Junoon as Rebellion and Defeat (Benegal's Junoon, Ratnam's Dil Se, Visconti's Senso) PART I

Junoon January . . .  where we look at magnificent (romantic) obsessions from around the world: asking why they work (or why they don't), if we believe the passion onscreen, and what these films may be trying to tell us. 

What are we watching? International or interpersonal conflict? 

There's something about a war of rebellion against an occupying nation that seems to lend itself to stories of junoon. All three of the films discussed here take place during an anti-occupation conflict. Senso (Italy, 1954) is the story of a countess who falls in love with a Austro-Hungarian officer during the Italian war of independence; Junoon (Mumbai, 1978), is set in India during the revolt of 1957, and depicts the passions of a Nawab for an Anglo-Indian woman under his protection; and Dil Se (Mumbai, 1998) is (obviously) a fictional account of a Kashmiri rebel and the journalist who's obsession with her may undermine her commitment to her terrorist cell. 

"The first implication of such an attitude is that the genuine man will not agree to 
recognize any foreign absolute."
~Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity

Senso (1954)

My guess is that A LOT of films and fiction have followed the passion between two people on opposing sides of a rebel/national conflict. Shades of Romeo and Juliet, you know? Two people unable to be together because of lines on a map or longstanding clan hostility . . . it's a story we've been told over and over. A wartime setting is often just an extension of this trope . . . but the films mentioned here differ, I think, in their psychological arc and social message. 

And a romance is only a romance. But an obsession, on the other hand . . . (Dil Se, 1998)

Instead of being about star-crossed love, these films are about the politics of ownership and possession, played out in mirroring conflicts between lovers and political entities. As such, their final message is not that of Romeo and Juliet. We aren't told by the Greek Chorus that if we had just managed to get along, the deaths of innocents would not be on our conscience. We aren't given hope for a brighter future that will supplant the tragedy we have seen. We aren't really left with anything of substance . . . just exhaustion and rubble and defeat. Yet, we're not bored. In fact, we might have a few more thoughts rattling around inside than before. 

Jhoot! War made her all needs and no love. (Gone With the Wind, 1939)
Speaking of boredom, I don't know about you, but if you feed me a straight-up wartime/rebellion story with the elements and effects I just mentioned, I wouldn't necessarily care to engage with it. Metaphor is just usually more powerful than fact. For example, while a historical drama like Gettysburg (1993) undoubtedly makes for an affecting viewing experience (and because of my family's one time obsession I've probably had that experience at least half a dozen times), it loses some of it's power for me because it says what it means rather than hints at what it means. I've may have only seen the sweeping melodrama Gone With the Wind (1939) a meager 2 or 3 times all the way through. Yet, I'll give you one guess as to which of the two stories set in the civil war has continued to remain with me . . . yep . . . the latter. That one with the love/hate relationship between a narcissistic aristocrat with a knack for survival, and a gambler with a heart of gold. (Sorry, Gettysburg.) 

But stories about soldiers readily lend themselves to black and white narratives. (It's only in recent years that this trend has begun to diminish . . . most recently with fare like The Hurt Locker.) In classic storytelling tradition, if you want to see honor and nobility . . .  go ahead and look to the battlefield. But if you want to showcase the ethics and ambiguity of survival, spend some time with people trying to eke out a living from a burnt cornfield. And if you want to see the psychology behind the ongoing conflict (not just the conflict itself), follow the people not in the trenches . . . the guerrillas or the war profiteers or the politicians or the people stuck at home trying to survive. Or even better . . . those of questionable sanity and ethics who happen to fall in-obsession in the midst of the bombs. 

Aamir's terrorist in Fanaa (2006) seems to be experiencing ethical gray areas as he tries to reconcile passion for a woman with loyalty towards a country. *Seems.* This is one of my favorite romantic melodramas, but, I can't say that it's especially nebulous or metaphorical in its message. Sure, it's about terrorism, and passion, and divided loyalties, but there's not nearly enough insanity or ambiguity in the love story (apart from the usual masala tropes) to make it an apt metaphor for territorial disputes or cultural conflict. It's a  mostly black and white narrative masquerading as an ethical question-mark. Dil Se, on the other hand, doesn't tell you what to think as much as what to feel. 

The white, the black, the gray, Dil Se has it all. 

Walking that gray line in a junoon story sets the scene for the thematic punch down the line. In a story, you can say things about politics through these means that you could never get away with in a speech. Nobody can point fingers at a good metaphor. Worst case scenario, you just deny that your symbols were actually symbols and you get off scot-free. 

So, what "might" these films be saying hinting at? Both about interpersonal and inter-territorial conflict? 

Dil Se (1998)

“I should like to be the landscape which I am contemplating, I should like this sky, this quiet water to think themselves within me, that it might be I whom they express in flesh and bone, and I remain at a distance. But it is also by this distance that the sky and the water exist before me. My contemplation is an excruciation only because it is also a joy. I can not appropriate the snow field where i slide. It remains foreign, forbidden, but I take delight in this very effort toward an impossible possession. I experience it as a triumph, not as a defeat.” 

