Film Review: ‘Hun Hunshi Hunshi Lal’ Gleefully Exposes The Despot’s Playbook
In this political satire fantasy, after a benevolent scientist devises a deadly mosquito-repellent from onions, the king of the nation proceeds to use it to control the anarchist mosquitoes that antagonize his rule.
Director: Sanjiv Shah
Cast: Mohan Gokhale, Dilip Joshi, Renuka Shahane
Runtime: 140 minutes
Hun Hunshi Hunshi Lai has a fabled backstory appropriate for its dreamlike plot. For decades, the experimental feature’s only home was on state television. It wasn’t until 2020 when the Gujarati film was brought to YouTube and was rediscovered by the masses. While the film’s wide release only arrived almost three decades after completion, it remains shockingly prescient in today’s political landscape.
The political satire exposes the playbook of despots and pokes fun at the absurdity of how endless othering is key to their grip on power. Despite a modest budget, the film remains a technical marvel; its keen but blinding message softened by a sheer of free-spirited energy tailored by its cinematography and music. This emphasis on atmosphere, however, does make Hun Hunshi Hunshi Lal an intimidating film — although still comparatively more approachable as far as avant-garde cinema goes thanks to the cast’s gripping performances.
Hun Hunshi Hunshi Lai is set in the fictional kingdom of Khojpuri, ruled by the infantile King Bhadrabhoop (Mohan Gokhale) who pins all the issues in his ailing kingdom on an unending plague of mosquitoes. Hunshilal (Dilip Joshi), a well-meaning scientist from the countryside moves to the city and invents a potent mosquito repellent made from onions. His convictions and morals are questioned when he falls for his colleague Parveen (Renuka Shahane), who has sympathies for the mosquitoes.
Although the film opens with a fog of pesticide spray, it becomes increasingly apparent that the insects are a parable to the lower classes. This might have been a particularly stinging comparison for Indian audiences, where malaria remains a pressing issue in the country, and especially so in the 1990s.
Yet curiously enough, malaria seems to be the least of Khojpuri’s worry, where poverty and ruins are more of a common sight than mosquitoes. In fact, the insects are never seen except on wanted posters. However, the disease these undetectable pests carry is far more potent — at least to the state. A kingdom-wide ban on dreaming is enacted after Hunshilal admits to being bitten in his sleep.
These absurd laws would be the government’s main retaliatory measures. Hun Hunshi Hunshi Lai is fashioned as sharp and as broad as a razor. There are overarching issues the film looks to puncture but it never makes clear what exactly it looks to decry. The ails of Khojpuri are a general commentary on despotism that could apply to just about anywhere.
Perhaps the buzzing of the mosquitoes represents the sentiments of the people — constantly buzzing and biting even the innocent. Many might prefer them eradicated, forgetting that they too are also an integral part of any ecosystem. Or maybe the strength of the parallel is with how these sentiments were even associated with mosquitoes in the first place.
This is explored through televised addresses by the king condemning the menace. More than just exploring the theme of mass media as control, Hun Hunshi Hunshi Lai reenacts the Orwellian adage of “war is peace”.
The film makes fun of the statement’s contradictory nature while highlighting why it remains frighteningly relevant today amidst the rise of illiberal democracies; there always has to be an enemy to unite against to distract from domestic issues that could threaten dictatorships. The Orwellian allusions don’t stop there, with a workplace romance and a mysterious book being central to its plot ala 1984.
Hun Hunshi Hunshi Lai’s other key influence is perhaps the French New Wave, bringing the energy of the movement in its own inventive way. The camera playfully highlights the on-screen absurdity by placing them through the lens of a down-to-earth documentary. One moment, the film dances amidst the crowd, only to be immediately followed by stylish transitions visually closing the gap between the people and talking heads on television.
The film is coloured by the hypnotising music of Rajat Dholakia. These exquisitely performed musical sequences, with cryptic, riddle-like lyrics, bookmark each segment of Hunshilal’s life and bolster the film’s surrealism.
What anchors the film from drifting off into becoming impenetrable avant-garde cinema is the enjoyable performances of the cast. Mohan Gokhale delights as King Bhadrabhoop, bringing out the silliness of his character while understanding the necessity depots find in formulating a facade of regality. One particular scene stands out: a brief blink-it-or-miss-it moment where the King cracks a winning smile for a photo-op with Hunshilal before dropping back to sheer annoyance right after the camera flashes.
Dilip Joshi is the film’s main font of drama as Hunshilal. Even in an outlandish film with over-the-top henchmen and immature gags, Joshi — somehow — still keeps audiences worried about his clumsy character’s well-being. His performance plants a tangible character arc onto an ever-elusive narrative. Completing the cast is Renuka Shahane as Parveen, Hunshilal’s love interest. While the chemistry between the pair is indistinct, Shahane brings to the film well-needed intrigue and mystery.
Like the onion in Hunshilal’s pesticide, there are a lot of layers to peel away in Hun Hunshi Hunshi Lal. Be ill-prepared and peeling the film may not be a pleasant experience — even if it is a necessary one. Hun Hunshi Hunshi Lal is unevenly paced with scenes that felt unnecessarily convoluted and dilute an otherwise sharply-crafted satire. At times frustratingly so, the film is completely comfortable to hide in the fog of pesticide it opens with.
However, the film’s performance and technical high points, does make digging past the fog an enticing offer. There is excitement, wonder, and perhaps even fear — fear that we may just see ourselves on the other side of the fog.
A restored version of Hun Hunshi Hunshi Lal will be screened on Saturday, 17 April as part of the Asian Film Archive’s “Reframe: A Time to Resist” programme. The programme highlights how Indian cinema has reflected the country’s bouts with inequality, injustice and prejudice in defence of democracy.
Selected films from the programme will also screen online from
12 April – 9 May 2021 on AFA’s Rewired platform.
For details on the full lineup, visit: https://www.asianfilmarchive.org/event-calendar/reframe-a-time-to-resist/