Nathu Lal Solanki lies down on the floor, arms and legs outstretched, head on a pillow, while a pigeon coos at the back. Jonny Greenwood and Shye Ben Tzur are working out some guitar parts on the side. The voice behind the camera, possibly Paul Thomas Anderson’s, asks Nathu Lal why they’re not working. The band is taking a break; they can’t rehearse because the electricity has gone inside the Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur, Rajasthan. “India has failed,” says Nathu Lal. “Like we say always: No toilet, no shower, but full power, 24 hour. But today is no power.”
It’s one of a handful of such setpieces on Junun, Anderson’s new documentary — a gorgeous vignette of the creative process that went behind the recording of Junun. In February this year, Israeli singer, poet, multi-instrumentalist and composer Shye Ben Tzur worked on a collaboration with Jonny Greenwood, Radiohead’s guitar player (and a frequent collaborator with Anderson). They got together for three weeks, living at the fort and setting up a makeshift studio there, rehearsing and recording the album with 18 Rajasthani folk musicians. Nigel Godrich, who has produced most of Radiohead’s timeless records, served as producer, with Anderson joining them to capture the process on film (well… memory card).
On some kind of a spiritual level, the film has a stunning authority to it, to the point where it can legitimately affect how you perceive music, art, and creation. It’s a eulogy, absolute in its design, to Music. Anderson foregoes traditional modes of documentary filmmaking, providing only an elementary context and eschewing any sense of narrative, and the film acts as a deferential fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the madness, the euphoria, the junun — unqualified devotion — that the process commands. Junun is 54 minutes of intimate, ponderous, stilted — meandering, even — sequences of the artists rehearsing and recording, discussing arrangements and ideas; sketching, sharing and absorbing inspiration, and simply playing music: an unintrusive handheld camera, distant and shuffling, searches for an accurate visual transposition of that emotional weight that accompanies creation (these are all abstract concepts almost impossible to get on film, let alone describe
The absence of structure, of talking heads (mostly), of any sort of exposition — even the conversations between the musicians are brief and fleeting — is replaced immediately with the music; a memorable bit shows singer Afshana Khan and Razia Sultan struggling just a little with the phonetics of the lyrics to a song, only for the viewer to soon realise they’re singing in a language they don’t even speak. Anderson places a surreal sense of movement delicately through stunning high-definition departures into the city, contrasting the serenity of the art with the buzz of narrow bylanes, auto-rickshaw rides, Shanta Musical and attar shops, yet never quite giving in to the temptations of poverty porn.
On some kind of a spiritual level, the film has a stunning authority, to the point where it can legitimately affect how you perceive music, art, and creation. It’s a eulogy, absolute in its design, to Music. Anderson foregoes traditional modes of documentary filmmaking, providing only an elementary context, and the film acts as a deferential fly-on-the-wall glimpse into the madness, the euphoria, the junun — the unqualified devotion — that the process commands.
This uneditorialised visual vocabulary at use allows viewers to internalise the narrative, to superimpose their own fancies on to the proceedings for an emotional watching experience. Junun is spilling over with small, momentary reflections that add considerable meaning and heft. Aamir Bhiyani, gifted trumpeter and leader of the horns section, is visibly overwhelmed after he finishes recording an intense solo section. A few seconds of silence, out of respect and awe, are followed by Godrich letting out a handful of claps, almost involuntarily, after which the entire room breaks out into genuine applause. A small prayer ceremony accompanied by incense sticks is explained by the musician with an irresistible and central religious tolerance. The majesty of the fort — brought out beautifully by Anderson, although it’d probably be harder not to — serves not just as backdrop but also a channel accentuating the gravity of the music.
The highlight here, though, has to be the long sequence that acts as a kind of centrepiece to the film. It builds up gracefully as the musicians begin a composition that starts off with a triumphant guitar line accompanied by percussions, and horns gently intrude at elusive intervals. Anderson shifts the perspective on to Latif Qureshi, the young man describing his relationship with the kites that he feeds regularly. He’s at a terrace on the fort, talking about his relationship with the kites — he’s not dangerous to them; they’re not dangerous to him — set against the spectacular azure imprint of the old city of Jodhpur. The music builds up in volume and intensity, and the scene opens up as hundreds (or thousands) of kites and eagles float and hover around the terrace, Latif tossing raw meat into the sky for them to swoop and grab, peaking with a exultant vocal flourish. It’s a reminder, if one were needed, that Anderson is a master at employing musical devices to sprinkle wordless soul on to a visual setpiece.
And it might seem a tad surprising for the average viewer, but the film doesn’t place extra emphasis on the presence of Jonny Greenwood or Nigel Godrich, given their international distinction (and saleability too?) — in fact, a large chunk of the sequences see Greenwood hunched over his guitar in a corner or messing around with electronic sounds on his Macbook, very much a part of the setup, not the face of it. Ben Tzur naturally gets a little more attention, seeing as he’s the composer of the music we hear as well as sort of the conductor, the director, but again, Anderson does a splendid job in underlining the importance of all the artists involved, and not just the ones that the general audience might be interested in at the cost of the others; and the sense of respect, encouragement, and reverence the musicians have for each other seems to shine through.
Returning to the mysterious power the film holds, and how, as I’d mentioned earlier, it has the potential to significantly alter certain constructs that exist around music for most people — constructs that often define the very experience of consuming music: Watching the artists interact in a secure space devoid of any external, egoistical rationalisations or structural restrictions is liberating. The concept of attention and limelight is altogether absent. The default state of the camera, by its very definition, is invasive, leading to staging of emotions even if subconscious. But, witnessing the 20 or so artists so completely at ease with themselves and each other, displaying a mercurial sort of devotion and immersion into the music, it really doesn’t seem the case here in any way. It’s not an adversarial process but a communal one — one where respect is almost present uniformly. Each individual has a defined role that they not only understand but embrace wholeheartedly; watching Aamir Bhiyani goofily bob his head from side to side in support of the singers during a rehearsal makes you realise how completely the artists are absorbed in the process. At the core of it, the music we hear is joyous, enthusiastic, and celebratory, driven by spiking horns sections, euphoric vocal sections sung, often screamed out, in Hindi, Urdu, and Hebrew, and pulsating percussions. It’s child-like in spirit, like a toddler banging a toy hammer against the table: free, uninhibited, exhilarating. Nathu Lal, a maestro of the nagara, a percussion instrument, may have got on in years — his imperious moustache almost entirely soaked in whites and greys — but identifying him by his age would really be a grave disservice. Nathu Lal’s glee and exuberance as he absolutely pummels his instruments, his knowing nods, and his expressions of awe and transitory contentment upon completion of moving passages, are, in a nutshell, a microcosm of the film, the recurring birds, and the whole process itself: It’s young and free.
Junun is available for streaming at MUBI.com and will be screened at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, which starts on 29 October.