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.
This film is centered away from the main battles, in a small town in the north Indian plains. The prophetic pronouncements (Haq! Truth!) of a whirling Sufi dervish form the backdrop to the opening. He foresees a bloody future for the firanghis (foreigners). The revolution comes to the peaceful dusty village, in church on a Sunday morning when the sepoys burst-in and murder the English soldiers. Ruth (Nafisa Ali) is an Anglo-Indian girl, the teenage 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.
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.
The pacing of the movie and its tight link with the continuity ensures that there is hardly any slackness in the movie.
It’s the cinematography (its Govind Nihalani at the camera) that grabs attention throughout the movie. It is compact, very communicative and does very well to hide the imperfections of a low budget, modern ruins and less manpower in the battle scenes. The authentic location shoots are scenic. The "Hero" of the movie, if there is one is an imperfect bounder craving for a young memshahib, even though he is already married...and that is all he does a little tediously throughout the entire film.
A must see for anyone who is interested in India.