Amrit Gangar writes: A Mosquito Story of Khojpuri
French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard (still active at 92) once said that we make a political film or we do it politically. Sanjiv Shah’s remarkable film Hun Hunshi Hunshilal, made “politically” in 1992, turns 30 in 2022. Since then, India as a nation has seen many revolutionary political transformations. Thirty years ago, in an article, I wrote about the film: “A non-linear narrative full of crazy twists and every form of music and quick wit, Hun Hunshi Hunshilal is an allegory about politics present day of domination, power and repression. .” This “today” of then is also “today” of now. History is a reptile that slips through time, never in a straight line.
The young Rajat Dholakia composed his 40 songs (long and short, Gujarati and Hindustani) brilliantly written by Paresh Naik who had also written the film’s original story, screenplay and dialogues which saw many spontaneous improvisations. Naik shows a remarkable talent for giving poetic cadence to banal prose. The film has over 20 playback singers including Naseeruddin Shah and Raghubir Yadav. In his orchestration, Dholakia uses only percussion instruments such as dholak and tabla and no other string or wind instruments, which is remarkable. The film had a low budget – the National Film Development Corporation had loaned the director Rs 10.75 lakh plus one lakh for post-production – and was originally shot on 16mm by Navroze Contractor. It was enlarged to 35mm for commercial release, but it never got any, except for its airing on Doordarshan.
The metaphorical “mosquito” of malaria is the de facto hero of the story, as he hovers around the kingdom of Khojpuri, whose ruler Bhadrabhoop II (Mohan Gokhale) is annoyed by race (representing the struggling middle and lower classes and in question). In the small village of Doongri, Hunshi (Dilip Joshi) was born to a charlatan. After growing up, he adopts the most respectable nickname, Hunshilal, and moves to Khojpuri to work at the Queen’s Lab, which aims to eradicate the “mosquito” problem. There, he falls in love with fellow scientist Parveen (Renuka Shahane). Here the film acquires its English title, Love in the Time of Malaria, echoing Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera. Starring Parveen, who is in possession of the “Red Journal” which contains the archives of all the “mosquitoes” in the kingdom, Hunshi’s life is in danger, as the two are constantly threatened by the despotic king’s henchmen.
All science and technology, all war machines and the power of good citizens are engaged to combat the threat of “mosquitoes”. A state of emergency is declared and the alleged victims are identified and eliminated. Campaigns are launched to re-educate people to immunize their minds. Movies, books, newspapers and billboards join in the praise of the new symbol of Khojpuri’s answer to mosquitoes – the turtle. It is the weapon wielded by King Bhadrabhoop II, supported by all men and ministers, soldiers and satraps.
During the opening credits, Hun Hunshi Hunshilal begins with a lullaby-like song in a female voice: “Sleep / and in this sleep a dream / and in this dream / a story / the city of Khojpuri / and Bhadrabhoop , the king / a city of darkness / and dazzling lights / darkness at noon / and sleepless nights”. And we see the city with a man spraying pesticides; old buildings in rubble and new ones coming. The ” mosquitoes” are the scourge of Khojpuri. A new breed has emerged that is immune to all pesticides. The disease it spreads does not respond to any known medicine, and worse still, the bite affects people’s minds more than their bodies. .
Three decades ago, Shah, the director of Hun Hunshi Hunshilal told me, “I had read a newspaper clipping from the 1940s that said Greece had been destroyed by mosquitoes at some point. In fact, I had decided to include [in the film] a song about Greece and about the Mahabharata, a war of kings in which so many people died. The real question is who dies in the war.
Hun Hunshi Hunshilal is an evolving parable that sees Hunshi’s growth from an ordinary, apolitical young man to a politically aware protester on the streets. The same Hunshi who helped invent a new drug “Quin-O-nion Hi” (as part of the King’s Onion Project) to eradicate all mosquitoes, challenged the king not knowing that he himself was a “mosquito” . The exuberant “regional” film heralded a new breed of Indian cinema, which hangs between two poles represented by two songs: One is recited by Naseeruddin Shah – Man machchhar, chal man, karad karad (Oh mosquitoes! Come, bite their minds!) — and the other is the more pensive and philosophical one of Raghubir Yadav, Hawa hai, yeh duniya hawa hai, yahan har dagar, har musafir hawa hai (Smoke, all is smoke, this world is an illusion, here every path, every traveler, is aerial) as Contractor’s camera pans over the city of Ahmedabad, the fictional Khojpuri where dreams turn into songs of hope.
(The writer is a Mumbai-based film theorist, curator and historian)