Friday, December 21, 2007

Movie Review: Junoon (Obsession) (1978)

I watched Madhuri’s ‘Aaja Nach Le’ and was down with a bout of ennui and a strong nausea of Hindi masala films. I just couldn’t watch another commercial movie immediately. And so I turned to ‘art films’. A term probably peculiar to the Hindi film industry. All Hindi films are divided into ‘Commercial films’ and ‘Art Films’. The former are money-making business propositions, the typical song-and-dance masala films that one visualises when one thinks ‘Bollywood’. But the latter are films made for niche audiences, for film festivals, films also made out of passion and for the love of ‘realistic’ cinema. And if they are lucky, they also make some profit out of it

Shyam Benegal made ‘art films’. Many of his movies: Ankur, Nishant, Manthan, Bhumika, Junoon, Kalyug, Mandi, Trikal are classics of Indian cinema. Not of course talked-of in the same breath as say Satyajit Ray’s movies; nevertheless he was the poor man’s Satyajit Ray, so-to-say. It was his immense good fortune that he was blessed to be around with a crop of excellent artistes in the peak of their prowess: Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil, Om Puri, Amol Palekar, Kulbhushan Kharbanda being some of them. Probably never before and never after have we been blessed by such intense actors in Hindi cinema. Benegal extracted some of the best performances of these artistes in his films. No wonder people like Naseer rue the films of today.

This film is set in the backdrop of the year 1857: a very crucial year in modern Indian history. The British ‘East India Company’ had been ruling most of modern-day India for almost 100 years by 1857. By this year, their early love and respect for India / Indians, their soft attitude had been hardnened to a colonial, master-slave, racist way. Compounded by insensitivity to local cultures, increased Christian missionary activity and unfair deposing of local kings, the stage was set for an eruption. The immediate excuse being the forced usage of pig/cow fat grease in rifles of the Indian soldiers under the British: the pig being abhorrent to the Muslims and the cow being holy to the Hindus. The initial revolt by the Indian soldiers soon spread to the entire North India leading to: a mutiny (as per British historians) and the first war of independence (as per Indian historians).

Junoon: (Obsession)

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. (Tom Alter, the Anglo-Indian actor, mercifully is one of them. His studious and labored acting in those initial 2 minutes thankfully comes to an end). Ruth Labadoor (played by Nafisa Ali) is the sensual nubile daughter of this English soldier who escapes the mob and runs home to her mother & grandmother. After an initial period of hiding from the free-booting mobs, aided by a loyal Indian aide (?): Kulbhushan Kharbanda, the ladies however fall into the hands of Javed (Shashi Kapoor) who even prior to the outbreak of violence harbored a lusty obsession for Ruth. And that’s the pivot of the story: his Junoon (Obsession).

Javed however, is already married to the character played by Shabana Azmi. Shabana is unable to bear any child to sustain Javed’s dynasty and doesn’t take too kindly to Javed’s two-fold intention of marrying Ruth and possibly having a child by her. Jennifer Kendal (Shashi Kapoor’s real-life wife) who plays the role of Mariam, Ruth’s mother tries to buy time to Javed’s offer of marriage by raising the condition: Ruth will be available for marriage only if the city of Delhi falls to the rebels.

Add Naseeruddin (Sarfraz) to this cauldron of characters. He is the rebel leader and brother (?) of Shabana. An intense character full of passion to freeing his ‘country’ and who for the life of him, cant understand Javed’s ‘junoon’ for Ruth (and preference for raising pigeons) and his resultant disinterest in the war for independence.

As Shyam Benegal’s stories (rather his handling of them) go, he pays a lot of attention to the building of characters and their interplay. The story itself may be very commonplace but the way it is told, doesn’t aim to be that.

And so we come to the end-play where Delhi falls to the British and Mariam heaves a sigh of relief. The small town is now in an uproar and its inhabitants fleeing helter-skelter. While Javed is out on a sortie against the British, his family is fleeing their ancestral home in his absence to safer lands. The Angrez (English) meanwhile await the arrival of the British in the town church.

In a rather intensely emotional moment, Javed catches-up with the caravan of his fleeing family, only to ask his eager and relieved wife “Where are the firangis?” And the penny drops.

We are left with one last scene where Javed bids goodbye to Ruth but not before she betrays her softness of emotions to him. Shortly afterwords, their story its just another leaf in the wake of a storm.

Nafisa Ali as Ruth brings just the right amount of sensuality (of a budding youth) in her scenes. Her casting is apt. Nafisa brings just the right amount of vulnerability to the role. Although her propensity to go into hysterics is liable to drive you to one.

Whether its Shashi as a frenzied, obsessed Pathan, or Naseeruddin as the intense Sarfraz or Shabana as the guilt-wracken, pitiable wife of Javed who is not about to give-up without a fight, this film throws up some memorable characters to remember long after. Pearl Padamsee in a cameo of 2 minutes distinguishes herself.

