love in Junoon and destruction in Fakira.

norallav said...

It would be interesting to chart the progression of the Bollywood fangirl's attachments to FPMBFs. On mine, axis (y) would be labelled "sensitiveness" and axis (x) "too cool for school", with a U-curve linking SRK, Saif, Shashi, and lately Telugu star Mahesh Babu in a chronological progression.

What would the Akshaye to Shashi curve look like?

-Nina

Beth said...

Nina - I secretly wanted to be a math major in college, and I am going to take up your challenge! That sounds very fun.

Filmi Geek said...

*Junoon* was my first Shashi film as well, and it worked - I was amazed by his nuanced, physical performance.

Actually shortly *before* I watched *Junoon* for the first time, I had a dream that there was a pint of Ben & Jerry's in my freezer of flavor "Shashi Kapoor Crunch." True story.

As to the Shabashi-licious combination of leads - a pairing in which Beth and I together have a considerable FPMSO investment - I second the recommendation of *Fakira*; it's cracktastic. I love them together even more since I read that Shashi was Shabana's girlhood idol - her own FPMBF, if I may be so bold. Plus, the catfight between Shabana and Aruna Irani (in which a clapper-like device turns the lights on and off every time they smack one another) is a thing of beauty.

carla, aka filmi geek
http://filmigeek.net

Shweta Mehrotra Gahlawat said...

Yes, it is Amrish Puri's narration.

I also think that the title "Junoon"- obsession- represents not only Shashi's obsession for Ruth, but also the confused obsession of Javed surrounding the revolution, and Miriam's obsession to survive...but maybe I am reading too far between the lines.

Priyanka said...

A rather late comment but I saw Junoon a few days back and couldn't help checking out what you had to say about it.

I have to agree with you that amongst such an impressive roster of actors (including Sushma Seth, whose performance as Chachijan I also appreciated) Jennifer Kendal memorably stood out, as effective with or in absence of dialogue. I particularly liked the scene where they are having their meal, each character conveying so much through a glance alone.

Regarding the film's title, I somehow also interpreted it as the obsession of the soldiers (represented in examples such as Naseer) in their fervent belief that they would be able to defeat the British, despite the odds stacked against them. It's a telling comment that both Javed and the soldiers' obsession will eventually amount to so little.