Junoon (The One with the Were-Tiger)

The title Junoon—”obsession”—can refer to a passionate, elegant 1970s film about India’s 1857 rebellion against British rule, starring an internationally famous cast under one of Hindi cinema’s most highly regarded directors. Or it can refer to a 1992 creature-ish feature about the deranged spirit of a jungle cat who turns its victims into a were-tiger who attacks people under every full moon. You can probably guess which one I’m going to tell you about in this post. 

Director Mahesh Bhatt is unusual in Hindi cinema for being a mainstream, A-list director/producer/writer who has worked repeatedly in horror and thrillers. (He has made plenty of romances, crime and autobiographical dramas, and action stories too.) You will recognize much of the plot of this particular horror film from An American Werewolf in London with a few Bollywood additions, including, but not limited to, a love triangle and song sequences. Join me in a trek through this unexpectedly effective adaptation.

In Junoon, a wolf in the English moors becomes a tiger in the forests near Bombay, with the help of a narrative setup that is familiar to fans of Indian snake films, where the murder of one of a bonded pair of animals is frequently avenged by its mate (see my discussion of Nagin here on the Gutter, for example). One full moon night, two young men out on rural pursuits immediately encounter local villagers, who warn them that the vicious spirit of a tiger is the only one allowed to hunt in these conditions. The lead, Vicky (Rahul Roy, a frequent Bhatt star), is arrogant and obnoxious and refuses to believe the warning. He bullies his friend Arun (Bhushan Patel) into setting off into a curiously dry and well-lit cave. Arun discovers a medieval Sanskrit carving that tells of a king who killed the male in a mating pair of tigers in a misguided attempt to secure himself an heir—and because I have been reading a book about death in European royal courts and because doctors in the 1500s did not know certain key components of reproductive science, I thought “Oh, Henry VIII totally would.” The furious tigress cursed the king by turning him into a tiger. The spirit of the king-tiger still wanders this area during full moons, and any hunter who kills him will be cursed with the same fate, also becoming a were-tiger. For what it’s worth, I would also absolutely watch a movie about Elizabeth Rex, Were-Tigress, even if it didn’t star Cate Blanchett.

The current embodiment of the cursed spirit is, of course, prowling around just outside the cave. The camera switches to its POV, and with that, poor sensible Arun is immediately dispatched. Vicky tries to shoot the tiger, and it retaliates with ferocity. A wounded Vicky crawls from the cave, and the villagers, who know what fate awaits him, attack him before he can transform into the cat. Fortunately for the sake of the film having a longer story for us to watch, the local forest ranger Bhaskar (Homi Wadia) interrupts and rushes Vicky to a hospital. In the city, the police also begin asking questions about Arun, but of course they do not believe Bhaskar’s tale. 

Determined to figure things out, Bhaskar seeks the help of another man who lives in the forest, Harry, who shares a centuries-old book that confirms the tale inscribed on the cave wall. If there’s one thing we know in 2021, it’s that if something is in print, it must be true, but we’ll have to stay tuned to find out if Bhaskar will learn this lesson as well. The best thing about Harry, a sort of kooky avuncular character, is that he is played by Hindi cinema’s best caucasian actor of all time, the American-Indian Tom Alter, who was born and raised in India and is known for his excellent spoken Hindi. 

Before I get too far ahead of myself, let me introduce you to the love triangle! One of the doctors treating Vicky is Neeta (Pooja “director’s daughter” Bhatt), who herself is in a frustrating relationship with wannabe film composer Ravi (Avinash Wadhawan). It’s interesting that the Hindi version of this film gave Neeta a higher profile job than not only her love interest, but also the nurse in An American Werewolf. I can think of very few women doctors in Hindi films, and it puts our romantic lead in the equal intellectual company with the “men of science” who also treat Vicky. Neeta and Ravi have some cute songs together, but her mother does not approve because of Ravi’s shaky job prospects.

Back at the hospital, during operation on Vicky, the bleep-blooping machines flatline, and Neeta says to send the body to the morgue. But we see an eerie red light beam directly into Vicky’s heart as he thrashes on the bed!

The doctors rush back in and marvel at a dead man returning to life. Vicky continues to have flashbacks of the tiger, and one wakeful night investigates footsteps outside his door, only to find Arun! In the only moment of the film in which I agree with his choices, Vicky is confused and exclaims “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be dead!” Arun explains that Vicky is no longer really himself and that the only right course of action is to jump out the window in order to save lives. Even people more decent than Vicky—an admittedly low bar—would probably balk at this suggestion, and Vicky shouts that he’d rather live as a demon than kill himself. 

