French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard (still active at 92) once said that you either make a political film or make it politically. Sanjiv Shah’s remarkable film, Hun Hunshi Hunshilal, made “politically” in the year 1992 completes 30 years in 2022. Since then, India as a nation has witnessed many ground-breaking political transformations. Thirty years ago, in an article, I had written about the film: “A non-linear narrative full of crazy twists and all forms of music and sharp wit, Hun Hunshi Hunshilal is an allegory about today’s politics of dominance, of power and repression.” This “today” of then is also the “today” of now. History is a reptile slithering through time, never in a straight line.
Young Rajat Dholakia composed its 40 songs (long and short, Gujarati and Hindustani) brilliantly penned by Paresh Naik who had also written the film’s original story, screenplay and dialogues that saw many spontaneous improvisations. Naik shows a remarkable knack for lending a poetic cadence to mundane 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 noteworthy. The film had a small 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 blown up to 35mm for a commercial release but it never had one, except for its telecast on Doordarshan.
The metaphorical malarial “mosquito” is the de-facto hero of the story, as it hovers around the kingdom of Khojpuri, whose ruler Bhadrabhoop II (Mohan Gokhale) is annoyed by the breed (representing the struggling and questioning middle and lower classes). In the small village of Doongri, Hunshi (Dilip Joshi) is born to a quack. After growing up he adopts the more respectable moniker, Hunshilal, and moves to Khojpuri to work in the Queen’s Lab, which aims to eradicate the “mosquito” problem. There, he falls in love with his 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. Along with Parveen, who is in possession of the “Red Diary” which contains the records of all the “mosquitoes” in the kingdom, Hunshi’s life is in jeopardy, as both are constantly threatened by the despotic king’s goons.
All the science and technology, all the machinery of warfare and the might of the good citizens are engaged to combat the “mosquito” menace. Emergency is declared, and suspected victims are identified and eliminated. Campaigns are launched to re-educate people to immunise their minds. Films, books, newspapers, and hoardings all join in praising the new symbol of Khojpuri’s answer to mosquitoes – the tortoise. It is the weapon wielded by King Bhadrabhoop II, backed by all the men and ministers, soldiers and satraps.
Over the initial opening credits, Hun Hunshi Hunshilal begins with a lullaby-like song in a female voice: “Sleep / and in that sleep a dream / and in that 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 along with a man spraying pesticide; old buildings in rubble and new ones coming up. “Mosquitoes” are the scourge of Khojpuri. A new breed has emerged which is immune to all pesticides. The illness it spreads responds to no known drugs, and worse still, the bite affects people’s minds more than it does their bodies.
Three decades ago, Shah, the director of Hun Hunshi Hunshilal told me: “I had read a news clipping from the 1940s which said that Greece was destroyed by mosquitoes at some point in time. 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 issue is who dies in the war.”
Hun Hunshi Hunshilal is an evolutionary parable that sees the growth of Hunshi from an ordinary, apolitical young man to a politically-conscious protester on the street. The same Hunshi who had helped invent a new drug “Quin-O-nion Hi” (as part of the King’s Onion Project) to eradicate all mosquitoes, was challenging the King without knowing that he himself was also a “mosquito”. The rambunctious “regional” film heralded a new breed of Indian filmmaking, that hangs between two poles represented by two songs: One is recited by Naseeruddin Shah — Man machchhar, chal man, karad karad (Oh mosquitoes! Come, prick their minds!) — and the other is Raghubir Yadav’s more pensive and philosophical, Hawa hai, yeh duniya hawa hai, yahan har dagar, har musafir hawa hai (Smoke, it’s all smoke, this world is an illusion, here each path, each traveller, is air) as Contractor’s camera pans over the city of Ahmedabad, the fictional Khojpuri where dreams grow into songs of hope.
(The writer is a Mumbai-based film theorist, curator and historian)