By Ashok Row Kavi
I watched Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh on a sultry October night at JioMAMI Festival and it left me sweating the whole night. Early next morning I collapsed in my bathroom as the agony of homosexuals in India portrayed in the movie strangely grew into a psychosomatic spasm.
What’s chilling about the film is that what happened to the protagonist could happen anywhere in India – in posh Malabar Hill, in the dreary landscape of Bareilly or even in the picturesque hills of the North-East. What Mehta and writer Apurva Asrani have done is pluck out a commonplace professor in a commonplace university and weave a true life story into a tapestry of terrifying, compelling drama.
The story is about Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, who I shall call ‘Professor’, which is what he was at Aligarh’s dazzling showpiece of a university. He was a Professor of Marathi and Head of the Classical Modern Indian Languages Faculty at Aligarh Muslim University. Given that there were few takers for Marathi, Prof Siras had plenty of time to write some excellent poetry and hear Lata Mangeshkar’s classical Bollywood numbers.
At night, like a lot of homosexuals, he went into the streets. His objects of eroticism were essentially cycle rickshawwallahs who always have an “easy side” to them. It is, of course, the same in all major cities in India; the night drivers of taxis, rickshaws and even buses are forever looking for ‘mazaa and masti’, as homosexual sex is called.
In Professor’s case this was known to other gay men on the AMU campus. It is surprising how common ‘mazaa aur masti’ is in those parts. Mothers openly frighten their boys saying they would be “handed to the Mullahji”, if they don’t behave. Friends fool around and then plead with dosts to stop their ‘homogiri’. The words for gay men can be either positive ‘Gud’ (jaggery) or the derisive “G@#$du”. Aligarh Muslim University and Banaras Hindu University may be two ends of the communal spectrum in India but what they have in common is their turbulent, tenacious homosexual subcultures.
Sadly, the Professor lived on the wild side. Without the support system of the gay networks in Aligarh and yet known for his dangerous nightlife, he – like lakhs of Indian homosexuals – was a sitting duck. Jealous of his rapid rise in academia, his colleagues, the usual coterie of the mediocre in our universities, began machinations against him.
One night, as he was making out with a Muslim rickshaw-wallah, two guys entered his first floor flat and video-shot his lusty endeavors, soon to be followed by four senior members of the faculty conveniently having “dinner nearby”. Then the descent to hell began. Betrayed even by his fellow colleagues in the Faculty of Classical Languages, Professor was suspended on “moral grounds” (which is incidentally there in every work contract nowadays in India) and given exactly seven days to quit his official quarters.
Not happy with the long week as reprieve, a varsity worker came and cut off the electricity the very next day. Sent into the dusty lanes of Aligarh, Professor was shunted from one hearth to another home till a mysterious death put him out of his misery.
What is carefully avoided in the film, possibly rightly so, is how the vice chancellor and great upholder of ‘minority rights’, called AMU “sacred soil” before expelling him. Prof Irfan Habib too was very unsupportive. What made Professor’s condition so unique was that his suspension and sacking happened soon after the historic Delhi judgement had decriminalised same-sex relations in private. Even that did not prevent AMU’s lawyers dragging him through the filth of moralizing and pretentious puritanical piffle even as the Lawyers’ Collective fighting for him insisted on the invasion of privacy and gross violation of personal freedom, both due to him as constitutional rights.
The film itself is a masterpiece of cinematic skills bundled deftly by Mehta and Asrani with several LGBT staffers in the unit. From the transgender cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul to costume designer Pia Benegal, everything is in place where it should be, precisely because of the sensitivity that shines through. The compositions of each frame are painted in colors that slap you and suck you into the wilderness of Uttar Pradesh, reminding you of Kiplingesque foggy evenings.
Amidst these sometimes surreal sets, Manoj Bajpayee stands out as Professor Siras. Looking crushed and broken as the closet homosexual, a word he does not even understand, while hanging lamely onto his empty balderdash Brahminism, Bajpayee plays the role to perfection. So perfect is he in some scenes that he evokes more than six different closet homosexual friends I know in the same predicament. Hats off to Bajpayee for the long sex scene with the young rickshaw-wallah.
Thank you Apurva for that masterly scene where reporter Deepu Sebastian makes torrid love to his female colleague openly behind the office building. It’s tragic that one love is publicly validated while another, which is played out behind closed doors, is looked upon as criminal. Raj Kummar Rao, who plays Deepu Sebastian, is getting better by the day. One feels he sees Professor Siras as just a two-dimensional persona without the crazy dichotomy that gay men live through. I think Deepu could have been more fleshed out.
There are flashes of Apurva Asrani’s own complex understanding of the homosexual life which confounded me. While he is right in showing the slow growth of Prof. Siras from a gay man who doesn’t care about his sexual identity, he suddenly transforms him into a fully-fleshed out gay man wanting to flee India and go live the gay life in America. This failure to explain how the personal slams into the political is the jarring weakness in the script. It doesn’t satisfy my Foucaultian logic on how a homosexual identity develops - Foucault describes the homosexual identity evolving in terms of a certain socio-economic paradigm.
The dramatic denouement is where Mehta and Asrani use the Delhi High Court judgment of 2009 decriminalizing homosexuality and the Supreme Court judgment recriminalizing it again in 2013 to hammer in the point that the stigma and discrimination against us homosexuals will remain no matter how many judgments are pronounced. The Supreme Court might as well watch this film to see the havoc it has caused with his complete lack of diligence in calling us a “miniscule minority”.
The UNDP’s New York head has called us the country with the largest number of Men-Having-Sex-With-Men (MSM). Maybe the Supreme Court can take off where Prof Siras failed. Maybe he could see “homosexual identity” as a process and not a high street carnival-like event.
What Aligarh is going to do is light the fires of outrage over the sheer stupidity of legislating on private consensual sexual matters. The Indian state with its pretention of being a nation-state built on equity and justice will find a very large army at the gates. It is going to be an unlikely army - of a rainbow spectrum of people who have always been a minority since the primate covered the planet.
The human primate is the only one of his species that has sex in private and yet polices it. This war is going to be this primate’s biggest and toughest fight. And India with its bewildering pluralism will be the battleground. Jai Ho Aligarh, I’m ready in my battle dress!
Ashok is LGBT rights activist and Editor of Humsafar
Updated Date: Nov 04, 2015 13:09 PM