In terms of timeliness, Aligarh hits the bull’s eye like few others, in a country where film industries hesitate to touch contemporary history. It arrives in theatres in a year when the national debate on the rights of LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender) persons is louder than it has ever been here, with the Supreme Court earlier this month agreeing to re-examine Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that currently criminalises homosexuality.
Aligarh is based on the true story of Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras who was thrown out of Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in 2010 after he was filmed by intruders while having sex with a male rickshaw puller in his quarters on campus. This happened in the year following the Delhi High Court’s historic ruling reading down Section 377 to effectively decriminalise homosexuality (overturned in 2013 by the Supreme Court and now once again under the lens of a larger SC bench).
Professor Siras successfully sued AMU in the Allahabad High Court. Shortly afterwards, he was found dead in mysterious circumstances in his apartment, in what was at first suspected to be a suicide.
For those who refuse to see the reality, his tragedy is a perfect illustration of how homophobia can destroy people. National Award-winning director Hansal Mehta (who earlier made Shahid and CityLights) and writer-editor Apurva Asrani have chosen to chronicle his life through a friendship that developed between the shy academic and real-life journalist Deepu Sebastian who wrote about the case in The Indian Express (called India Post in the film).Therein lies the film’s strength and its Achilles' heel.
Young Deepu’s well-meaning questions to the elderly gentleman are used in a telling fashion to convey the point that this story is not about LGBT rights or an individual’s homosexuality alone. This is also very much about invasion of privacy, the fluid definition of privacy in a conservative society, loneliness and the right to dignity. It is about marginalisation that results from social prejudice and a potential victim’s fear of ostracism. This is a story of a reticent man who balked at labels, was rudely shoved under the spotlight and became a reluctant poster boy for India’s LGBT rights movement though all he wanted was to be left alone with his books, his Lata Mangeshkar and his self-respect.
Were you thrown out because you are gay? Was the rickshaw puller your lover? Any journalist in those circumstances would absolutely have to ask these questions. The aim must be to ask with sensitivity, and Deepu does well on that front, which is evidenced by Professor Siras’ willingness to engage with him in the midst of fools who would thrust a mike into an old man’s face and ask about a personal calamity, “Aapko kaise mehsoos ho raha hai? (How do you feel)?”
Aligarh’s screenplay deftly and delicately handles these matters while making sure that the film is not ‘about an issue’ so to speak, but about a human tragedy.
The writing is well complemented by Manoj Bajpayee, who is unrecognisable here in the role of the elderly academic. The transformation is not merely cosmetic, he appears to have absorbed the professor into every cell of his being.
Like the character he plays in the film, the actor would know a thing or two about the sidelines, having inhabited the outskirts of Bollywood for almost two decades after his career-defining performance as Bhiku Mhatre in Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998). Life has been tough until recent years for artists like him who are not in the singing-dancing-and-romancing-the-pretty-heroine mould. He was back in the reckoning with Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) in which he played a bloodthirsty, horny gangster. Chameleon-like though he was in that film, it is nothing compared to the genius of his performance in Aligarh.
Rajkummar Rao as Deepu matches up to the veteran, although he is done in by the excessive focus on his character and in particular, by an awkwardly handled scene in the end when he hears of the professor’s demise. This brings us to the film’s big failing.
Despite the pluses described in the preceding paragraphs, the screenplay appears to forget early on that the subject of Aligarh is Professor Siras and not his relationship with Deepu. It would have been fine to use the reporter as a narrative device, but the film gradually loses focus as it becomes equally about both men rather than about one observing the other.
In fact, a brief interlude in which we are shown a sexual encounter between Deepu and his female boss ends up harming the cause the film seeks to espouse. This scene is clumsily juxtaposed against Professor Siras in bed with the rickshaw puller, clearly in an effort to underline the stance that casual sex between consenting adults should be okay irrespective of whether the couple in question is gay or straight.
Apart from the in-your-face nature of this messaging, what is bothersome is Aligarh’s narrow, shallow understanding of consent and the effort to position Deepu's boss as the epitome of coolth. There is nothing cool about a woman boss inviting a male subordinate to consume alcohol with her on a darkened office terrace and then sexually propositioning him. The point, dear Team Aligarh, is not whether Deepu agrees to drink with her or sleep with her but whether there might have been professional consequences for him if he had refused.
No, she does not physically overpower him, she does not literally hold a gun to his head (though figuratively speaking, who is to say that is not what she was doing?) and we do not know her well enough to know whether she might have victimised him if he had said no. But given the complexities of sexual harassment at work, it is extremely simplistic to not have considered these questions before choosing to insert this scene in the film.
The argument attempted here could well have been conveyed without the woman having been Deepu’s boss, but because she is, and because this scene is inter-cut with Professor Siras coaxing the rickshaw puller into bed, what the film has unwittingly done is to draw a parallel between the professor and a character who should rightfully be viewed as a sexual predator at an office.
Ask yourself this, Team Aligarh: would you not have been troubled by these doubts if there had been a gender reversal, if Deepu had been a woman and the boss had been a man?
Because of the contrived and very obvious effort to establish an analogy between the two relationships, the power equation at the office ends up showing the class divide between Siras and his lover in a bad light. This is particularly unfortunate because the sexual liaison between a middle-class teacher and an impoverished man despite the social chasm separating them should otherwise have been a cause for wonderment.
Professor Siras was much older, highly educated, an award-winning writer, a Maharashtrian, a Marathi teacher, a Hindu in a university originally set up for the education of Muslims and, as he points out in the film, he was resented by some for being successful despite being an outsider. His partner was Muslim yet could perhaps be deemed the vulnerable one of the two in the relationship: young, presumably not educated, a rickshaw puller and poor.
That they could have found tenderness between them despite their differing circumstances is fascinating and intriguing. Yet we are robbed of any exploration of that beauty by the super-imposition of his initial reaction to Siras’ overtures against Deepu’s hesitation when his boss makes a move on him.
There is an eternal lesson in here for us all. The fact that a film is inspired by a moving real-life story does not automatically make it a moving film. The fact that a film supports a genuine and very important cause does not automatically make it effective.
Despite a sterling performance by Manoj Bajpayee and other positives,Aligarh ends up being an inconsistent biopic – on the one hand providing a beautiful portrait of reclusiveness, yet elsewhere doing a disservice to a man to whom this country owes an apology.