Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh is a touching human story told with great empathy and honesty, writes Sangeeta Datta.
Events around the world increasingly expose the construction of the “other” and the politics of exclusion, whether through nationality, religion or gender. Such events also underline social mindsets about the normative and the acceptable. Countering this worldview is an urgent call for inclusiveness and tolerance, for human rights and dignity to be shared by the people of the world.
If this is the big picture, we see the debate played out on a microcosmic scale in Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh. In the wake of nationwide student unrest and demonstrations, democracy questioned and censured, a small film arrives. Here is the power of making the local global. In a small university town, a middle-aged professor (Manoj Bajpayee) is forced to quit his job after his sexuality is exposed. A young journalist (Rajkummar Rao) from Delhi meets him to know more about his story.
Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras lives as a bachelor in the university quarters. Following a sting operation, he is found in his bedroom with a young rickshaw puller. University authorities witness his humiliation and the next day he is suspended from his job. Soon after, he is persuaded to vacate his apartment and rent elsewhere. Persuaded by the young journalist as well as supporters from Delhi, Siras challenges the University in a court case. Despite having an empathetic lawyer, Siras is further shamed in court with the prosecutor’s questions and the video uploaded on social media. He wins the case but commits suicide a day before he is due to return to his job.
Siras is depicted as an affectionate teacher and a sensitive poet who, when asked if he is gay, counters by asking how his emotions can be defined by a three-letter word. He is tender, complex and deeply layered, subtly nuanced like his poetry, credible and entirely humane.
Based on true events, Professor Siras’s story is reconstructed through a series of meetings with Indian Express journalist Deepu Sebastian Edmond. He is depicted as an affectionate teacher and a sensitive poet who, when asked if he is gay, counters by asking how his emotions can be defined by a three-letter word. Bajpayee’s Siras is tender, complex and deeply layered, subtly nuanced like his poetry, credible and entirely humane.
Dishevelled and crumpled, clutching his bag and papers, vulnerable Siras seeks human touch and warmth, painfully clinging to the last vestige of dignity life can offer. His social ostracism, his fear and paranoia, his bewilderment and bemusement engage and involve the viewer. In his shabby apartment, or in the gloom outside, his eyes shine in the shadows as he talks of emotions that are like poetry, his desire that is sharp and uncontrollable. Like poetry is to be found in the gaps and silences between words, Siras is constructed from unsaid words, subtle gestures and unrewarded feelings.
Aligarh captures the reality of India’s small towns in great detail and the claustrophobia of a man whose choices are different in life. This is a fresh narrative about an older gay academic who is isolated without the bravura or solidarity of urban collectives. When Siras is invited to a gay get-together, he shies away from conversation and the flaunting dance performance. Persuaded to sing, he presents a Marathi song, bashfully stopping halfway.
Hansal Mehta has earned national renown for his socially relevant films ever since his National Award-winning Shahid. Committed to telling real-life stories, he was driven to make the film after he was sent the life story of Prof Siras. “I didn’t find the subject, the story found me,” he says. “The writer’s mail about this story was lying in my junk mail.” Screenwriter Apurva Asrani, a veteran film editor who has also won a National Award, had a personal stake in the project, as this was his first full-fledged film script. Rajkummar Rao, who like Asrani, collaborated with Mehta in Shahid and CityLights, thrives in a role that seems to be written for him; he is a very credible young journalist, bringing urbanity and humour to the film.
But Aligarh belongs to Manoj Bajpayee, who owns his character, bringing to life the 64-year-old professor betrayed by his colleagues, hounded by neighbours, facing a loveless life of solitude. An actor of tremendous ability and range—as evidenced by the memorable Gangs of Wasseypur—his understated performance is a study in eloquence, residual like poetry. Bajpayee emotes every shifting feeling in Siras’s head. His hesitant and measured body language is a masterclass in acting. And the unlikely bond between the journalist and the elderly professor leads to warm scenes like Siras drinking in his room and listening to music, both of them dining in the hotel canteen, both in a boat on the river with the vast expanse of sky and water behind them.
