Noted critic Roger Ebert’s words “Movies are like a machine that generates empathy” resonate strongly when we watch works like Hansal Mehta’s ‘Aligarh.’ Set in the monumental Indian city Aligarh, the film empathetically visualizes the hypocritical treatment meted to Shrinivas Ramachandra Siras by one of nation’s renowned universities.
Professor Siras was suspended from his job for being gay and persecuted (In 2009 the Delhi High Court declared Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code unconstitutional. The section that criminalizes homosexuality. In 2013, however, Supreme Court of India set aside the 2009 judgement by Delhi High Court) after a local TV channel reporter broke into the Professor’s house with a camera and caught him having consensual sex with another man. It was later alleged that fellow professors at the Aligarh University hired the reporters. Siras challenged the university’s decision on Allahabad High Court in April, 2010. But, these are all the trivias; the ‘what’ part. ‘Aligarh’s’ brilliance lies in the ‘how’ part.
A mere account of what the film is based on will coerce us to come up with a label: ‘gay/homosexual rights’ film.’ But, as much as Siras, director Hansal Mehta and writer Apurva Asrani too abhor preordained tags. So, let me put it this way. Aligarh freefloats in a graceful, lyrical way that seeps deep into your conscience to strike a chord. Quite like how Lata Mangeskar’s voice moves Siras in the film. It starts off as a character study, a tale of friendship and gradually evolves to make a powerful social commentary. The film opens with Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) arriving at his quarters, late one night in a rickshaw. The street light exudes a bright yellow, the color of sunshine and spring. The static frame observes Siras and the rickshaw puller entering the modest quarters and turning on the light. The color yellow also has a darkness to it, which represents pestilence and madness. The darkness that soon descends upon Siras as two men holding a camera, proclaiming their sexual desire for women, invade the professor’s personal space. The unblinking frame itself becomes a metaphor for the microcosm of the society Siras lives in. One that’s inquisitive about another’s sexual orientation.
At 64, Siras leads a lonely life and after his suspension, loses friends too. A cheerful rookie (and straight) reporter Deepu Sebastaian (brilliant performer Rajkummar Rao) from the metro empathizes with Siras’ plight and wants to do a human interest story. The script then elegantly lays out how enroachment of personal space, in smaller ways, and skeptical looks are bestowed upon every bachelor in India. It’s a nuanced way of telling how the primary agenda is not homosexuality. The Marathi-speaking Siras was already an outsider among the university’s Urdu-speaking majority (Deepu is a Malayali). Now he becomes a societal outcast too, whose personal space is not only violated, but also demanded to surrender to the very people who violated it. But Siras is a god-fearing, conservative man, who doesn’t seek the pleasure of winning over his oppressors. He is okay with sipping whiskies, while listening to Lata Mangeskar’s song. The late events give the professor a lonely, caged wife, waiting for him to curl up and die.
There were two instances where I thought Aligarh is going to take a different and easier path. When a cordial friendship develops between Deepu and the professor. And when activists jump in and take injustice against Siras to the Allahabad High Court. It could have been either a sentimental tale of friendship between outsiders or a loud court drama homing in on the point of human rights. But, the characterization of Siras works wonders. He watches and listens to everything with a detachment that asks ‘Will this make me get my life back?’ Siras is a man of simple pleasures and uncontrollable urges. He can take in poetry with long pauses and silence, but not labels or a rigid sense of morality. Of course, Siras is surprised and grateful that people are fighting on his behalf. But his loss is too profound to be undone by activism or changes in constitution. It’s his inner peace and privacy that is lost, which is as worse as criminalizing one’s sexual identity.
Director Hansal Mehta’s execution is poetry in itself diffusing layers of feelings. The way he pins his players in static frames reflects the suffocation faced in the hands of hypocrites. While Mehta’s initial shots instill in us a voeyeuristic feeling, he keeps going back to the same occasion to infuse empathy. The juxtaposed shots of Deepu reading Siras’ poetry and Siras’ rendezvous with his ‘lover’ gives grace to the word ‘love.’ Towards the end, when Deepu meets his editor in his office (terrace), the shot is once again juxtaposed with shots of Siras and his lover. This time the director notes the irony of how one ‘uncontrollable urge’ works, while the other is grossly invaded. Even, while crushing her lips and giving himself away to that urge Deepu looks around and feels someone is watching them. The shots dedicated to showcase the professor’s loneliness and inner doubts may test some viewers’ patience. But I was so attuned to the thriving feelings on screen that it didn’t seem to be a flaw. It would be an injustice to call Bajpayee’s work ‘acting.’ While many mainstream Indian actors want to harvest sympathy for their characters, Bajpayee fosters empathy within us; not just for Siras, but for every societal outcast in the society of hypocrites. He wears the self-imposed loneliness & imprisonment without enacting it. When Deepu talks about the fate of Irfaan, we can see pain seep through his face, like water slowly seeps into the crevices of a dried-up river. If seen with scrutinzing eyes, we can find flaws and inaccuracies in the script, but the same scrutinizing eyes of mine did nothing but wonder about Bajpayee’s portrayal of Siras.
Aligarh is an earnest appeal to the conformist society. It asks us to feel compassion and empathy rather than being the guardians of old, self-righteous doctrines. The film deserves all the superlative adjectives & labels like ‘fantastic,’ which Siras wouldn’t have approved of.
By Arun Kumar
Aligarh was screened at the 16th Annual New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF) on May 15, 2016.
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