Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, which is out on February 26, is the latest addition to a small set of Indian films about homosexuality. Starring Manoj Bajpayee as a persecuted gay professor and Rajkummar Rao as the journalist who tries to help him clear his name, the drama has been co-produced and is being distributed by A-list studio Eros International and has the support of the film fraternity for its sensitive and empathetic treatment.
Such support was nowhere in sight when possibly India’s first gay movie hit cinemas in 1971. The promotional material for Prem Kapoor’s Badnam Basti describes it a love triangle between two men and a women, but folded into the conventional romance is the unconventional suggestion of same-sex love. Badnam Basti was made 12 years before Jabbar Patel’s Umbartha, in which Smita Patil, as the warden of a home for destitute women, is confronted with a lesbian romance between two inmates.
Badnam Basti disappeared into oblivion soon after a limited release. The A-rated title does not find a mention in the Encylopaedia of Indian Cinema. No print exists, even at the National Film Archive of India, according to Prem Kapoor’s son, Hari Om Kapoor. (Prem Kapoor died in 2011 at the age of 83.)
The film is based on Hindi writer Kamleshwar Prasad Saxena’s first novel Badnam Basti, which was later re-titled Ek Sadak Sattavan Galiyan. Published in 1957, the novel was featured in the prestigious Hindi literary journal Hans in 1956. The book describes the bond between Sarnam Singh, a bus driver who moonlights as a dacoit, and a young boy Shivraj, whom he hires as a cleaner. Chapter nine details the sexual nature of their association: “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.”
Several other instances in the novel mention their co-dependent relationship. Sarnam Singh is Shivraj’s guardian angel, whose love he cannot rebuff. Singh has a reputation as a dishonourable man whose sexual prowess is attributed to his hyper-masculinity. He is portrayed as being socially inept with women, seeking his dead mother’s endearments through intimacy with Shivraj.
Prem Kapoor took Kamleshwar’s permission to film the novel. The filmmaker, who also directed the sex-themed movie Kaam Shastra in 1975, studied philosophy and earned a doctorate in “Esthetical Explanation of Indian Erotic Sculpture with special reference to Konark and Khajuraho” from Allahabad University. He worked as an editor at the weekly Hindi magazine Dharmyug before becoming a filmmaker.
Despite its potentially tawdry subject matter, Kapoor’s debut feature didn’t lack ambition. Badnam Basti was funded for Rs 2.5 lakhs by the Film Finance Corporation, the government organisation that was set up to promote alternative cinema and was later rechristened National Film Development Corporation. The film had music by Vijay Raghav Rao and featured a beautiful song “Sajna Kahe Nahi Aaye”, sung by Ghulam Mustafa Khan, and a poem “Mele Mein Khoi Gujariya”, recited by Harivansh Rai Bachchan. Lokendra Sharma, who was the assistant director on the production, recounted how Bachchan bragged about his recitation being better than Ghulam Mustafa Khan’s singing.
The script stuck closely to the book, which is set in Mainpuri in Uttar Pradesh, but scenes depicting physical intimacy were excised, said R Manindra Rao, the Film and Television Institute of India alumnus who shot the movie. “The story of the film is faithful to the novel, which is based on a true story,” Rao told Scroll.in. “Kamleshwar took us to Mainpuri and we met some people on whom the characters were based. We shot in 1971 for about 20 days in Mainpuri, camping in a girl’s hostel, which was the only safe place in the village because people travelled from nearby villages to watch the shooting. Prem Kapoor was an educated and enlightened man, but he did not have a background in film, so we had a lot of fights on the sets. I decided to do things on my own.”
If Lokendra Sharma is to be believed, Rao was instrumental to the production, given Kapoor’s inexperience on a film set. “Prem Kapoor did not know how to make a film since it was also his first feature, so he readily took my suggestions on dialogue and shot division,” Sharma said. “Only Rao knew what he was doing and he shot the film beautifully. Hrishikesh Mukherjee initially edited the film.”
