By Smita Ruth:
The film releases when the country seems to have been taken over by ghosts of past injustices. Rohith Vemula, a Dalit research scholar takes his own life driven to the extreme step by institutional practices of caste discrimination. A ‘terrorist’ ghost, Afzal Guru, killed to satisfy the ‘collective conscience of the nation’ resurrects in the protests in a students’ march. Some students have been incarcerated to perhaps purge the nation of these uncomfortable possessions.
In between, the film playing right now in theatres across the country, cuts to another time, another university and yet another ghost – this time, a ghost which painfully did not take over the nation, or, not yet.
It is 2010, Aligarh Muslim University. The painful humiliation of a senior Marathi professor of Marathi, Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, exposed as a homosexual in a ‘sting operation’, possibly conducted by the university itself, pervades the whole movie. Prof. Siras, a poetry-loving, lonely senior citizen who listens to Lata Mangeshkar’s songs with his evening drink alone is sensitively played by Manoj Bajpayee in perhaps one of his best performance to date.
The film is from the perspective of a young, heterosexual, Malayalee reporter for a small-time English press. He ‘finds’ the story. He has the sensibility to rescue it from being a ‘sex scandal’ and slot it as a human rights issue, an issue of injustice against an old and already broken man. The tender relationship that blossoms between the young, urban reporter and the older regional professor is portrayed in tropes of beauty and emotion. It could be read either as a father-son duo or even as a younger man-older man coupledom.
The whole movie works through images of ‘outing’ or forceful exposure which is most feared by the closeted homosexuals who fear violence against them and the pain and choking within the closet. Siras is shown indoors in most shots. In almost all the shots, he is alone. He is shown to keep locking doors and windows, double lock them, and lock himself inside.
Light, in the movie, comes as the violence of the outside world. The glaring light of the intruders who enter his darkened private space, armed with the gaze of a video camera to catch him, to expose him in bed with a younger, working class Muslim man. This light here serves to represent the voyeuristic gaze of the ‘respectable’ society and the heterosexist institutions to which most of us belong. Aligarh University is no different. The fact that it is also laced with the morality of Islamic discourse makes it more alienating for Siras, a Hindu (who also claims he is a Brahmin to the reporter, in the film).
The value of privacy that the Section 377 judgement of the Delhi High Court seemed to hinge on is beautifully shown in the movie. The images of closed windows, the three latched door of the professor (which was, in spite of the physical locks, penetrable by the eyes of the world), the smaller and more cramped spaces into which the professor is pushed again and again – the contrast with the more open spaces of the elite, gay circles in the cosmopolis, leads us to note that the film keeps working with images of the closet and the violence of ‘outing’.
The film takes one back to the historic moment of the Delhi High Court judgement decriminalising Section 377. What it meant for the closeted (or, not so closeted) millions who have to live with the constant fear of the glare of exposure. It also shows us the limitation of liberal legal activism, without ever annulling its role in the lives of these people. The fact that Professor Siras committed suicide (allegedly) almost immediately after winning a legal victory against Aligarh University clearly points to its limitation. It was the day before he had to rejoin the university that he committed suicide, reminding us, painfully, of the prophetic words of Dr. Ambedkar who said that political reform without social reform was meaningless.
The everydayness of discrimination based on sexuality needs a different kind of activism and vigil. The courtroom is only one among the many avenues where the fight goes on. The loneliness and humiliation that a man like Siras faced all his life seems impossible to be wiped off with the legal activism of urban, gay groups or the sensitive reporting of the young humanist however much he seems to have appreciated them. This is not to discount this activism at all, but to say that perhaps we need very courageous steps within regional communities that have to be fostered and built along with urban discourses.
It should be noted that the movie does not exploit the stereotype of the ‘barbaric’ Muslim in any way even though this theme makes it easy to fall into that trap. It offsets the University authorities with friends of Siras, who are also Muslims, who stand by him even when the whole world turns against him. The most violent attacks against Siras come from a female lawyer, who is a bindi wearing Hindu, whose questions into his private conduct reminds one of the reliving of sexual violence that female rape survivors usually face in courtrooms. While the ethos of Aligarh is shown to be distinctly Muslim, the film in no way puts the blame on the ‘barbarity of the Muslim mindset’, but clearly shows the heterosexism that pervades our society, both Hindu and Muslim.
Unfortunately, unlike the other ‘ghosts’, Siras’ ghost refuses to possess the nation. His death, in a lonely, ramshackle rented house, was never taken up by the masses who neither identified with his pain or his humiliation. The film leaves us with the pain of the silence around him, which is resounding…