Cinema is rarely acknowledged as an exclusive domain of academia, but it offers a very rich dimension to our understanding of an issue. It has the power to move us and shake our beliefs in a manner not possible through any other medium. Apart from the direct influence it wields, cinema can be read as a source and also as a performative act. That is how we can understand the relation between the medium and the audience.
The signifier and the signified here takes a much more diverse form because the signifier here is not just a spoken or written word, it is a performance unfolding before us. So is the signified, which is not just an image, but also a sound, a spoken word. Thus, the commentary that establishes the plane of interaction between the signifier and the signified is not just an unspoken word but also an incomplete or even absent gesture, emotion and expression.
It is in these silences that I wish to locate the film. Thus, the analysis of the film is not just the critical description of the nuances of the film but also the conscious state that I go through while watching this film as part of an academic exercise and as a history student. It would have been an entirely different exercise had I been watching this movie as a lay viewer. Also, we can use Derrida’s conception of re-reading the text. As he points out, a preface of a text is basically a re-reading of the text by the author, as it is based on a perceived meaning of the text, but no text is read twice in the same way. So, every time someone re-reads a text, he acquires meanings that are very different from the meaning which may have been intended. Thus, as Michel Foucault points out, in treating the signifier as an enigma and trying to resolve it through commentary, a word becomes signified and layers of meanings open up that were not originally intended.
Let’s come to the movie “Aligarh” now. In the first scene, through the use of a pan camera angle and night vision shots, the movie tries to establish the mundane and gloomy existence of the protagonist, which also serves as the pretext for the subsequent scene, which establishes one night as a perceived metaphor for the working of the ‘illegitimate’ domain of sexuality. It is perceived because this autonomy of ‘personal domain of sexuality’ is to be disrupted by the ‘social ethics of sexuality’. Again, we go to Foucault, who points out educational institutions, hospitals and churches as sites where the ‘discursive discourse’ of sexuality is defined as well as regulated, and in a sense, exercised.
Curiously enough, the one who is scrutinised for his ‘unethical’ sexual behaviour is the professor. Thus, Aligarh can be seen as a site for defining the institutional modalities of sexuality and a homophobic structure through which the sexual code of hetero-normativity is exuberated. “Aligarh” is also a story of alienation. An individual is a metaphor for the different spheres of alienation that interact and overlap with each other. So, professor Siras is not just a culturally alienated figure due to the linguistic differences but also alienated as an odd one out in the community of patriarchal family units.
A single, unmarried and divorced person is seen as sexually dangerous. He is a digression from the normal sexual code defined by our society, which needs to be regulated and if necessary, purged. In a sense, it represents the power structure held by the social bodies, expressed both linguistically (through suggestive signification) as well as through social and violent reactions. The interaction between professor Siras and Deepu is a sphere of overlapping of spheres of both the individuals.
The cameramen who recorded Siras’ relation with the rickshaw puller, as well as Deepu’s first interaction with Siras (with his over-exuberant cameraman friend clicking pictures) are encroaching the space of Siras. Only when Siras allows him into his space is Deepu able to carry forward his work.
The dilemma of Siras to interact with outsiders and trying to escape from his existential crisis is also reflected in the narrative. The songs he plays on the recorder also help him to momentarily escape from his miserable existence. In another scene, the playing of old songs carries with itself an air of nostalgia which helps him escape the misery, existential crisis, cultural alienation and sexual jeopardy as well as social ostracisation in the present. The inner domain of both the characters are claustrophobic to various degrees. Thus, the narrative is also an interaction of claustrophobia between an indifferent metropolitan vs. the morally scrutinising Aligarh
We find that the deployment of sexuality via cultural norms are more severe than the linguistic reluctance associated with the taxonomy of sexuality. Sexual divergences are either criminalised or pathologised, wherein the individual becomes a mirror of its sexual choices.
He or she becomes an object of severe authoritarian gaze which objectifies the individual to an extent that they become a mere face to a sexual category. It also offers perspective on the concept of space defined generally through the binary of public and private. What we witness in the narrative can be termed as the ‘encroachment of space’ of an individual, which raises questions as to whether morality and norms of propriety can be universally attributed and reinforced. It also asks if those norms can be forcefully imposed in the private sphere, within the very existence and identity of an individual? Also, can a person be punished for violating norms of propriety that doesn’t create any external problem?
In fact, through the court scenes, the punishment meted out to the individual for his perceived divergences are justified through a teleological rhetoric of greater good of the society. Thus, the violation of the right to privacy and human dignity are garbed under the rhetoric of social morality.
The film raises questions as to whether morality has a cultural bearing. How come sexuality acquires an overarching discourse that dominates the sphere of politics, society and culture? How come the digression from hetero-normative sexuality acquires a much graver disdain when associated with the question of class? What it reflects is a bourgeoisie idea of morality and secondly, it assumes a layer of exploitation when two different classes are engaged in such a relation.
In the end, the movie comes full circle to the idea of claustrophobic existence. Even though Siras wins the case, the hopelessness of the justice system and the social prejudices associated with the identification and the reluctant affirmation of that existence makes the claustrophobia greater.
Siras succumbs to the claustrophobia in and out. Now, there is no clarity on how Siras actually died and speculations of his alleged murder are very ripe. This again points out the social stigma and its violent repercussions when society doesn’t let go of its prejudices, and as we see in this case, how it becomes a bigger entity than the life of an individual. Perhaps it reflects the reluctance on the part of the moral community to accept its defeat. Anyways, Siras was choked to death by the claustrophobia that defined both his private and public sphere.
The film helps us chart out different layers of power structures, sexualities and most of all it questions our existence and how much of it actually belongs to us and how much of it is surrounded by the notions that not only guide but sometimes dictate and forcefully determine our existence. The bigger question is related to our right to live with an identity that is truly ours. Or whether there is something that we can call ‘our existence’, or even that in totality is a social construct.