By Rohini Banerjee for Youth Ki Awaaz:
‘Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes ‘unnatural’ sex acts. This includes homosexuality,’ the screen reminds you, before the movie even begins. On the surface, it seems like an obvious reminder—something nearly everyone knows by now—but once you’re there, sitting in the darkness with only the above words blinking at you and slowly watch Professor Siras’ story unfold before you, you realise how real this reminder is, and how utterly terrifying.
‘Aligarh‘ takes us back to 2010, when a shy, innocent professor of Marathi at the Aligarh Muslim University was suspended and consequently slapped with a lawsuit, simply because he was gay. On a night of loneliness, Professor Siras had sought company and passion with a young rickshaw-puller, but he was denied even this small moment of solace when a journalist duo had barged into his house, harassed him and his partner thoroughly, filmed him in private and in compromising positions, and subsequently circulated that MMS. Following this shocking event, the University —instead of looking into this disturbing breach of privacy — had turned on Siras, branded him ‘immoral’ and took severe legal action against him. It’s scary that something like this happened only five years ago, and that too during a time when the Delhi High Court had freshly ruled Section 377 unconstitutional (In 2009). More than that, it was utterly horrifying how a completely innocent man was brutally persecuted, only because he loved another man.
Director Hansal Mehta, along with Manoj Bajpayee (who plays Siras) and Rajkummar Rao (who plays a young journalist eager to help Siras), bring this story to life with remarkable sensitivity. Bajpayee’s performance is perhaps his best yet (and that’s huge, because he is amazing in almost every film he’s in)—and the way he brings out the nuances within the character, brings to life Siras’ alienation, loneliness, despair, and yet a child-like optimism is something that is utterly beautiful to behold. Indian cinema often slots its queer characters into strict boxes, making them seem like types more than people—but Aligarh completely changes that. The complexity of Siras’ ordeal, of the emotions he experiences, is explored with great depth, and not just that, the film also explores the meaning of being queer with never-seen-before maturity. In one scene, Deepu (Rajkummar Rao) asks Siras quite candidly whether he is gay, and Siras cringes and replies that calling him gay means restricting his identity within those three letters—it is, again, slotting and confining him into an inescapable box. This doesn’t mean that he is denying that he is gay, just that he doesn’t want to be defined in terms of his sexuality. This is a truly refreshing outlook from an Indian film—which are usually in a rush to stereotype a character, to reduce them to their gender or sexuality. Further into the film, Deepu again asks him whether the man Siras was with that night was his ‘lover’. Again, Siras, the poet that he is, cringes at this, and talks about how love is a profound, inexplicable emotion—and reducing it like that takes away the complexity of it. The way he verbalises these brilliant nuances so lucidly, so matter-of-factly, just goes on to show how big a triumph this film is for Indian cinema.
Aligarh’s poignancy lies in the little things. During an exchange of friendly banter between Siras and Deepu, Deepu asks for a picture of them together. Once they take the picture, Siras smiles shyly and says, “I look so bad.” But Deepu refutes this claim, and assures him that he is a “very handsome man”—to which Siras smiles further and blushes. This scene humanises Siras so brilliantly. It shows us that this is a man who is like you and me, who will blush when someone calls them ‘handsome’, who will find court proceedings ‘boring’ and doze off in the midst of them, who will listen to Lata Mangeshkar songs in times of loneliness and sing along. When you see such an ordinary, innocuous man being thrust into violence and ostracism, you realise the mercilessness of prejudice.
The cinematography, by Satya Rai Nagpaul is marvellous. It captures the claustrophobia of Siras’ situation—right from his cramped, confined apartments (which are perhaps symbolic of being in a closet), to the further cramped nature of the court where his case is being heard. How the events of that fateful night are shown is also very interesting, and the way it’s shot often reinforces how blatant a breach of privacy the incident was.
‘Aligarh‘, while being about the brutal violence that society perpetrates upon people of alternate sexualities, is essentially about a man who craves to be loved, but is denied that because the love he wanted was not socially acceptable. It exposes us to the harrowing truth of prejudice which exists in this country, but beyond that, it exposes how we as a people failed the mighty Professor Siras. May your spirit live on Siras, continuous and indefatigable, especially in these trying times.