Friday, May 11, 2018

Shoo, mosquitoes! On Hun Hunshi Hunshilal, a musical satire about hyper-nationalism

[Did this piece for Mint Lounge. Much obliged to Sayantan Mondal, who made this film available online]

With mosquito season underway, and given the nonchalance with which most of us are using creams, sprays and other repellents to stay dengue-free and undisturbed by buzzing sounds, my mind turns to the 1992 Gujarati film Hun Hunshi Hunshilal. Which is a musical about mosquitoes, and about people who want them destroyed.

That’s one way of describing it, anyway.

A plot summary would go something like this: in the land of Khojpuri, which resembles modern, democratic India but where the man in charge – played by Mohan Gokhale – is incongruously called a Raja (king), a massive pest-control drive is on. The film’s unlikely protagonist Hunshi (the deadpan Dilip Joshi) works long hours in a laboratory and comes up with an onion-based remedy to end the menace. But then he falls in love with his colleague Parveen (Renuka Shahane), who may be on the side of the “enemy” – she is concealing a diary with information about the mosquitoes’ whereabouts and activities.

Who are these mosquitoes? Sanjiv Shah’s film doesn’t clearly spell this out, though there are references to anti-dam activists and other such deshdrohis. The colour red is associated with the insects – “Macchar laal garam! Hatt!” (“Red-hot mosquitoes! Shoo!”) go the lyrics of one song – which might suggest this is a story about anti-Communist paranoia. But I think it’s more general than that: the “macchar” can be anyone or anything that makes people in power uncomfortable. As one conversation in the film suggests, they could be the sound of our conscience buzzing away in our heads, keeping us awake when all we really want to do is to turn our faces away and cherish our own privileges.

The regime’s methods of dealing with this problem are inventive, to say the least. In one surreal sequence, when the king launches a wholesale war on the colour red, his cronies go on a destructive spree and sing things like “Laal tamatar kuchal do.” (Crush all red tomatoes”.) Mosquitoes attack in the dark, the king observes during a press interaction. You’d think the logical solution would be to provide electricity everywhere? Oh no. “We will destroy all bastis and settlements where there is darkness,” he proclaims.

At this point, the tortoise symbol on a wall behind the Raja starts to make sense. One question implicit in Hun Hunshi Hunshilal is: when your national saviour is the tortoise coil (a reference to the much-used kachua-chaap of days past), could it mean that you’re slow and lumbering and going around in circles?

By now you would have figured that this film doesn’t set out to make its points subtly but through deliberate exaggeration – a mode that isn’t to all tastes, especially among viewers who fetishize “understated” cinema. But Hun Hunshi Hunshilal knows there are things worth getting very angry about, and that honestly expressing anger can involve being pedantic, using symbolism or over-the-top humour. Watching it, I was reminded of the many “parallel” films of the 70s and 80s – among them Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan and Party – that ended with persecuted characters looking accusingly at the camera, daring us to hold their gaze.

I was conflicted about the film for other reasons. It falls flat in places if you’re expecting it to be uproariously funny. There are a few slow-paced scenes and a few self-indulgent fillers. What does work consistently well, though, is its use of music. Rajat Dholakia’s many compositions range from full-fledged folk songs to parodies of Hindi-film music to a stray line or chorus that serves as commentary. Dialogues punctuate musical scenes rather than the other way round. Some of the more stirring scenes made me wish I understood the language so I could experience the words and music directly, instead of squinting at subtitles.

The narrative has traces of George Orwell’s 1984 (in the central character’s journey from being a cog in a totalitarian system to becoming a little more aware) and Ketan Mehta’s splendid Bhavni Bhavai, another Gujarati satire that made powerful use of music and had Mohan Gokhale in an important role (between the two films, from 1980 to 1992, he graduated from playing the oppressed to the oppressor!). But Hun Hunshi Hunshilal is ultimately a one-of-its-kind work. Though its low budget is evident, there are some wonderfully realized moments: the song “Hawa hai”, with its 360-degree pan across the skyline of a city “made of
air and illusion” as Hunshi himself seems to adopt a mosquito's vantage point; a scene, chillingly framed to resemble a firing-squad execution, where mosquito figurines are shot at. There are little digs at popular cinema and at the idea of the larger-than-life hero (“Mard ko dard nahin hota,” Hunshi says after being roughed up by the diary-seeking goons; a particularly funny lyric goes “Here come the movies, with the actor too tall and the screen too short”). And there is plenty of goofiness, including some moments that could be random asides or brilliant inspirations or a mix of both: watch the scene that begins with Hunshi dropping one of his beakers at the sight of the heroine, then droning “Saare jahaan se acccha” before singing a version of the classic song “Jaane kahaan mera jigar gaya ji”.

The art design is very funny too, with images of giant mosquitoes, including a poster of one being crushed underfoot by a Hanuman-like deity, and vivid use is made of colour – as in the scene where Hunshi seems to be surrounded by red things, including a red-beaked parrot that tells fortunes. “Abhi abhi toh laal hua tu” (“You have only just become red”) an astrologer tells him.

But my lasting impression is of the clever wordplay that includes digs at ultra-nationalistic fervor – something that is as relevant today as it ever was. In one scene, the words “kshay ho” (let there be destruction) replace the traditional “Jai ho” and there is something scarily immediate about this chant which links nationalism with decay. The film satirizes the idea that once a specific enemy has been identified and vanquished, prosperity will return for good. “When all the mosquitoes have been killed, whom will the government target next?” a reporter asks in one scene. “Good question,” the king replies. “Ha ha. Good question.” And that’s all he says. The thought is left hanging, and buzzing, in the air.

[A post about Ketan Mehta's Bhavni Bhavai is here]

1 comment:

  1. The idea of nationalism and nation state is actually a "liberal" idea. Worth reminding ourselves of that.

    For most of human history, we had empires. Not nation states. We had the Roman Empire, the Ottomon Empire, the Maurya Empire, the Gupta Empire, the Han dynasty, the Ming dynasty, the Mughals, the British Empire, the Chola Empire.

    These were against nationalisms. These were imperialist. Globalist in one way. Not democratic.

    The idea of a nation state, where the basis for the nation state formation is either an ethnic, religious or lingual identity - or some combination of all, is a modern European idea.

    Before 1500, Europe had no nationalism. We had a Holy Roman Empire. We had a Catholic Church. These were against "nationalisms". It was nationalism and the emergence of "nation states" that put an end to these "universalist" institutions. This giving rise to the modern world.

    The history of modernity is the history of nationalism. And nation states.