It is widely acknowledged that cinema is a powerful medium of reflection. However, Indian cinema, for years, has largely been a medium of instant entertainment and make-believe romances. Nonetheless, we have had our fair share of filmmakers who have dared to go past the conventionalities to create something unique and timelessly relevant.
One such filmmaker is Sanjiv Shah who created a masterpiece in Indian avant-garde cinema, that too in a regional language of Gujarati, called “Hun Hunshi Hunshilal“. Never heard of it, right? The film, listed in the archives of the British Film Institute (which is no small feat for a regional language film), was recently re-released on YouTube in restored quality with English subtitles where I watched it with much amusement and gratefulness. The film will stay on YouTube until 20th October.
Well, the first attraction of the film ought to be the young Dilip Joshi, aka Taarak Mehta, who is now a household name in the subcontinent. He is joined by some other great actors, including late Mohan Gokhale and Renuka Shahane, who have together succeeded in portraying a narrative that is both amusing and deep at the same time.
The film is about a land named “Khojpuri” that could literally be any country in the world right now, given the resonance of the themes explored. Khojpuri is governed (or ruled) by a man named Bhadrabhoop (Mohan Gokhale), who has acquired the title of a king and is foolishly autocratic in his mannerism (doesn’t that remind you of somebody else?).
He is so absurdist in his sense of power that anything that displeases him is banned in his “kingdom”, be it dreaming, the color red, or flying kites. However, one major repulsion of Bhadrabhoop and his followers (aka “bhakts”) is towards mosquitoes. The mosquitoes are the enemy of the state, the so-called “anti-nationals”. They bite people and incite them to commit anti-national acts like protests and dissent.
Hence, Bhadrabhoop establishes a research institute called “Queen’s lab” (a reference to the colonial sentiments of domination and control) where Hunshilal (Dilip Joshi) lands a job as a junior scientist. The sole purpose of the lab is to make a remedy for the menacing mosquitoes in which Hunshilal finally succeeds and is given a laurel from the king himself.
However, being true to the Indian cinematic tradition, Hunshilal falls in love with his colleague Parveen (Renuka Shahane) which leads to a major upheaval in his life. Sparing spoilers, Hunshilal finally emerges as a changed man, sympathetic towards the very creatures he sought to eliminate, namely mosquitoes.
In fact, bitten by a mosquito in his dream, Hunshilal dissents against the king’s establishment and is eventually arrested in the middle of a bazaar and taken into custody. What follows is a series of weird torture techniques and operations on Hunshilal while the king is enjoying a wrestling match where he is shot at by a kid. But the king didn’t die. He re-emerges in an older avatar dictating a monologue that reiterates the continuity of his (or somebody else’s) autocracy and oppression of the masses.
“We can see clearly that now there will be neither sunset nor darkness, neither fire nor revolt, now here only the dawn shall preside.”
Bhadrabhoop, like any other dictator in history, is a man of powerful rhetoric with shallow ideals. As Parveen tells Hunshilal, “that which happened before, that which is happening now, and that which will happen again”, the Sisyphean nature of the fight against oppression and injustice in the politics of our world is made evident. Nonetheless, the film also asks the viewers to dream. Does dreaming help the people of Khojpuri? Maybe not, but it certainly makes Bhadrabhoop a little less powerful.
“A dream, and in that dream, a story”, thus runs the chorus of a song that is played multiple times in the film, giving it a rhythmic, narrative power. Another powerful song in the film is sung by Raghubir Yadav when Hunshilal finds himself hovering over the city in his dreams – “Hawa hai, hawa hai, yeh duniya hawa hai…” (Illusion, illusion, this world is an illusion…). This compels one to think that the film is not only political but is intrinsically philosophical in nature, reinforcing the ancient Indian idea of “maya” as the sure-shot escape from a world of meanness and suffering.
Hun Hunshi Hunshilal is a film that must be watched in today’s day and age.