Badnam Basti (1971)
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A brief history
Nearly 50 years ago, the residents of Mainpuri swarmed to watch a film’s shooting, as excited as kids before an ice-cream cart. Reason: the movie was based on real-life characters, both living and dead, from the rough and restless region of west Uttar Pradesh. That movie Badnam Basti (1971) was considered lost to history for several decades. But now the forgotten New Wave film is back in the spotlight as possibly the first Hindi feature to portray a samesex relationship.
Director Prem Kapoor’s work hit the theatres when Hindi arthouse cinema had just burst into life a few years ago with movies like Bhuvan Shome, Sara Akash, Uski Roti. In its film review, TOI described Badnam Basti as “a welcome step forward in the direction of ‘new cinema’ in India.” The adults-only movie was also selected for the 1972 Mannheim Film Festival in West Germany and re-released with cuts in 1978. However, the seminal film fell off the map till experts located a print in Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art’s collection, Berlin, last year. The black and white film was streamed earlier this month, courtesy Block Museum, Northwestern University, USA.
Interestingly, National Film Archive of India’s director Prakash Magdum said that three years ago a film laboratory had deposited Badnam Basti’s negative with them. “However, we need to ascertain its condition,” he told TOI over phone. Badnam Basti, the movie based on Kamleshwar’s debut novel and written in 1956, maps the lives and loves of its characters. Affections are fluid, so is sexuality, and occupations too. The protagonist truck driver is a part-time dacoit and a part-time lover of another man. A ‘saved’ but sold woman plots to win and lose. An orphan finds love in a woman but also lets himself be loved by a man. The voiceover reveals the noise in their heads, the things they feel but cannot often tell. The film is also a study of power within relationships.
Badnam Basti feels like a layered cake, open to multiple pleasures and interpretations. Like its men and women, the 83-minute film cartwheels back and forth in time. “We know that loneliness and alienation exist in the city — but they are being experienced in the smaller towns and villages too. The characters in my story are seeking a meaningful communication. When this becomes impossible, violence…erupts,” Kapoor said in a 1971 TOI article. He died a few years ago.
But Badnam Basti is ground-breaking — because, as Sudhir Vasudevan, who teaches cinema at the University of Washington, explains in an online discussion — it “depicts queer relationship in a way that seems pretty direct.” A few lines inserted or a subversive small scene aside, homosexuality was a strict no-go zone in Hindi films in the 1970s. Though shots of physical intimacy are absent in Badnam Basti, there is a tight close-up shot of Sarnam (a terrific turn by Nitin Sethi) squeezing the arm of Shivraj, the object of his affection.
Cinematographer R M Rao says that the film dealt with the gay angle subtly though it was more pronounced in the book. “Kapoor was not sure of the censor’s or the public’s reaction so shots of intimacy were removed. The film was cleared by the censors only because it was understated,” says Rao, who belonged to the first batch that trained in FII (later known as FTII), Pune.
A popular actor in Bombay’s intercollegiate plays, Amar Kakkad played the role of Shivraj. He says, “Those were conservative times. If the film was made today, it would have been told differently.”
Newspaper reports skirt the subject. 1971 article in TOI says, “Sarnam turns to Shiv Raj, a slender and handsome youth with whom he has a relationship not accepted by society.” Vasudevan describes the film as “not just queer but “feminist” as well. “An interesting articulation of both queer desire and of a woman’s desire for a man that you don’t normally see... It is pioneering,” he says.
It’s interesting how the cast came together. Rao recalls Kapoor, who worked in Dharmyug (now defunct) magazine, first meeting him at the Film Society auditorium in Bombay. “We used to chat at The Times of India canteen. Kamleshwar also came to those meetings. The film was first discussed there,” he said.
The film was shot in Mainpuri over 28 days and cost a little over Rs 2 lakh. Film Finance Corporation funded the project. Kamleshwar was on location for threefour days. According to the TOI article, when Kapoor told him that he needed a nautanki boy-dancer, the writer drove 50 miles to a Dussehra mela and found a boy dancer performing on a truck’s bonnet. A mob chased them as he whisked the boy away. The film’s shooting generated enormous curiosity. At one point, the animated crowd almost turned Kapoor’s car over. Kakkad feels the film was way ahead of its time. “We could not discuss it with anybody then, but now is a different story. I am happy I was an important part of possibly the country’s first LGBTQ film. Hope we can remake it someday,” he says.