“B.A. Pass is not about sex. It’s a reflection of a society with limited financial security,” writes Akhil Kakkar.
Here’s the bitter truth – an imaginative and original movie like B.A. Pass will mostly be known for its sexual content. If you don’t agree with me, just type “B.A. Pass” on YouTube and your search results will be crammed up with countless videos that only show the movie’s sex scenes.
“Sex is hardly just about sex,” said acclaimed actress Shirley MacLaine. And there definitely is much more to B.A. Pass than its troupe of steamy spectacles.
Based on Mohan Sikka’s short story titled The Railway Aunty, the movie opens with its teenage protagonist, an annoyed and shaken Mukesh, who has recently lost his parents to an accident, stating that the incident doesn’t seem like a mishap to him, he just feels cheated. Such raw emotions are hardly portrayed in expository Bollywood movies where characters elucidate by crying or laughing.
Mukesh is reluctantly adopted by his Aunt’s family, with regular monetary assistance provided by his grandfather. His two sisters, though, against his will, are sent to a missionary school, a strong indication of the patriarchal attitude of the society he lives in.
Time goes by and Mukesh gets used to being a not-so-welcome part of his Aunty’s family where his life is distributed between going to college and doing chores at home. He has enrolled for a run-of-the-mill Bachelor of Arts (B.A. Pass) degree, a program that lacks specialization and is a dry homogeneous mixture of arts-related subjects. His only refuge is the games of chess he plays with his newly found friend Johnny, an undertaker.
Mukesh’s first encounter with Sarika Khanna, a middle-aged attractive housewife, happens at his Aunty’s flat where he accidentally catches her smoking in the bathroom. Sarika gazes towards Mukesh, and in a moment, we realise that she’s lustfully attracted to him.
Soon after, Mukesh goes to Sarika’s posh flat in the pretext of running an errand for her. With a strong and sudden initiation by Sarika, they both end up having sex, during which Mukesh ejaculates prematurely, a representation of his inexperience and immaturity.
Cut to Sarika teaching Mukesh the art of pleasuring a woman. This is where a string of sex scenes between Mukesh and Sarika begins which elegantly portray the story of how Mukesh, a virgin until recently, becomes an expert in sexual gratification. In a symbolic illustration, which could be inspired by the brilliant HBO T.V. series The Wire, we witness Mukesh gradually getting better at sex and at the game of chess simultaneously.
Sarika becomes Mukesh’s procuress and pimps him out to a range of married women. Women who are dissatisfied, women who are getting back at their husbands, women who are looking for variety, or women who are just bored. In return, Mukesh gets a substantial revenue stream, from which he plans to free his sisters from their shady adoptive school.
Just when we hope that things might be work out for the protagonist, reality kicks in. Drastic events unfold that make Mukesh painfully realise that the few people who he considered to be his friends and well-wishers have always been using him. Spoiler alert: this is definitely not a movie with a happy ending.
The protagonist’s unnatural comprehension of death is a motif in the movie, he is friends with an undertaker, plays chess at a cemetery, and helps out one of his clients when she finds out that her critically-ill husband has passed away.
Technically, B.A. Pass is flawless. Ajay Bahl’s noiresque storytelling is both crisp and gripping. His characterisation of Paharganj, an extremely crowded area in New Delhi which is known for its cheap hotels that attract bargaining bagpackers and non-do-gooders, through kaleidoscopic neon lights is imaginative. Shadab Kamal, Shilpa Shukla and Dibyendu Bhattacharya bring life to the characters they play. Shilpa Rao’s soundtrack, titled Shabh Gaya Hai, hauntingly synchronises with the eerie realities faced by the movie’s protagonist.
B.A. Pass is not about sex. It’s a reflection of a society with limited financial security. It’s a realistic rendering of a borough and how some of its settlers exploit innocence. Paharganj is a character in itself in the movie, and we witness the protagonist’s life gradually sloping down its hilly terrain.
Akhil Kakkar is a Mumbai-based writer. He has an M.A. in Creative Writing from Brunel University, London, where his dissertation tutor was Booker-longlisted author Matt Thorne. He has also attended the ‘Time to Write’ course at the University of Cambridge twice, and has been mentored by renowned Indian author Anita Nair. He recently was the Artist-in-Residence at Burren College of Art, Ireland. His work has been published in Bangalore Mirror, Scroll, The Criterion, Voices From The Attic, #TellMeYourStory, The Madras Mag and Arré.