An elderly professor at one of India’s once-of the most prestigious centres of higher learning is hounded out – of his job, and his humble abode — because of his sexual orientation. What happens to him makes up Hansal Mehta’s ‘Aligarh’. It is a film both timely and telling, because of what it is about, and how it is told.
Queer characters are not characters who just happen to be queer in most Bollywood movies. They are stereotypes sent up for sniggers (with the notable exception of a few of Onir’s films, ‘My Brother Nikhil’, and ‘I Am’ ; Karan Johar’s segment in ‘Bombay Talkies’). They mince rather than walk. They dangle their wrists. They are there to be mocked at.
Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) is getting on in years. As befits a teacher and author, he is a man of letters. He likes poetry. He likes a glass or two of the good stuff when the day is ending. Above all he is alone, sharing his loneliness with Lata Mangeshkar’s soulful songs, and occasionally, a tryst with another human who just happens to be of the same sex.
Deepu (Rajkummar Rao) is the Delhi-based reporter of a national daily who stumbles upon the Siras ‘story’ in a local Aligarh paper, and pursues it with his photographer colleague Tashi (Gulati). (Full disclosure: Deepu Sebastian Edmond, on whom Rao’s reporter is based, was with the Indian Express when the story broke; photojournalist Tashi Tobgyal works with the paper).
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Siras’ ‘case’ segues into the historic 2009 Delhi High Court judgement which decriminalized homosexuality, and is fought by a legal eagle (Ashish Vidyarthi) who places privacy in a bedroom beyond the ‘moral’ pale, and sneering guardians of ‘morality’. The hectoring tone of the public prosecutor in Allahabad is of a piece with the general castigation brought to bear upon the LGBT community, and Siras’s exoneration feels like a victory, even if short-lived.
What is really interesting about Siras is his visible discomfort at being labelled ‘gay’; he’d rather not be labelled anything at all. That discomfiture tells us much more about him than anything else: he is of a generation which doesn’t go around sticking convenient bumper-stickers on people; for him they are just people, whether they dance, giving vent to their longing, in all-stag parties (one of the film’s most astonishingly poignant sequences), or whether they barge into his bedroom, video camera at the ready.
Manoj Bajpayee makes of Siras a man whose bewildered fragility is up for examination, and whose gentleness demands understanding and compassion. There are initial moments where you can see Bajpayee trying. And then he becomes Siras, greying hair curling at the temples, a worn suit to be donned when out of the house, an old blanket draped around the shoulders when home, fingers carving notes in the air as Lata’s voice fills his shabby living room. It is a fine performance, quiet and affecting.
And it carries ‘Aligarh’, especially when Manoj Bajpayee transcends himself, and gives us a man trying to deal with pain and humiliation with dignity. Rao’s youthful ebullience is an effective counter, his Malayalam- inflected Hindi just right. It is a pleasure to see these actors interact. The newsroom doesn’t feel as real as it should, though (for that, please watch ‘Spotlight’, which gets it spot-on): those portions are off-key. I also missed seeing Siras’s relationship with his students : or, seeing the perfunctory nature of the department of Marathi that Siras heads at the Aligarh Muslim University (everyone in the film carefully leaves out the ‘Muslim’ whenever the name comes up), did he have any to speak of? Did he leave his native Maharashtra to seek refuge in Aligarh?
But the film itself is bigger than these things. Like in his ‘Shahid’, Hansal Mehta and scriptwriter Apurva Asrani have come up with a lead character and a film which shines with authenticity and emotional heft, which leaves you thinking, and which says something we should all listen to, especially in these times when it has become more imperative than ever before: we can be different, but we are us.
Star cast of Aligarh: Manoj Bajpayee, Rajkummar Rao, Ashish Vidyarthi, Sumit Gulati, Dilnaz Irani
Director: Hansal Mehta
Three and a half stars