Based on Hindi writer Kamleshwar Prasad Saxena’s novel, the 1971 film ‘Badnam Basti’ is probably India’s first Hindi film featuring queer relationship as well as an array of social messages which was quite radical for its time. After laying in a state of oblivion in an archive in Berlin for almost forty-nine years, the ill-fate of Badnam Basti seemed to have recently morphed into a spectre of magnificence. Simran Bhalla, a PhD scholar at the Northwestern University, and Michael Metzger, Pick-Laudati Curator of Media Arts, unearthed the underrated Badnam Basti from the Arsenal Institute of Film and Video Art in Berlin, while curating programmes on Indian films to explore Indian modernity in the 1960s and 70s.
Watch the conversation of Simran Bhalla and Sudhir Mahadevan (Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Washington) on Badnam Basti, post the screening, below. This discussion focuses on the queer and feminist themes, among other aspects, in the film.
Much has been written on Prem Kapoor’s exploration of the queer relationship in Badnam Basti. Set in the town of Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh, the movie touched upon bold themes of homosexuality not through intimate scenes, but through subtle dialogues. Its depiction ‘normalised’ homosexual intimacy instead of ‘othering’ it; with a tinge of bisexuality in some cases. The idea of intimacy as multi-dimensional, and that a ‘pure relationship’ draws upon a sense of trust derived from mutual self-disclosure (Giddens, 1992), looms large in the love triangle between Bansari (played by Nandita Thakur), Sarnam Singh (played by Nitin Sethi) and Shivraj (played by Amar Kakkad). The lucid illustration of Sarnam Singh and Shivraj’s ‘plastic sexuality’ (Giddens, 1992) is quite commendable at a time when homosexuality was not de-criminalised in India. The fact that the homosexual relationship in the film did not require social legitimisation to sustain itself, points to the disjunction between social acceptance and legal acceptance of homosexuality in India in the 1970s.
Moreover, the film Badnam Masti (1971) is no doubt, fraught with much sociological relevance. The idea of ‘love’ seemed to be prioritised more than the person who is being loved. The not-so socially respectable profession of Bansari did not become an obstacle in receiving love from Sarnam Singh. A society which stigmatises sex-work and ostracises those engaged in it, finds its utopic depiction in Badnam Basti where Bansari’s previous engagements did not deter her from receiving the status of a respectable woman.
Another idea which caught attention was the social acceptance and lucid illustration of women’s remarriage. Shivraj spoke of his stepfather; and how he had to shave his head as per Hindu convention, when his stepfather died. The subject of re-marriage which still involves melodramatic representation in today’s films, was passed as an accustomed event in Badnam Basti.
Moreover, women were shown with subtle forms of agency to vent out their grievances (through instances of Bansari’s outright disapproval of Rangile or Sarnam Singh’s actions). Mobility of women was less restricted. In this regard, it is worth noting that men too, encouraged women to transcend the confines of domestic household chores. For instance, the poet Genda distributed books among men and asked them to let their mothers and sisters read as well. This hints at the fact that women might have had the basic education required to at least read books. Though depictions centred on gendered division of labour, Prem Kapoor nonetheless, did not solidify such boundaries. This can be substantiated through scenes where Rangile actively helps Bansari in housework in Badnam Basti. Thus, the film has a feminist streak, one of which is its efforts to fluidise the boundaries between private and public.
Issues of morality among bandits is ambiguously situated in certain contexts in Badnam Basti. “Paisa lootne aye ho, nari ki izzat nahi” seems quite moral superficially, because of the apparent respect accrued to women. But then again, killing people and “lootna” complicates the issue of morality even further. Besides, several critical ideas reverberated in the entirety of Badnam Basti. For instance, the idea of co-dependence among characters as well as the idea of animal care. This is especially significant at a time when there has been a recent spike in cases of animal abuse.
Lastly, I felt that Prem Kapoor stressed on a very significant aspect, the negligence of which has wide repercussions even in our contemporary times: the idea of ‘meaningful communication’. Misunderstanding, as a result of failed communication between Bansari and Sarnam Singh, played a relevant role in the second half of the film. Thus, the film intrigues its viewers to critically analyse numerous facets of life which often goes unquestioned in our everyday lives.
I would like to sincerely thank my supervisor Ravinder Kaur, Professor at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi, for introducing Badnam Basti to me and for encouraging me to write a sociologically relevant review of the film.
Giddens, A. (1992). The Transformation of Intimacy: Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern
Societies. Cambridge: Polity Press
Sristi is a PhD Research Scholar at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi. Her area of research includes Family, Marriage and Kinship; Gender studies; Urban sociology; Technology and Society. She is also a Teaching Assistant at IIT Delhi. She has done my Bachelors in Sociology from St. Xavier’s College (Autonomous) Kolkata and Masters in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. She can be found on LinkedIn, Facebook, here and here.
Featured image source: Medium