I'll start with Dil Se, since everybody and their mother seems to have seen it. And if you haven't seen it, you might have danced to it at your prom (I ran into several non-Bolly watchers recently who recognized the keening rhythms of Chaiyya Chaiyya because it played at their high school dances . . . in suburban Minnesota, no less).

*Spoilers ahead*

If the Romeo and Juliet tale is moralistic, Dil Se is humanistic. There is little moral superstructure or ethical voice here, and you have no choice but to be sucked into the messy personal motivations of the protagonists and pretend you don't need a dose of filmi moral oxygen for three hours.

Out of the two main characters, one is a demanding, half-mad stalker/journalist (SRK) . . .  and the other a withdrawn Kashmiri terrorist with a history of PTSD (Manisha Koirala). They spend most of the film in heaving breaths and at weirdly physical odds, always suspended between fighting and f--king. He cannot stop harassing her. She cannot let herself admit that she wants to be with him. He is loyal to himself (the individual), she is loyal to her terrorist cell (the community). He wants immediate satisfaction, she is betting her life on a future she won't live to see. She is unpredictable, he is dangerous (or is it the other way around?) Neither is exactly a role model. The film marches forward inexorably and eloquently, an often jarring chronicle of their ever heightening, incredibly focused, and increasingly opposite paths; as their obsessions speed up to match the ticking terrorist clock.

Even if you're just going by that synopsis, it's easy to see these two as as stand-ins for their respective cultural issues: Kashmir as the icy and removed heroine, India as her intrusive would-be possessor. And by saying that I know I'm not saying anything new. But if that is the metaphor, what's the message? Are we supposed to take one side over the other? Are we supposed to see their obsession as positive or negative? Were they defeated? Or did they win somehow in the end? It's also important to ask . . .  is Meghna actually obsessed at all? Or is this really just a tale of an obsessed creeper who stalked a terrorist and got blown up?

Is she clinging to Amar as a last link to the normal life she won't have? Is she even able to feel the normal spectrum of emotion, or is she like Scarlett, warped by war and the demands of survival? Would she choose Amar if she wasn't already promised to her mission?

It's pretty clear from the story that . . . 
(A) Meghna is not as visibly obsessive in the realistic parts of the narrative, but she is far more emotive in Amar's presence than when with her cohorts
(B) Amar is probably the first person who gave her a reason to live, rather than a reason to die--who saw meaning in her as a person, not as live ammunition--for a long time
(C) She doesn't choose to live with him, but she does choose to die with him, which has to count for something

Meghna may not be as in-junoon as Amar, but, then, her heart is not free. (And if there's anything we know about the Indian woman, she only falls in love once, lol).) She is married to death, so how can she be as obsessed as Amar is with the possibility of a life together? As for him, he doesn't want to live without her. So it seems convenient, even inevitable, for them to end the way they do, engulfed in the same flame. When I first saw the film, I guessed the ending about halfway through. There just didn't seem to be any other way for it to end. 

Yet, I don't think that this necessarily confirms fatalism in regards to the characters' path within the story, but rather fatalism in the march of the narrative itself. It is how we interact with our sense of that overarching narrative, how we expect familiar archetypes to arrange themselves on a new canvas into something recognizable, that makes the ending feel so inevitable. 

In one reading, we could point fingers at faults in character's meta-narrative of junoon itself. We could say that Meghna believes in a fatalistic arc of sacrifice for people in country to the same fanatic degree that Amar believes in all-consuming filmi-esque/sufi-esque passion. We could say that it was this very belief in the inevitable result of their passion--in the belief that their personal jealous gods would suffer no other idols on pain of death--that leads them to their doom. A self-fulfilling (doomsday) prophecy. We could even extract some political meaning from that reading if we wanted. It sounds nice enough. 

But then again, perhaps, they actually escaped their meta-narratives in the end. Perhaps their "ending" itself was not out of their control at all. In fact, maybe their final choice is the first time either made a truly controlled choice throughout the film. Maybe it was the first time they escaped from their own personal prison of junoon, even though it may have looked like the opposite. 

If that's the case, not only was it their first act of will, but their first act of interpersonal compromise. . .  which would be significant symbolically on both interpersonal and international levels. And in doing so, in compromising, they may have finally found a way to reconcile their conflicting drives: to exert their own individual freedom (in making a final, suicidal choice) and their desire to possess and/or be possessed simultaneously. 

"But revolt, insofar as it is pure negative movement, remains abstract. It is fulfilled as freedom only by returning to the positive, that is, by giving itself a content through action, escape, political struggle, revolution. .... There are limited situations where this return to the positive is impossible, where the future is radically blocked off. Revolt can then be achieved only in the definitive rejection of the imposed situation, in suicide."
~Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity 

Or one could just say that they gave into love over violence. Tomato, tomaahhto. 


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