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. GN went on to direct his own movies) that grabbed my 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.

Great literature, movies have one defining characteristic: they force characters to face situations which their abhor, philosophies which they dislike, people who are their antithesis and force an individual to churn his thoughts and put himself in the others shoes. This movie goes some way down that path.


  • The open action in the village church could have been handled much better.
  • The pact of Mariam with Javed to grant her daughter to him in a conjugal bond depending on whether Delhi falls to the English was much more than a calculated risk. It just doesn’t seem convincing.
  • Naseer’s way of venting out rage on the pigeons in the modern age would have brought out PETA and Maneka Gandhi out on the streets in protest.
  • The act of a Nafisa in hiding feeding a beggar lady openly was rather thick given the circumstances they were in. This moment is an aberration in the movie
  • The second aberration being that Ruth remained unwed ever after. This seems to be a peculiar Indian obsession I think. Remember Lagaan, too? Exactly the same.

And finally, one must mention Amir Khusrau’s song/ghazal ‘Aaj Rang Hai Ri Ma’ which graces the opening credits. Amir Khusrau of course, merits a separate blog-entry on his own and so we will have to wait another day for that.

Aaj Rang Hai Ri Ma


Adapted from a novel ‘The Flight of Pigeons’ by Ruskin Bond


Shashi Kapoor as Javed

Shabana Azmi

Jennifer Kendal as Mariam

Naseeruddin Shah as Sarfraz

Kulbhushan Kharbanda

Jalal Agha

Pearl Padamsee

Benjamin Gilani

Tom Alter - seems rather studious in his approach to acting. Somewhat distracting

Nafisa Ali as Ruth Labadoor

Ismat Chugtai

Sushma Seth

Dipti Naval

Special Appearance

Geoffrey Kendal

Kunal Kapoor

Karan Kapoor

Sanjna Kapoor


Rafi, Asha, Varsha Bhonsle (surprise, this!!)


Jigar Moradabadi

Amir Khusrau

Sant Kabir

Dialogue: Pandit Satyadev Dubey

Add’l Dialogue: Ismat Chugtai

Music: Vanraj Bhatia

Photography : Govind Nihalani

Produced : Shashi Kapoor

Screenplay and Direction : Shyam Benegal



Rupa Abdi said...

Just watched this movie on TV for the third time. I do not think Ruth looks sensual in any of the scenes, it is her vulnerability and innocence that the director has tried to bring out.

In the begining it does seem that Javed is lusting after her, but as the pathos of his love is brougth out so beautifully by Mohammad Rafi's song in the background, one is left to wonder, especially in the last scene, with Khusro's verse being played, whether it was platonic love almost equalling to the divine love of the sufi for his Beloved....revealed on Ruth's face as she runs out of the Church calling out to Javed....

Nirvana said...

I hadnt thought of that angle when watching the final scenes. I think i need to revisit and maybe i can then answer ur comment better

gauri tiwari said...

It is one of my favourites. I have seen it a dozen times. I agree with you on every point. I was very impressed with the dialogues and the costumes. The dialogues written by the great Ismat Chugtai (who is originally from the area) had a robust local flavor to them, very fluid and effortless. I especially enjoyed Chachi's (Sushma Swaraj) slicing wit.

Nirvana said...

Thanks for your comment Gauri. Keep visiting and commenting.



gauri tiwari said...

Off the topic, but I was curious if you have seen 'khamosh pani' starring kiran kher. It is a Pakistani production about a Sikh woman who gets left behind in Pakistan. I would love to read your review. Thanks.

Nirvana said...

Hi Gauri,

I do have the DVD of 'Khamosh Pani' with me. However only later did i notice that the movie is in the Punjabi language and the DVD doesnt have subtitles. Since i dont understand the language, the DVD is lying unwatched. I'll make it a point to catch up on it sometime though. Dunno when :)

Warm Regards


gauri tiwari said...

gauri again. have you seen garam hawa starring balaraj sahni about a Muslim family in Agra post 1947. BTW I recommended your blog to my friends on FB.

Nirvana said...


Balraj Sahni is one actor i admire a lot. I had seem Garam Hawa in my teens (seems such a long time ago !), but now that you have reminded me of it, i need to watch it once more.

Thanks for your recommendation. Wish i could blog more regularly and more sincerely but unfortunately the Indian corporate life does not give me the leeway.

Keep commenting on what you liked and what you didnt.

Warm Regards


Murtaza Ali said...

Brilliant analysis! Junoon is a cinematic epic which serves as a powerful eye-opener for the contemporary Indian filmmakers who, blinded by the glitz and glamour of Bollywood, seem to lack both the ideas and the resolve needed to make great cinema.

Here's is the link to my review of Junoon: