Review: Junun

Vaishak Kumar - October 27, 2015

      Paul Thomas Anderson's Junun is currently streaming on MUBI until November 9th.

      From beginning to end, every second of Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest offering Junun is spectacular. The trouble came after that; for someone who loves to talk about the movies that I’ve watched, it seems almost impossible to describe Junun without selling the movie short. Is it a music documentary? Is it an extended music video? Is it one big advertisement? Junun is all of these things, yet none of them - and therein lays its beauty.

      Shye Ben Tzur, an Israeli musician, and Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead’s lead guitarist (who also scored the last three Anderson films), headed down to Jodhpur in North-West India where they transformed a part of Mehrangarh Fort, one of India’s largest, into a recording studio and brought in local musicians to collaborate on an album. Junun, the name of the album that came out of this experiment, draws heavily from the Qawwali style created by Sufi saints in India, blending traditional Indian music with Arabic, Persian and Turkish influences. The film likewise attempts to capture this wonderful confluence of people, cultures, and talents.

      As such, the film wastes no time in introducing us to its subjects, their music, and the underlying cultural environment that guides them. In the very first shot, we see musicians waiting for a few members to finish their afternoon prayers; once they’re back, they begin a power-infused recording session: the studio, a meticulously converted palatial room, comes alive with a symphony of instruments that range from electric guitars to brass trumpets to Indian kettledrums. The upbeat music, which stands in marked contrast to prayer calls, sets the tone for a nearly six minute revolving camera shot that studies every musician in the room. Near the end of the this shot Shye Ben Tzur, donning a traditional Indian kurta and a flowing mane, firmly embodies the mood of the film, swaying his body in a fit of euphoria and chanting “Ya Ali!” with the Qawwali singers.

      Anderson puts no emphasis whatsoever on international stars Tzur and Greenwood. Instead he focuses on the Indian artists who steal the show with their innocence, affability and, most importantly, talent. In short and snappy interview clips, usually limited to one question each, we get glimpses into the lives of these musicians: one whose family members have been playing a rare string instrument for sevens generations; another a couple belonging to a caste that worships both Hindu Gods and the Muslim one. Subtly, Anderson shows us that Junun is not just a collaboration between a group of musicians but a veritable fusion of global cultures.

      Technically, this is one of Anderson’s most experimental works. He does conform to contemporary norms of documentary cinematography with his use of stationary cameras that occasionally move in jerks. However, he does have some new tricks up his sleeve. Junun features some of the greatest shots from a drone camera that I have ever seen in film. The drone hovers around the studio room and at some of the most opportune moments flies out the window to show us magnificent surroundings of the Fort. It mimics the whimsical flight of the mind that the great Sufi saints were said to have achieved through their meditation, poetry and music. The film succeeds in giving the audience a sense of being present in the studio-space through creative uses of sound design. When the camera moves around to give us a different view, the sound dynamics also change accordingly which adds an enriching element of detail to the re-construction of the space on film.

      The artistic process is just as, if not more, important as the final product. In the case of Junun, this process is intrinsically tied to the environment where it happens. Anderson makes it a point to show us the brilliant colors, buildings and people of Rajasthan. The Mehrangarh Fort (where most of the film was shot) harkens back to the days of the Maharajas, evoking a sense of the grandeur of days past. When the music gets pumping, no time is lost in showing the vivacity and excitement that pervades the streets of Jodhpur. In a segment that doubles as the official trailer for the album, Anderson uses images of hand-cycles, loitering cows, and chaotic streets to show the singular way in which India brings together the ancient and the modern, the surrealism that is the very reality of India. It is apparent that Anderson has a deep respect for this country that has served as muse to some of the greatest cinematic minds of our times - Jean Renoir, Roberto Rossellini, Wes Anderson, Richard Attenborough, David Lean and Danny Boyle to name a few.

      Running at a mere 54 minutes, the film lies in the limbo between short and feature films. The beauty of online streaming sites such as MUBI, the platform that Junun was exclusively released on, is that unlike traditional distribution forms they provide a great environment for films of all lengths. The medium has forever changed - Anderson is wise in sensing that and embracing it wholeheartedly. His last three films might have been period pieces, but Anderson has clearly shown that he is just as adept at the frontier of the art-form with Junun. This film is truly Anderson’s Junun - the madness that comes with love - for music, film and the world.