An Indian film that fell off the face of the earth for nearly half a century resurfaced in an archive in Berlin. The film jolted back to life when a university program decided to curate a collection of Indian films that reflected the essence of modernity across the tumultuous decades of the 1960s and 1970s.
And a reflection on modernity, Badnam Basti is. Hailed as India’s first Queer film, Badnam Basti stands as a profound contemplation of modernity. Yet, it also mirrors the very fabric of the 1970s film industry, a period that branded it a failure, owing to the fact it was in theatres for just about a week.
What it says about the film industry and the political landscape of the early 1970s in India is a paradox. Despite being written by a prominent writer and based on a daring queer storyline, the film emerged from the crucible as a commercial failure. Strangely, it vanished from the records, as if having never been created.
The eponymous novel, Badnam Basti, written by Kamleshwar, a famous Hindi writer associated with the New Wave movement, or Nayi Kahani movement of the 50s, marked the genesis of his literary accomplishments. This work depicted contemporary life, distancing itself from pre-independence literary preoccupations. His narratives often portrayed middle-class families grappling with economic, social, and political predicaments — themes inherently interwoven within the novel.
Originally published in 1957 under the title 'A Street with 57 Lanes', the novel's backdrop was the city of Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh. It depicts the story of Sarnam Singh, a bus driver who is also a bandit. He rescues Bansari, a woman in peril, from the clutches of another dacoit. They fall in love, but Sarnam Singh's future with Bansari is shattered as he finds himself in prison for a minor offence.
Upon his release, his quest for Bansari proves fruitless as she falls victim to human trafficking. It's in this quest that he crosses paths with Shivraj, a young man. As Singh employs Shivraj as a bus cleaner, a bond of intimacy grows between them. Together all of this, gives away to what we call today a love triangle between the three protagonists — Sarnam, Bansari and Shivraj.
Within the pages of the novel Badnam Basti, the gauntlet is thrown at conventionality itself. It defies the confines of traditional family norms and societal validation. It bestows autonomy upon a woman's yearnings and treats homosexual love with parity to its heterosexual counterpart. This complex narrative propels Sarnam Singh, the main character, who finds himself at a crossroads where he's compelled to navigate the balance between matters of the heart and the constructs of gender.
This novel was translated onto the big screen by Prem Kapoor in 1971. The script adhered closely to the book's setting and followed it structurally, however, scenes depicting physical intimacy were excised. In the novel, there contains intimate passages between the two men, yet scenes of a sexual nature remained unfilmed to evade censorship. In the movie, there is only homosexuality implications through suggestive dialogues and scenarios. This, though, adds to the film discourse of how the film must not always spoonfeed the themes and intentions directly to the viewers.
However, historically, this narrative involving two men is safely nestled inside the trope of friendship or camaraderie, often disguises homosexual behaviour to be more socially acceptable. In many ways, the themes and plot of Badnam Basti were far ahead of their time. Badnam Basti takes charge compared to recent queer-themed features, even in today's context.
Contemplating the aftermath of the movie's release, and tracing its journey through time to our present cultural milieu, a question arises:
"How could a film crafted by a renowned author and filmed by a celebrated director vanish without a trace for 49 years?"
The simple answer is that the very struggle the protagonists were battling inside the films such as uncomfortable themes of human trafficking and society’s issue with queer representation and self-discovery within the walls of a rigid society were all the real struggles the film was facing in theatres, reflecting the societal norms and climate under which it was released.
On all accounts commercial, the film was a failure. Just the hint of homosexuality led the movie to be labelled for adults only. Because of this, families didn't come to watch it. People were confused by the movie's tricky subject because the title made them think it was like the other more traditional romantic movies of the 1970s. However, Badnam Basti came back in 1978 with a different label (U certificate) after cutting out parts that some people found offensive. But even this re-release didn't make the film successful despite having prized musicians like Vijaya Raghava Rao and Ghulam Mustafa Khan compose the film's songs.
The most startling fact remains that even to this day, the film does not receive its due credit and its profound influence still goes unrecognised. Astonishingly, no film critic seemed to acknowledge its queer theme or its bold endeavours to portray LGBTQIA+ presence in society. This crucial aspect of the film was rendered virtually invisible by the media.
While the film dared to push the boundaries of its time, its biggest criticism is for what it refrained from doing — explicitly depicting or identifying the characters as gay. But could an Indian film realistically achieve such a feat in 1971 without succumbing to a fate akin to the film's vanishing for 49 years? On the other hand, some viewers have also labelled the film as too experimental.
The fact of the matter is Badnam Basti had a small release and then disappeared. It wasn't talked about in the Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema, there wasn't even a copy of it at the National Film Archive of India, according to Prem Kapoor's son, Hari Om Kapoor.
In 2019, a 35mm copy of the film in poor condition was found. It was turned into a digital version for screening. Maybe this time around, there will be more honest discussions about what India's First Queer Film has brought to the table.