Despite the sensitive subject matter, casting was the easiest part. Prem Kapoor chose stage actors since he was certain that mainstream actors would balk from associating with the movie. The lead, Nitin Sethi, who is no more, was “a theatre actor, tall and handsome”, Rao recalled. “Nandita Thakur played the girl Bansari who is rescued by Sethi from an auction. Her character falls in love with him, but he is not interested in women. Amar Kakkad was the cleaner with whom he is romantically involved.”
Amar Kakkad was barely 20 when he was spotted by Sethi in a play. “Nitin Sethi complimented my deep bass voice and found me suitable for the part,” Kakkad said. “The film touched on the bold theme of laundebaazi [homosexuality] but very subtly through dialogue. There was an undercurrent. My character Shivraj is in love with a girl but he also knows that Sarnam Singh is interested in him. Whatever transpires between the two men eye-to-eye was too good, and I think I played it very well.”
He was wholly aware of the movie’s red-hot nature. “When I read the story, I knew I could not discuss it with anyone,” Kakkad said.
The mere suggestion of homosexuality was enough to earn the movie an Adults only rating. The A rating kept family audiences away, while its elusive exploration of its subject bewildered viewers who were misled by the sensational title and strayed into cinemas expecting yet another iteration of the soft-core films that were common in the 1970s. Badnam Basti re-emerged in 1978 with a U certificate, presumably with the offensive portions snipped out, but the re-release didn’t help its cause.
Prem Bhardwaj, editor of the Hindi literary magazine Pakhi, bunked school in Patna in 1971 to watch the movie, titillated by its seedy title and certification. He dismissed the film’s contents, but it did encourage him to trace its literary source. “I must have been very young, I didn’t understand the film,” he said. “There was nothing in it.”
Rao has a theory about why a movie with no nudity, excessive violence and sex landed an A certificate. “It could have been because the film’s subject involved dacoity and human trafficking,” Rao speculated. “The homosexual angle was never shown explicitly and it was only implied through scenes where the two characters are sitting together in the bus, talking and bonding while washing the bus. We did not shoot any intimate scenes with any actors.”
Kapoor’s hesitancy in handling the explosive material might have also contributed to its failure. “Our director was a vegetarian [a prude] when it came to shooting adult sequences,” said Lokesh Sharma, who went on to build a career in radio. “Nitin Sethi tried to portray it through body language, using his eyes to mirror his feelings. I recall a scene in which the nautanki girls are dancing on a stage. According to the script, Bansari had to flirt with Sarnam Singh. Prem Kapoor was so shy that he could not tell Nandita Thakur to wink at Nitin Sethi. The scene would have become irrelevant if she had not winked! I walked up to the director and asked him to give her the cue. He asked me to prompt her. The director could have taken a lot of liberty with the story, but his timid nature overtook his directorial abilities.”
There were two versions of the edit, and Kapoor’s decision to go with the second cut rather than the one by Hrishikesh Mukherjee sealed Badnam Basti’s fate, Rao said.
“The film was very well edited,” the cinematographer said. “Then something went wrong with Prem Kapoor’s interpretation. He re-edited the film. The narration went forward-backward, which again was not something familiar to viewers, it confused them. It may work today with that kind of film.”
Kapoor’s potentially groundbreaking debut feature turned out to be a missed opportunity. Badnam Basti appears to have slipped between the cracks – it neither fulfilled the requirements of the adult movie genre nor did it adequately explore queer identity on the screen. The adult rating consigned the film to B-grade territory, but given the times, it must have been hard to push the boundaries any further.
“The people sitting at the Censor Board would have refused to watch the film had they been told that it deals with homosexuality because in those days, such a thing was unimaginable,” Kakkad pointed out.
Queer love remains a no-go subject for most filmmakers, and is mostly articulated through the prism of comedy (Kal Ho Na Ho, Dostana) or homophobia (the films of Madhur Bhandarkar, Bol Bachchan, Mastizaade). Serious dramas that explore same-sex romance on its own terms, such as Deepa Mehta’s Fire (1996) and Pan Nalin’s Angry Indian Goddesses (2015), are exceptions.
Prem Kapoor appeared to want homosexuality to be considered at the same level as heterosexual romance. Given the row over the A rating for the trailer of Aligarh, it’s clear that Kapoor was probably the first director to feel this way but certainly not the last.