When Jeb Bush recently tweeted a picture of a gun with his name engraved on it captioned “America,” it spawned a flurry of sarcastic tweets in which the caption was used with images from films. One included an iconic image from Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, an anarchic rejection of the American society of the 1970s; another was a poster for the acerbic Pain & Gain, in which Michael Bay critiques his own brand of indulgence.
The concept of encapsulating the idea of an entire country in one single image, or even in one single movie, feels like trying to bite off more than one can chew. Two Indian films made four years apart come close, Kamal Swaroop’s Om Dar-Ba-Dar (1988) and Sanjiv Shah’s 1992 Gujarati musical satire Hun Hunshi Hunshilal (English title: Love in the Time of Malaria). Both employ deliberately outlandish narratives with freewheeling structures to paint a comprehensive portrait of India in all its oddity and multiplicity. The most striking thing about Hun Hunshi Hunshilal is how contemporary it feels by today’s standards, almost as it was prescient of the current political scenario.
Hun Hunshi Hunshilal transposes a folklore-like tale to the India of the ’90s, set in the mythical kingdom of Khojpuri ruled by King Bhadrabhoop II (Mohan Gokhale). His sovereignty is threatened by the growing menace of the mosquitoes, a metaphor for the marginalised communities that is as idiosyncratic as it is on-the-nose. In his speeches in which passages about the importance of the youth abound, the King alludes to “the land of the sacred river being polluted by the immoral influence of the mosquitoes”. A roadside barber tells the protagonist Hunshilal (Dilip Joshi) that contrary to the news, the red creatures aren’t so bad after all.
Hunshi, a typification of the earnest working class, is a scientist who invents a wonder drug that can annihilate the mosquitoes. Hunshi has a sense of duty towards his kingdom until he meets and falls for Parveen (Renuka Shahane), who, as it turns out, hails from the community of mosquitoes.
In Hun Hunshi Hunshilal, there’s also a fair bit of play between reality and representation and at points, aptly for a film dealing with broad comical archetypes rather than characters, it actively posits that it’s more concerned with the latter. As the King narcissistically watches footage of his own “miracle”, where he is seen firing a weapon, the bullet bursts out of the screen and nearly injures him. In one scene at Hunshilal’s apartment, Parveen is seen through a door as she walks across the balcony and in a single uninterrupted shot, while we expect her to emerge through the other door to the balcony, she instead appears in the TV situated between the two doors.
The film integrates quintessential elements of popular cinema (the MacGuffin of the narrative is a red diary which contains crucial information about the mosquitoes) and gives them an absurdist spin heavy on political allegory. In one scene, Hunshi says “Kasam paida karne wale ki, khoon pee jaoonga” to goons who are threatening him for mingling with a girl from the “other” community; drinking blood of course being an allusion to the defining trait of the very community. There’s a song of romantic longing, sung by the Greek chorus of the film, that is roughly in the same vein as “Mere sapnon ki rani” but is addressed to the diary. Another song begins with the line “Saare jahan se achchha…” and then morphs into “Jaane kahan mera jigar gaya ji,” and another one which calls for a revolt against mosquitoes which goes “Kshay (destruction) hai, kshay hai, kshay kshay kshay kshay hai!”
The music is by Rajat Dholakia (also the composer on Om Dar-Ba-Dar.) Much like that film, Hun Hunshi Hunshilal also begins in a busy urban settlement and, as the narrative grows more insane, moves to the more barren, steep landscapes framed against the sky. But while Swaroop’s film actively eschewed any possibility of crystallising into a meaningful narrative; Hunshilal’s absurdity gradually attains meaning. At a press meet, the King speaks of eliminating darkness altogether because mosquitoes thrive in darkness (cough cough, climate change). And later on in the film, the Greek chorus takes active control of the narrative just as the fringe elements of the Kingdom take over the administration. Whereas Om Dar-Ba-Dar was set free by the bizarreness of its narrative so it could take liberties with its form, Hunshilal employs a conventional structure to ground its own bizarre narrative into an all-too real political context.
The depiction of the King, while specifically resonant with the politics in contemporary India, is also quite universal – often reminiscent of many a narcissistic megalomaniac (there’s one moment in the film where Bhadrabhoop decides do the exact same thing Kim Jong-Il once tried to do.)
In his recent 3D masterwork Goodbye To Language, Jean-Luc Godard muses, “Is it possible to form a concept of Africa?” Hun Hunshi Hunshilal, or indeed, its precedents, both Indian and foreign, perhaps suggest that a touch of bizarreness and an eye for the absurd help one get closer to reality than realism itself.