Badnam Basti's fate is as chequered as its history. The 1971 Hindi film considered as India's first movie depicting a homosexual relationship and thought to be lost, has emerged after 49 years of hiding in an archive in Berlin. It is one year short of celebrating half a century of obscurity.
The Block Museum of Art in Illinois livestreamed the 83-minute film (with English subtitles) over 7-10 May, with the support of the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art in Berlin.
Simran Bhalla, PhD, a candidate in screen cultures at Northwestern University and The Block 2019"2020 Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow, said she and Michael Metzger (Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Arts) were curating a programme of Indian films reflecting on modernity in India from the 1960s-1970s.
"We were looking to feature a film by Raj Kapoor when we discovered a listing of Badnam Basti in the archive of the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art," she said.
Kapoor is the common surname shared by Prem Kapoor, the director of the ill-fated Badnam Basti. A 35mm print was found in poor condition. It was digitised for the screening.
Badnam Basti was to be shown in the museum in March along with Mrinal Sen's Interview, Ritwik Ghatak's The Runaway, and Guru Dutt's Pyaasa but the event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
The curators then decided to live stream it on the Vimeo video platform, followed by a discussion of the film's cultural significance in the pantheon.
Badnam Basti shares the title with the name of the Hindi novel written by writer Kamleshwar Prasad Saxena. The novel was serialised in the Hindi literary journal Hans before being published in 1957 and later being translated into English as A Street with 57 Lanes.
Set in the city of Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh, the film narrates the story of a bus driver Sarnam Singh, who moonlights as a bandit. He saves a woman Bansari from being raped by another dacoit. She falls in love with him but he cannot keep his promises to her as he is jailed for another petty crime involving the consumption of illicit liquor. Once out, he looks for her but cannot trace her. Singh meets a young lad " Shivraj " who volunteers in a temple. Singh hires Shivraj as a cleaner and the two become intimate. One day, Singh meets Bansari who is being sold to the highest bidder in a mela. Singh's own crony, Rangile, is the bidder. Singh is tormented between his desire for Bansari and Shivraj. Bansari too wants to return to Singh but cannot express it. Shivraj weds Kamla to return to a 'normal' life. Rangile is convicted and jailed for his perfidy in legal cases where he works as a police informant. Singh brings Bansari and her newborn to his house in the end.
Produced by the Film Finance Corporation (later rechristened as the National Film Development Corporation), the government organisation allocated a budget of Rs 2.5 lakhs for the production of the film.
Nitin Sethi, a theatre actor, debuted as main lead Sarnam Singh. Nandita Thakur was Bansari and Amar Kakkad was Shivraj. Shot on location in Mainpuri by R Manindra Rao, an alumnus from the Film and Television Institute of India, Badnam Basti had some heavyweight names attached to it.
The poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan recited a poem, Mele Mein Khoyi Gujariya, in the film. Singer Ghulam Mustafa Khan sang a beautiful melody, 'Sajna Kaahe Nahi Aaye', composed by Vijay Raghava Rao, who also composed the music for Mrinal Sen's film Bhuvan Shome (1969). Noted filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee edited an initial 100-minute version of the film. Badnam Basti shared a sound team with Mani Kaul's film Uski Roti (1970).
Despite famous names on its roster and dealing with the subject of queer romance with sensitivity, Badnam Basti was given an adult certificate for its themes of dacoity and human trafficking, limiting its reach.
The novel has passages of intimacy between the two men but no scenes of a sexual nature were filmed, to avoid censure. Homosexuality was implied through suggestive dialogue and scenario.
In the book, a passage describes their co-dependency as: "When Shivraj woke up in the morning, he found Sarnam lying with him in his cot. His hand was resting on Shivraj's chest. It was nothing new for Shivraj and Shivraj should have got accustomed to it by now."
The film depicts this scene without showing the two men sharing a bed, but instead, Shivraj is shown standing in the room, looking at the naked torso of Sarnam lying asleep. In another scene Sarnam is shown gently stroking Shivraj's sleeping forehead with fraternal affection.
This kind of visual grammar easily slips under the rug of yaarana or friendship, a conventional trope in Indian cinema where homosocial behaviour is passed off as brotherly love, templated by Dosti (1964) in which two physically handicapped boys are emotionally co-dependent. The romantic scenes between Sarnam Singh and Bansari are shot in gardens, giving them a virginal purity associated with on-screen heterosexual lovers, further magnifying the strife of queer love.
The aesthetics of desire is artfully framed in a neorealist style similar to the European new wave but also features freeze frames, fragmented editing, non-diagetic sound, and scenes mirroring a subjective reality, exploring the interiority of characters through psychological realism. Abstract and disjointed in some parts, classical in others, Badnam Basti has a strong expressionistic idiom that marks the films of Pramod Pati and Ritwik Ghatak.
It is quite evident that Badnam Basti wants to belong to the league of such films as Uski Roti, Bhuvan Shome and Basu Chatterjee's Sara Akash (1969), the troika that informed the arrival of the Indian New Wave. Buoyed by the international success of neorealist films such as Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955), FFC was formed to commission and produce films from modern Indian literature, combining the two art forms to represent a realist vision of Indian society to international viewers, and to offer and alternate from the escapism of mainstream Hindi cinema.
