Why Was ‘Adhura,’ Irrfan Khan’s 1995 Queer Fil, Banned?

There’s plenty to say about Bollywood’s contemporary situation regarding queer narratives and representation, no doubt. This week though, a certain well-loved actor’s effort to bring those ideas into the mainstream has been discovered. Writer-journalist Manish Gaekwad brought our attention to Adhura, a unique film from 1995 that starred Irrfan Khan.

In the film, ironically called Adhura (Incomplete), Irrfan Khan plays a journalist who has an affair with an ageing industrialist.

Art dealer and gallerist Ashish Balram Nagpal played the role of the industrialist. Kitu Gidwani was playing a key role as Irrfan’s wife. pic.twitter.com/6j4D9ctmoA

— manishgaekwad (@manishgaekwad) June 16, 2022

Here’s quick archive snippet from India Today, dating back to June 30th, 1995, from a report filed by an uncredited journalist:

Is Bollywood finally coming out of the closet? In Adhura, sparks fly between man and man and passionate love blossoms.

The first Hindi film to openly deal with homosexual love, Adhura, directed by Sunil R. Prasad, is slated to be released by July end. In the film, Ashish Balram Nagpal is a billionaire businessman who is floored by a newspaper editor, played by TV actor Irfan Khan, and soon becomes hopelessly smitten. But Khan opts for the closet and takes a wife (Kitu Gidwani).

For Nagpal, who has acted as an underworld killer in Yudh, it has been a challenge to play a passive gay. Says Nagpal: “Any actor would give his right arm for it.” 

The question is: Would any producer?

The last point made here is particularly poignant, considering that India’s infamous censor board deemed the film banned as a result of its same-sex romance. Gaekwad went on to dig up several key snippets from the made-for-TV film, including an interview with Irrfan himself.

According to SpotboyE, the story line suggests that the relationship turns sour, leading to a tragic climax.

In his study Queer Asian Cinema: Shadows in the Shade (2000), writer Andrew Grossman says the film was made as a pilot for a television series. https://t.co/7ikBgAt03R

— manishgaekwad (@manishgaekwad) June 16, 2022

“I don’t think it’s detrimental to my career to play such roles,” said Irrfan Khan in the 2007 article. “We are not laughing at gay people in the film; what is important is the message.”

Speaking on the film specifically, the actor lightened up, speaking about his co-star Ashish Nagpal. “If Ashish had a crush on me, he expressed it in the most intimate way in the film! Adhura was made for TV audiences, but I don’t know why it never got released.”

Apart from the obvious social context, Adhura offers an interesting window into the life of the actor himself, who passed away in April 2020 after a long bout with cancer.

After a stint at the National School of Drama in the 1980s, Irrfan Khan kicked off his long career with several appearances in teleplays and serials. While he addressed several social issues across his career, this personal goal seems to have been cemented in the 1990s, where Irrfan of course tackled homophobia with Adhura, elevated a medical drama surrounding IVF in Ek Doctor Ki Maut, and asked questions of paranoia and social privilege with Such a Long Journey.

While Adhura was written about in the media as India’s ‘first openly-gay love story’, the history of homosexuality in Indian cinema goes much further. Gaekwad himself unearthed Badnam Basti back in 2020, writing of how an obscure 1971 film disappeared off the face of the earth, only to land in a film vault in Berlin, of all places:

In 1995, Adhura was touted as the first Hindi film to openly deal with homosexual love.

Although, there was a precedent in the clandestine romance in Badnam Basti made in 1971. https://t.co/XmFvcPVveA

— manishgaekwad (@manishgaekwad) June 16, 2022

We can’t help but wonder how the film could have influenced the trajectory of queer cinema if it had been released; it’s a tragedy made even worse by the fact that the CBFC denied Indians realistic queer narratives, while clearing films that caricatured queer people at best, and villanised them at worst.

(Featured Image Credits: SpotBoy, Mirabai Films)

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