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Despite Rave Reviews, Why Was The Film ‘Aligarh’ Shunned By The City It Is Named After?

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By Mohammad Rafay Qadri:

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‘Aligarh’, the movie, which portrays the story of an Aligarh Muslim University professor has sadly found few students interested in watching it, let alone taking up the cause of the movie. The movie, for very strange reasons, is not being screened in Aligarh city as a section of city politicians as well as one Muslim outfit have voiced anger against the title and the subject of the movie.

Only one show of the movie was run in a multiplex in Aligarh city on the 26th of February, the day it was released all across India.

Before we discuss the inertia regarding the movie in the AMU campus, let’s have a look at the movie, its story, and its connection with the university and the city.

‘Aligarh’ documents a brief period in the life of Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras. He was a noted professor of Marathi in the Department of Modern Indian Languages. He lived a very lonely life, mostly confined to his apartment in the Medical Colony, always engrossed in listening to music, reading or writing poetry. His poetry collection even fetched him a literary award conferred by the Maharashtra government.

One day in February 2009, he was filmed while having consensual sex with a rickshaw puller in his apartment by some local media persons. The film traces Siras’ story from here. Since homosexuality was and is a crime in our country and AMU happens to be ultra sensitive about such moral issues, Siras was suspended from his job. He was later even forced to vacate his official residence. He struggled to find accommodation in the city and was even tortured in many ways by some university officials. Very few from the university fraternity sympathised with him. But, he found an empathiser, and later a close friend, in a journalist who comes from Delhi to tell his story to the world.

Encouraged by journalists and activists, he fought against his suspension and his rights as a homosexual citizen. Luckily, while his case was being fought, Section 377 of IPC, which criminalises homosexuality, is struck down by the Delhi High Court and he went on to win his case in Allahabad High Court. Ironically, just after the verdict is announced in his favour and the homosexual community begins celebrating the relief granted to him, he is found dead in his rented accommodation in the Durga Wadi neighbourhood of Aligarh. The cause of his death, according to police, was possibly suicide because of consuming poison.

The story of Siras’ struggle to find acceptability given his sexual orientation in Aligarh is very sensitively handled by director Hansal Mehta. Siras’ character was marvellously essayed by Manoj Bajpayee, with fine assistance from Rajkumar Rao who played journalist Deepu in the movie.

‘Aligarh’ won rave reviews from almost all leading film critics in India. Aseem Chhabra in his review said, “Aligarh is a very important film, a milestone in the history of Indian cinema that should start the much needed conversation how India treats a visible and yet often ignored minority group.”

However, the film failed at the box office despite having good ratings from critics.

Of many reasons behind its commercial failure, one important factor could be the lack of interest shown by the AMU community towards the movie. ‘Aligarh’ was supposed to generate maximum interest among AMU students and teachers as the story of the movie is based in the university itself. Even in Aligarh city, it was expected that people would like to watch a movie named after their hometown. But, as the movie was about to be released, the city mayor Shakuntala Bharti declared it to be painting the city in bad light. “This movie is against our culture. It is against the syncretic Ganga Jamuni culture of this city. It will bring a bad name to our city,” she said and called for a ban on the movie in the city. Hence, when it was released in some Aligarh cinema halls, few people booked its tickets. Later, all cinema halls refused to show the movie.

Two AMU professors, including film critic Asim Siddique, saw the film on the very first day of its release. “There were only a handful of people watching the movie that (Friday) evening. In all probability, the owners of the theatres have stopped showing the movie on their own because of some perceived threat,” Siddique said.

A similar lack of interest in the movie was witnessed among the student community in AMU. Student organisations like Aligarh Activist Society didn’t show any inclination to challenge the ‘ban’ on the movie in Aligarh. These student bodies otherwise bat for many issues, even those very remotely connected to Aligarh or the university campus. One reason though might be that many other issues like that of JNU, Rohith Vemula etc. have been on students’ mind these days, and thus they forgot to discuss ‘Aligarh’. Nevertheless, the widespread silence over a movie about the campus and even titled ‘Aligarh’ not being screened in the city and the student community sitting idle is hard to digest. Students have to come forward for the sake of ‘Aligarh’ so that this great piece of art can see the light of the day in the city it seeks to narrate a story about.

While this article was being written, there were reports of some students and teachers running online campaigns to get the movie screened in the Kennedy Auditorium of the university. If this happens, it’ll be wonderful and will make up for some of the damage done to the movie.

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