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.