The medical staff continue to worry about him, and Neeta is put on 48-hour watch duty. This…seems like a bad idea, even if just for labor rights issues, especially when Vicky warms to her presence and voice-overs that the innocent Neeta will be his first prey. And sure enough, once she’s finally back in her parents’ home, Neeta has a nightmare about someone entering their house. The camera pans away to show blood streaked on the wall! 

The next morning, Ravi appears with good news: he finally has a job, so they celebrate with another song sequence full of really wonderful 90s clothes. The song ends with a visit to a zoo, which goes better than the zoo scene in An American Werewolf, but still foreshadows, as growls emerge from the tiger enclosure. When Neeta returns home, Vicky is in her house and ominous synthesizers reinforce my opinion that this, too, is bad. He goes on and on about what a miracle it is that she could cure him, and he presents her with an absolutely enormous necklace…and a marriage proposal! Her mother is delighted (apparently Vicky is rich? I have no idea where his money comes from, but it doesn’t matter). 

Neeta correctly freaks out, goes to Ravi’s apartment, and tells him they need to get married pronto. Ravi worries that he has neither enough money nor a home for them to live in—a shockingly reasonable response, frankly, though it does indicate that Ravi might not know what kind of movie he’s in, and that he also might not remember that his to-be wife IS A DOCTOR. Ravi’s comedy relief roommate comes up with a ridiculous plan to get them married tomorrow, but unfortunately Vicky is lurking outside and hears the whole thing. The next day, his meddling leaves Neeta stranded with no idea where Ravi is, which is all the news her mother needs to hear to gloat about this evidence that Ravi is a good-for-nothing and Neeta really ought to marry Vicky. Which she does, because…??? At Neeta and Vicky’s engagement party, Ravi bursts in and sings drunkenly about how he still  remains faithful to her. 

“Ok, ok, poor Ravi,” you’re thinking “but WHAT ABOUT THE WERE-TIGER? I WAS PROMISED A WERE-TIGER!” And I hear you! At the fancy hotel Neeta and Vicky go to for their honeymoon, Vicky is suddenly stricken with convulsions! He excuses himself, saying he’s having trouble breathing. It’s unclear to me whether Vicky knows what’s happening to him and is lying to Neeta convincingly to protect her (which, come on, it’s Vicky, he cares only about himself) OR if he’s deliberately prolonging her misery, the were-tiger issues as mere extensions of his baseline asshole human personality. This tension is lost in the shuffle of the admittedly DELIGHTFUL transformation and hunting sequences. Vicky stumbles out of the hotel, and suddenly fangs appear! His palms bulge like paw pads, his ears become pointy, whiskers grow, and stripes appear.

These are all revealed in close-ups, and I find it very effective…until the camera backs up to show his whole face, which looks very human-in-a-tiger-suit and more pitiably cuddly than fierce.

Fortunately, footage of an actual tiger walking through the hotel is added in. As Neeta looks for Vicky in the hotel, the tiger paces towards an outdoor swimming pool, complete with the tiger POV camera angle from the forest, and we know the young woman enjoying a nighttime swim is not long for this world. 

The next morning, the janitor finds the corpse by the pool, and we see bloody tiger paw prints leading to Vicky passed out on the floor. He wakes, examines himself in a mirror, and PICKS REMNANTS OF HUMAN OUT OF HIS TEETH! This is a gruesome touch that I absolutely love and that the actor relishes. Cackling, he says  “Accursed man. This is your life. This will be your obsession!” 

Meanwhile, Ravi and his roommate realize that all their miseries, including the injuries Vicky delivered as he interfered with the elopement plan a few days prior, cannot be coincidences. Sad but still not wanting to let go of Neeta, Ravi takes a recording of his first successful film composition to her house, and they begin to reconnect as they remember their better times. 

Ranger Bhaskar arrives at Neeta’s house and tells her the whole story of Vicky and Arun in the forest; she is skeptical, and he admits he didn’t believe it either until he read Harry’s book. He reminds her that a woman was brutally attacked in the hotel at the same time her husband went missing, which is not what she wants to hear. She goes to Vicky’s house to wait for him, but he’s out at a club, macking on a stranger he dances with, and his face contorts once again. 

