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Finding Badnaam Basti (1972): Accidental discovery that restored a piece of Indian cinematic history

Directed by journalist Prem Kapoor, the film was presumed lost for more than 40 years, till it was found by chance in an archive in Germany.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

In 1971, Prem Kapoor, editor of the popular Hindi weekly magazine Dharmyug decided to adapt the novel Ek Sadak Sattaavan Galiyan by Kamleshwar Prasad Saxena into a film. The story was originally published in the literary journal Hans in 1956 and created quite a stir at the time as it wrote about the relationship between a truck driver and a young man.

A student of philosophy, Kapoor wished to advance his exploration of human desire and his debut film, Badnam Basti (1972), based on Kamleshwar’s story, became possibly the first Indian film to portray a same-sex relationship on screen. Edited by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, with music by renowned classical flautist Pandit Vijay Raghav Rao, Badnaam Basti was funded by the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), later to be known as the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC).

The story of two men and a woman on the margins of society, the film was awarded an 'A' rating by the Central Board of Film Censors (as the CBFC was then called) and did not fare well at the box office. In an attempt to salvage the film, Kapoor re-edited it and attempted a re-release in 1978, but with the same result. Thereafter, the film was mostly forgotten, till it recently surfaced in Germany.

Saagar Gupta, director of programming, Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival, said that after the film failed to find success in India, director Kapoor tried to send it abroad to film festivals, particularly to Venice, where it was meant to represent India along with Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti (1969).

However, Kapoor was not happy with the edit of the film done by Mukherjee, probably because it was too aligned with arthouse sensibilities rather than what Kapoor had envisaged. So, the first-time filmmaker decided to take the reins in his own hands and attempted another version.

While Badnaam Basti never did make it to Venice, it was featured at the Mannheim Film Festival in West Germany (or the Federal Republic of Germany, as it was called). From there it ended up in the vaults of the Arsenal Institute for Film and Video Art in West Berlin. A cataloguing error saw it filed away under another name and thus the film was presumed lost.

Badnaam Basti remained in the vaults for almost 50 years till a doctorate student of film studies came across the title in a list of Raj Kapoor films! The surname had apparently caused the confusion, but that’s how Badnaam Basti was eventually discovered! The 35mm print was found badly tattered, but the Arsenal institute restored it digitally. The current length of the restored version is 83 minutes, so the extant film is thought to be the original version that was awarded an 'A' certification.

The Kashish film festival found out about the film when journalist Lyle Pearson, who has been attending the festival in Mumbai every year, brought it to the attention of the team. The festival tracked Prem Kapoor’s family and his son, Hari Om Kapoor, granted it permission to screen the film at the festival.

Not only is the discovery of the film remarkable, the period of the film makes it a unique example of the changing trends in cinema at the time.

Talking about the artistic quality of the film, festival director Sridhar Rangayan said, “The whole styling [of the film] is unique. The film needs to be discovered just for its sheer beauty. It has got very different editing, the storytelling, narrative style is so unique, and the music is amazing, so I would say that apart from showing the same-sex relationship story, Badnaam Basti should find a place in the annals of Indian cinema history for this neo-realist kind of filmmaking.”

Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti (1969),  Basu Chatterji’s Sara Akash (1969) and Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969) had ushered in the New Wave movement and Badnaam Basti was very much part of this movement. A review of the film in The Times of India newspaper's edition dated 23 January 1972 said, 'It is the kind of film which can seem quite incoherent to viewers unaccustomed to its special language and dependent for their understanding of a film on large morsels of straight, spoon-fed narrative, adequately mashed.'

Expressing his excitement at the film being screened serendipitously at the festival, Gupta said, “We are thankful to the Arsenal institute for sharing the film with us. Also thankful to everyone who was intentionally or accidentally involved in the resurfacing of the film, including Raj Kapoor!”

With the discovery of Badnaam Basti, one can’t help but wonder what other treasures of Indian cinema lie buried in film vaults around the world.

Badnaam Basti will be screened tomorrow 27 July as part of the virtual edition of the Kashish festival.

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Kashish Mumbai International Queer Film Festival