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" (traitors). The colour red is associated with the insects—Machhar 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 “machhar" 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 aware of injustice.

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 about singing “Laal tamatar kuchal do (crush all red tomatoes)". Mosquitoes thrive in the darkness, 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.

A poster for the film, with its English title.
A poster for the film, with its English title.

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 1970s and 1980s—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 a stray line or chorus that serves as commentary. 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 folk music and had Mohan Gokhale in an important role (on that occasion he was the oppressed, not 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"; 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. The art design is very funny, 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.

But my lasting impression is of the clever wordplay that includes digs at ultra-nationalistic fervour—something that is as relevant today as it ever was. In one song, 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.

Above The Line is a column on Indian cinema and how it presents the world.

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