The frame opens and stays where it is in possibly one of the longest opening shots in Hindi cinema in recent times. Watching from where you are, you become a voyeur, peeking into the windows of a house in a colony barely lit by street lamps in the fog that is characteristic of north Indian winters. For a long time nothing happens on screen, but your mind is already abuzz and sensing what is to come. And then the movie begins.
Aligarh, directed by Hansal Mehta is the true story of Prof. S. R. Siras (Manoj Bajpai), who was the Head of Department at the Department of Modern Indian Languages in Aligarh Muslim University. Not one to shy away from telling the truth, Mehta has not changed much about this man and his identity. Which is why the film has unofficially been banned in Aligarh, which is so telling of the times we live in – commit atrocities on those who do not conform, and disguise your inability to adapt as defense. When it is you who attacks someone not from your tribe because you cannot empathise, the excuse then is generally, “but his immoral ways are ruining our culture.” Suddenly, you gain the higher moral ground and become the victim as well – such a delicious combination for those seeking sympathy. This line of thought is exactly what Mehta is challenging: Who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed?
Siras is an outsider, no matter how you look at him. He is a Marathi man in a Hindi and Urdu-speaking city. He lives alone, surrounded by families in the quarters identical to his own. He plays Madan Mohan’s compositions and sings along with the nightingale-like Lata Mangeshkar in his own soulful, pain-filled but broken and tuneless notes. He probably gets himself drunk every night so that he can sleep. He occasionally gets a consenting rickshaw wala home to quell his loneliness. But don’t call him ‘gay’, for he cannot understand how just three letters can convey the vast range of emotions, desires, aspirations, personal and professional accomplishments, and baggage (in a society like ours) that make him the man he is. That word reduces his identity to make him uni-dimensional, and he dislikes that.
Aligarh is also the story of the young reporter Deepu Sebastian (Rajkumar Rao), who befriends this man he set out to write stories about in his newspaper. He understands Siras, his loneliness and his pain. He finds Siras’ quirks endearing: the peg he needs to have every evening after he comes back home, the autograph he needs to sign with his own pen, his poems in Marathi that he translates into English while his case is being heard in the court (he doesn’t care to be an activist and doesn’t understand legalese), the way a blush creeps up his shy face when he is told he is good looking, his mild manner even when he is affronted, and many more such small things that make the man someone you’d love to know.
Their personal stories also move parallel to each others’. Both try to ward of intrusions into their privacy, and both are outsiders (Deepu is a Malayali living in Delhi). However, while Siras is the quiet timid man satisfied to be able to stand against the tide, Deepu is full of energy, fighting his daily battles with gusto. But while in a flashback, we see Siras gently kissing the face of his partner in a closed bedroom; we are told they have been doing this for eight months now. We also see Deepu kissing his coworker passionately on the roof of their workplace after office hours. As the movie progresses, you begin to take stock of whatever Deepu has said and done, and you wonder if he is in love with Siras. Is his fling with his female coworker something he becomes part of to avoid being in the kind of situation his friend Siras is in?
The backdrop against which the interactions of these two men is set is the painful realisation that despite the raging debate on the criminalisation of homosexuality in India, there is an utter lack of sensitivity. The judiciary can declare homosexuality legal, but the general public will continue to look at all LGBTQ+ folk with absolute disdain and refuse to accommodate them in whatever small manner possible. Even the champion of LGBTQ+ rights, the giant of a lawyer Anand Grover (Ashish Vidyarthi) gets offended when Siras thinks of him as gay too. He is possibly in this for the name, fame and a certain standing among his peers. The other lawyer (Balaji Gauri) is too steeped in age-old prejudices to be able to even want any kind of justice for Siras. She even wonders how a 64 year-old has the “strength” to have sex? She is most likely from that section of society that look at sex as something that a man and a woman have with each other after they are married. There is no more sex in such marriages after the desired number of children. Sex for such people is strictly procreational.
Here, the case around Siras’ dismissal from the University takes the shape of a man engaging in consensual sex with another adult of the same gender versus the breach of his privacy, when TV reporters break into his house, beat him up and film him in a compromising manner. They are followed by Siras’ colleagues who had set this up to settle old scores with the man who had worked with them for over 20 years, and grown to become an HoD despite being a Maharashtrian. There are so many injustices against this man who has only kept his head down and done his work well, only because he is an “outsider” in every respect.
I feel Mehta must have interviewed everyone on the crew various questions pertaining to LGBTQ+ rights and sensitivity and only then upon being satisfied with their answers, taken them on the film. Writer and Editor Apurva Asrani and Cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul have collaborated with the director and the actors to create a masterpiece that will possibly go down in the history of Indian cinema as he most sensitive and nuanced portrayal of LGBTQ+ people in India. While those in the metros walk the Pride, there has barely been any small city/town/rural representation of homosexuality or gender non-conformity in any media. Aligarh is named so because it is about the city more than it is about Siras. Aligarh is the lead character in this film. Aligarh, the city is so claustrophobic for Siras. In contrast, his small apartment makes him feel freer. He can be himself when he is there. When that shred of liberty is also snatched from him, he becomes lonelier than ever, trying to find a space to call his own. Aligarh and its people drive Siras towards his eventual end. Aligarh still continues to be in character and refuses to have anything to do with this beauty of a film. And Aligarh is just one of many places in our country that looks at men like Siras with absolute contempt.
If Siras humming along to Aap ki nazron ne samjha pyar ke kaabil mujhe doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will.
-- Shibangi Das
*Aligarh is available to view in India on several streaming platforms, including YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, and Zee5