Lost Hindi film “Badnam Basti”: Uncovering a classic of queer cinema history at The Block

Prem Kapoor’s 1971 Hindi film Badnam Basti (Alley of Ill Repute) is considered one of the first Indian films to explore queer relationships. Based on a novel by Hindi writer Kamleshwar Prasad Saxena, it centers on a love triangle between two men and one woman on the margins of society. The film is noted for its adventurous editing, strong performances, neorealist style, and the music by Vijay Raghav Rao, one of postcolonial India’s most innovative composers. 

It has also gone almost half a century without being seen

Although Badnam Basti was recut and rereleased in 1978, it faded into obscurity; until recently, the film was presumed lost. In late 2019, Simran Bhalla, The Block Museum 2019-2020 Interdisciplinary Graduate Fellow, and Michael Metzger, The Block’s Curator of Media Arts were conducting research in the catalog of Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art, in Berlin for the program Morning Will Come: Modernity in Indian Cinema. They uncovered reference to the film and after further research worked with colleagues at Arsenal to locate the print in their archives. As the only known 35mm print in existence, the film print was too rare to travel overseas. The archive was, however, able to create a new digital transfer to send to the Block for public screening.

Metzger says the film must have traveled to Berlin as a submission to a German film-festival around 1978. “Even the director’s estate had no idea where copies of the film existed,” he notes. “Scholars of Indian cinema have been aware of this for a long time, but haven’t been able to see it. So we were immediately excited to find out that this film might actually be accessible to us.”

While the original live screening event was canceled due to COVID-19, Block Cinema was able to negotiate a license for an online screening of the important work. On May 7 2020, The Block hosted a digital screening of the “lost” film, most likely marking the first time the film has ever been screened for American audiences. The Block welcomed over 150 live viewers from across the United States as well as the UK, Canada, Spain and India.

Press Coverage

The story of the discovery and the impact of this long overlooked film was covered by local and international press:

“Slowly, the seminal film fell off the map till experts located a print in Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art’s collection, Berlin. The black and white film was streamed online earlier this month, courtesy Block Museum, Northwestern University.”

Avijit Ghosh, “Almost 50 Years later, First Hindi film on Queer Love Makes waves,” Times of India, (May 27, 2020)

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.

Manish Gaekwad, “India’s first gay film Badnam Basti resurfaces after nearly half a century’s hibernation in Berlin archive, Firstpost (May 29, 2020)

“India’s LGBTQ movement has been gaining ground the last couple of decades, and so I think there’s a lot of interest in this film to see this thing that we thought that we never talked about,”Bhalla said. “It’s really important to understand how we thought about sexuality, how we govern sexuality, and it’s just important for reflecting on our past.”

Katie Jahns,” Block Museum screens “Badnam Basti,” considered first LGBTQ Indian film, The Daily Northwestern (May 8, 2020)

Conversation: Opening doors to a deeper LGBTQ film history

The Block’s special live screening of the film was followed by an online discussion with Simran Bhalla (PhD candidate in Screen Cultures, Northwestern University) and Sudhir Mahadevan (Associate Professor of Cinema and Media Studies at the University of Washington, Seattle).  The discussion touched on the film’s production and reception, its unique style, its queer and feminist themes, and its place in the history of Indian cinema.

While the film itself remains under license we are pleased to share this conversation to contribute to future scholarship.

“Badnam Basti is a vital piece of India’s history that audiences and scholars did not have access to for several decades. The film presents a very complex and nuanced representation of sexuality and forms of intimacy. I believe that the screening and conversation have opened doors to a more capacious understanding of cinema and social history in postcolonial India. 

I have been heartened to see people around the world sharing their views on the film, both on social media and in the press. The film’s discovery has been valuable to academics and film lovers, but the reaction from the queer South Asian community in particular has been inspirational”

Simran Bhalla, PhD in Screen Cultures, Block Museum of Art Interdisciplinary Fellow 2019–2020
Watch Badnam Basti post-screening conversation [Please note the video starts at 1:30]

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