I like this layering of standard-issue nighbclub stranger-danger with the were-tiger complications. Again it’s hard to tell which aspects of Vicky’s actions are his own sleazeball self and which are the beast. As he leads her into a secluded area, she hears tiger growls and thinks they’re playing a naughty game. GURL NO. Blood splatter. 

Ranger Bhaskar talks to the club manager the next day and insists the police arrest Vicky, but they still don’t believe him. Neither does Neeta, despite the repeated coinciding of his unexplained absence with the discovery of a corpse. As Neeta tries to reconcile what’s happening, she makes use of another Bollywood favorite ingredient: the seduction song.

She lights candles and dances and sings to Vicky in the darkened house as the clock nears midnight again. This song is also effective at again raising the question of what the characters know and what they suspect: does Neeta finally believe Bhaskar and is trying to lure Vicky into some kind of trap, or is she making a last-ditch attempt to keep him from straying at night to frolic with other women? Or maybe both? She looks genuinely shocked as he growls and begins to transform at the end of the song. Just as she locks him in the bedroom, Bhaskar arrives with Ravi and one of the forest villagers. They wisely surround themselves with a ring of fire, which the tiger cannot cross. Watch the transformation sequence below (spoiler warning: the very end of this clip shows the were-tiger’s next victim).

From here, the plot focuses only on the were-tiger’s attacks and all the other characters trying to catch him. I won’t tell you who is dispatched how and when, but I will tell you that the final sequence of the film hinges on special knowledge from Harry’s old book, a double-cross, and an ancient temple full of creepy carvings, a waterfall, and a wall covered in daggers. This temple set is really quite something, and I wish they’d found a way to spend more time in it. 

Like the initial setup of the myth of the unjustly killed tiger centuries ago, the denouement also builds efficiently on tropes common in mainstream Hindi films: oversight of the proceedings by a Hindu deity represented by a large statue in a temple, an unambiguous ending, a righteous victor. Yet throughout, the film also makes some interesting turns away from typical  elements. 

In addition to being a genuinely entertaining thriller, Junoon creates some questions I was not expecting. Instead of valorizing the police or scientists, it quietly praises traditional knowledge and lived experiences. These are expressed mostly through the forest-dwellers and their spokesperson Bhima (Mushtaq Khan), who travels to the city to continue to warn Bhaskar and to try to dispatch Vicky himself. The information Bhima communicates is further validated by the the old book Harry shares with Bhaskar, which is repeatedly described as having been “written by an Englishman,” which…makes it pedigreed or intellectually sound, I guess? Myth and legend are ultimately more important and more helpful than the modern, urban systems of medicine and law, and it’s interesting that this wisdom is assigned to both a presumably uneducated rural bumpkin and to a white elder. Bhaskar in particular has to mediate between these two worlds; he lives in the forest but also represents formal governmental authority, and he spends a lot of energy reconciling all the information he gathers. By the end of the film, Bhima and Harry are proven correct, but Bhima is also made a little more complicated than a sort of flatly noble savage type (I won’t spoil this interesting turn for you). 

I also found myself wondering how the film judges Vicky: does the curse find its way to him because he is such a jerk? Certainly, if he had not insisted on going hunting after being warned not to in the opening scene, none of this would have happened. But did he deserve the horrors of being contorted into a blood-thirsty beast? Is he innocent? Or simply convenient? 

Most striking to me was that the film gives us time to wonder whether Ravi or Vicky will emerge as the romantic hero. Ravi benefits from being Neeta’s first love, but he is not of her social class and has failed to impress her mother. Vicky is rich enough and actually marries Neeta, but even putting were-tiger-possession aside, he’s a consistently horrible person. I didn’t know whether the script would redeem him; if maybe a distraught but good-hearted Ravi would sacrifice himself for Neeta and Vicky’s apparently formally sanctioned relationship; if both men would succumb to the were-tiger curse; or something else altogether. 

I first learned about Junoon from friends on Twitter, who were eager for me to see Rahul Roy’s performance of the were-tiger transformation and prowling. They were not wrong, because those are some of the film’s most enjoyable moments for Cultural Gutter-minded people, and the film is worth watching just for them, but I am genuinely impressed by its clever blending of An American Werewolf with Bollywood conventions and subtly raising points about the value of different ways of knowing and about human nature. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it fully. 🐅 

Junoon is available with English subtitles to rent or purchase on Youtube

Beth Watkins recommends against marrying Vicky.

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