Badnam Basti benefits from modern literature like most New Wave films adapted from books and short stories, the new form allowing for the makers to experiment because of its roots in unconventional themes. The novel Badnam Basti rejects outright the bounds of a conventional family and its approval, gives agency to a woman's desire, treats homosexual love equally as its opposite, giving the central character of Sarnam Singh a conflict to choose love over gender.
The same themes follow in the film too, as Bhalla pointed out in the online discussion right after the screening. She said, "In some ways Badnam Basti is more ahead than recent queer-themed features such as Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga and Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, which are still invoking the tropes from the films of the Nineties where romantic couples seek validation in family approval."
In the discussion moderated by Michael Metzger, Sudhir Mahadevan (associate professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle) said, "Badnam Basti is queer in the true sense of the word, that it is transgressive for its time, channeling an unstable circuit of desire without reductive social realism."
On release, viewers called Badnam Basti self-indulgent, shoddy, and too experimental.
Praise came from a few critics but it could not pull in the crowd: "Badnam Basti is a journey into the minds of characters," said Deccan Chronicle. "Badnam Basti presents to us a true picture of reality," said The Economic Times. "Sarnam's loneliness has been projected superbly by Prem Kapoor. It is hard to imagine anyone but Nitin Sethi in the role," said The Illustrated Weekly.
No film critic seemed to acknowledge its queer theme and its radical step to represent the LGBT presence in society. This aspect of the film was invisibilised by the media. The actors playing their roles were aware of the queer love story but they got no attention for their unusual parts.
Audiences were bored, expecting a linear storytelling format and confused by its arthouse aspirations. The subtext of homosexuality did not register. The film did not last a week in theatres.
Badnam Basti could have set the precedent for queer love but got lost in transgression. It could have been a Brokeback Mountain (2005) of the era. It had an unnameable love story at the core of it. Like the two star-crossed drifters in Brokeback Mountain, the two outlier men in Badnam Basti are living on the margins of society and do not conform to norms, yet are entrapped by their own circumstances.
Brokeback Mountain was based on a short story written by Annie Proulx. Set in 1963, she wrote the story in 1997. Kamleshwar's novel was written in 1957, six years before Proulx could place her drifters in Texas. Kamleshwar's novel was path breaking. It is what Prem Kapoor was after with his erudition in literature and philosophy.
Brokeback Mountain trumps with its simple and straightforward narrative, including intimacy, whereas Badnam Basti tiptoes around the same-sex angle in a wink and nod. The film, though aware of its unconventional subject, is conscious of its repercussions.
There is a moment in the middle of a dramatic outburst in Badnam Basti when the two male characters come as close to kissing as they should have, following the natural progression of the story just like we see in Brokeback Mountain. Kapoor could have taken a few liberties with his experimental style, empowering the literature he was adapting. The film follows the themes but the execution is choppy. Had the filmmaker not shied away, it could have been a forerunner to greater risks in storytelling.
Badnam Basti was also four years before a scene in Sholay (1975) in which the homo-romantic best friends Jai and Veeru are put in a prison cell with a colourful jailbird who struts around with lascivious intent. This standard played out for years and harmed more than helped the LGBT community looking for fair and diverse representation in cinema.
The film's director Prem Kapoor died in 2011, at the age of 83. Originally a man of letters, Kapoor was the weekly editor of a Hindi magazine Dharmyug. He had studied philosophy and had earned a doctorate in Esthetical Explanation of Indian Erotic Sculpture with special reference to Konark and Khajuraho. He ventured into filmmaking to advance his exploration of human desire. His other film, Kaam Shastra (1975), mixes sex talk with psychology. Despite its taboo topic attracting a horde of curious viewers, the film was seen as a bland public service announcement.
Defeated by the poor reception of his films, Prem Kapoor retired early. He had grand plans at the outset, scheduling a screening of Badnam Basti at the Regal theatre in Mumbai in 1972. It was cancelled. Kapoor was to submit the film at the Venice Film Festival that year but he could not complete the editing on time as he was not happy with Mukherjee's masterful cut and decided to snip it further, a move that the film's crew said ruined its chances.
According to Mahadevan, the film was last seen at a rare screening in Nehru Centre in Mumbai in 1988. Prem Kapoor's son Hari Om Kapoor said the disappearance of the film was a mystery he could never solve. Badnam Basti was sent to a film festival in Germany where it found a safe repository to hibernate.
In an interview, Prem Kapoor had said the Canadian documentary filmmaker James Beveridge had shot a "making of Badnam Basti" for its pioneering subject. If found, the documentary on its making will be a great companion piece to unravel this doomed film about desire and sexuality.
The digital copy can be leased from Arsenal in order to be shown online, or in film festivals.
Manish Gaekwad is a freelance writer and the author of Lean Days, a novel exploring a gay man's identity in India.