The film reconstructs the sting operation as a slow unfolding of events at key points in the narrative. It is a brutal scene in which the professor and his young rickshaw-puller partner are beaten, stripped and humiliated. While the urgent question of right to privacy raises its head, the film is much more about Siras the man, his little world, his music and poetry, his immense loneliness and alienation. Soon after this public humiliation, Siras retreats to his room, plays a Lata Mangeshkar song on his old player and sips his glass of whisky. The camera holds as this consummate actor deploys every quivering muscle, every moist-eyed glance to retreat to an inner world transported by his favourite music.
Aligarh belongs to Manoj Bajpayee, who owns his character, bringing to life the 64-year-old professor betrayed by his colleagues, hounded by neighbours, facing a loveless life of solitude. An actor of tremendous ability and range his understated performance is a study in eloquence, residual like poetry.
Later, in a busy courtroom as the lawyers quibble furiously, Bajpayee’s Siras disconnects, dozing off or opening his poetry book to translate his verse into English.
O beloved moon
Fear not the dawn that separates us
We will meet again when the world sleeps.
Poignant images such as this haunt the viewer, like Siras in an empty hotel room while the lights glitter outside, or Siras walking home with a basket of groceries. His rejection and then slow acceptance of Deepu leading to the boat ride in Allahabad, the confession about his marriage that didn’t work, the hesitant selfie and the endearing shyness when he is called handsome. Cinematographer Satya Nagpaul offers an incredible palette of gritty real and poetic distance. Mehta, who was sure that the film was more poetic than political, selected Nagpaul after watching his work in Anhe Ghode Da Daan.
Mehta’s career has evolved a long way from his early producer days of a popular food show for television. He has also been lucky finding distributors for his films. Aligarh is distributed by Eros International, a welcome initiative by a traditionally mainstream Bollywood distribution company. Things have moved forward from the struggle of making Onir’s I Am and the closeting of Rituparno Ghosh’s early films (Unishey April, Dahan, Ashukh).
Mehta takes his medium seriously and believes “Indian audiences have always been evolved. If they are given real stories they will accept them. I was driven to make this film and tell this story. So I make real films and use straightforward storytelling techniques which engage the audience.”
Aligarh received a standing ovation at the Pusan Film Festival, great audience feedback at the London Film Festival and opened the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival. As a filmmaker, Mehta takes his medium seriously and believes “Indian audiences have always been evolved. If they are given real stories they will accept them. I was driven to make this film and tell this story. So I make real films and use straightforward storytelling techniques which engage the audience.”
Although Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was decriminalised in 2009, when the events depicted took place, the Supreme Court overruled the order of the Delhi High Court in December 2013, once again making “unnatural sex” punishable by law. Gay rights is a global human rights issue today. Siras’s story needs to be told, heard and accepted. It breaks many social myths and preconceptions and pleads for normalcy and acceptance. It is undoubtedly the most sensitive film about being gay, the politics of identity and the heart-wrenching cruelty of intolerance. Aligarh is a metaphor for the struggle of minority identity. It is, above all, a human document about the right to be different and to live with dignity.
The controversy about an adult certificate for the film’s trailer led to discussions in print and television. That discourse entered people’s drawing rooms and stayed there. Aligarh has had a comparatively small release in metros and few larger towns. And the viewers are engaged to the extent that they are expressing their views on social network. Aligarh does hold a mirror to society, to its cruel intolerance, to its brutal aggression, to the violent language of the court scene. It is an important intervention in the national debates about freedom of expression and the right to privacy, though looking at it as part of this discourse constricts the reach of a film that is essentially a touching human story told with great empathy and honesty.
Twenty years ago, a small film called Fire was released in India. Saffron winds were blowing and theatres in Delhi were vandalised by the women’s brigade of the RSS. Today, Aligarh cannot be exhibited in Aligarh and other towns. The same moral policing does not allow exhibitors to show the film. Yet Hansal Mehta has just received a message from a student in Aligarh Muslim University who plans to hold a free screening in one of the town’s theatres. At a time of foment and change, a film or a book grows beyond its dimensions, that is how cultural texts are made, and so it is true of Aligarh.