I’m so happy that a film like this got made in a country such as ours. It’s one of those stories that make your blood boil. Two men entered his room without permission, caught him in an “immoral act” with a male rickshaw puller, filmed it, tried to strip them naked and forced them to apologize for indulging in such “obscene” behavior inside a University campus. Anger, sadness, and outrage are some of the feelings that overtook me after I saw director Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, which is based on the true story of a gay Indian university professor named Dr.Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, who was ostracized after this incident. Siras was a professor of Marathi at Aligarh Muslim University and he was suspended from his job because of his sexual orientation.
Some of his colleagues at the Aligarh University campus were behind this sting operation, according to Siras. They were envious of the fact that an outsider like him was made Head of the linguistics department and have been trying to bring him down ever since. The fact that he was a homosexual made things easier for them. Siras was forced to vacate the residence allotted to him by the university. It’s not enough that they asked him to move out within a week but they also wanted to ensure that this one week become a miserable one for him by denying him electricity for a major part of the day – he was only allowed four hours of electricity per day! Siras’ case catches the eye of a Malayali journalist named Deepu Sebastian (played by Rajkummar Rao) who feels sorry for the man and decides to write a story on him. Rao is aptly cast and as I’m from Kerala, hearing Rao speaking in Malayalam brought a smile to my face.
Siras is reluctant to open his mind to Deepu at first because he mistook him for another one of those frauds who wants to take advantage of him and make his life a living hell. But he slowly realizes that Deepu’s intentions are good and gradually comes out of his shell to reveals his thoughts. With the help of Deepu, Siras’ case is brought to the attention of the public and an attempt is made to move the Allahabad court to repeal his suspension. The scenes of Siras’ persecution by the prosecuting attorney as well as the landlords of the several apartments that he had to move in to and out of, is contrasted with scenes of Deepu’s annoyances with his own landlord. There is an intrusion of privacy in both sides. This story is as much about the violation of privacy as it is about the acceptance of homosexuality. A genuine and moving friendship begins between Deepu and Siras.
But Deepu is not a homosexual himself and this is made clear in a scene where he engages in a steamy impromptu make-out session with his female editor. This is a really well-done scene. Mehta immediately follows this with a scene of Siras in bed with his lover and by making these two scenes appear in quick succession, Mehta not only illustrates how progressive we are becoming as a nation but also that the love between two men should be regarded as normal as the love between a man and a woman and is not something that should be frowned upon. The film makes a strong case for decriminalizing homosexuality and tries it’s best to change people’s perception of homosexuals. Unlike some of those pathetic mainstream Bollywood films that depict homosexuals in a stereotypical manner, Mehta’s film shows a gay man just like any other ordinary man, but with a different sexual preference.
National Award-winning Indian actor Manoj Bajpayee plays Siras and he gives one of the most heartbreaking performances I’ve ever seen. With his brilliantly nuanced and understated performance, Bajpayee once again proves why he is one of India’s greatest actors. This is a man who is damn good at disappearing into whatever role he takes on and you don’t for a moment think that this is the same man who portrayed the gangsters Bhiku Matre in Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya or Sardar Khan in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur. Bajpayee does a fantastic job of portraying Siras exactly as who he was – a shy, reserved and introverted man. In his spare time, he writes poetry and listens to the songs of Lata Mangeshkar. Most of the film is filled with scenes of Siras in his quiet and sad moments of solitude which give you a sense of what the man is really going through. These are some of the most affecting scenes in the film and the minimalist camera work (by Satya Rai Nagpaul) effectively captures the mood of each scene. Siras was made to feel guilty and ashamed of his feelings and Bajpayee does a great job of conveying all that.
It’s interesting to note that the manner in which the Indian Censor Board reacted to this film was no different from how Siras’ colleagues behaved. The Censor Board chief, Pahlaj Nihalani, slapped the film and its trailers with an A-certificate. He was of the opinion that the film was promoting homosexuality, which is an absurd argument. The film stands for human rights, tolerance, compassion, equality and a respect for one’s life choices. Why should a gay man be victimized if he is not doing any harm to others? This is also a point that the defense attorney (played by Ashish Vidyarthi) brings up in the film. Siras wasn’t having sex on the children’s playground; he was doing it in the privacy of his own bedroom. So why is everyone feeling so offended? An interesting point is also made on the many labels people come up with these days. At one point Siras remarks that he doesn’t like the words ‘gay’ and ‘lover’ because people view them in a dirty context. “How can you express your true feelings in a few words?” he asks. Kudos to Ishani Banerjee and Apurva Asrani for writing it.