A few weeks after “Aligarh” was released in 2016, rave reviews of the movie were doing rounds in my social circle. “Must watch”, “masterpiece”, “a Manoj Bajpai special” etc. filled my news feed. It was based on the travails of the late Prof. Ramchandra Siras, who used to teach Marathi at the Aligarh Muslim University, and who had successfully challenged in the Allahabad High Court the University’s decision to summarily and illegally suspend him and evict him from his quarters for the offence of being a closeted homosexual — a fact that was itself discovered through a malicious sting operation that “caught” him having sex with a man. Prof. Siras died under mysterious circumstances in April 2010, just months from his retirement, and just the day before the University order revoking his suspension reached his residence-in-exile. It was a story that demanded to be told, and the reviews of “Aligarh” I came across seemed to command me to watch it. And so I did.
I have always had very high regard for Manoj Bajpai as an actor. But “Aligarh” was supposed to have been about more than Bajpai’s acting skills. It was supposed to have been about Prof. Siras (in a way it was, of course), a misfit academic at one of the oldest and most respected educational institutions in India; about expressing not just Siras’ intense longing for love and to be loved through his poetry, his addiction to alcohol and Lata Mangeshkar’s melody in loneliness, but also his sexuality, which is really the main crux of the plot.
Yet, the one scene in the movie where Siras is shown making love to his partner, the actors seem (at least to me) extremely inhibited. It’s what one would expect from a couple of heterosexual actors who could not be expected to be comfortable during the scene. There was no – to use cinematic language – “chemistry” between the two. That one scene could have made all the difference by deftly portraying the humanness behind not just homosexuality, but in a country like India, sexuality itself. It could have been a moment of cultural reckoning, a conversation starter (in a way it was, but not enough, according to me). Instead “Aligarh” seems to have chosen the safe path in not wanting to make its predominantly cisgendered, heterosexual audience uncomfortable by not sexualizing Prof. Siras, or doing so minimally.
As if doing so would have failed to make the case for Prof. Siras, who was wronged, humiliated, dehumanized grievously for being who he was; as if it were not “respectable” for an elderly man to express his sexuality, much less norm-violating sexuality (not surprising in a country where women who choose sexual freedom are believed to be have “loose morals”, and on the other hand, marital rape of supposedly sanskari bahus is seen as “legal” because of “sanctity of marriage” blah blah…and “the Indian culture”). The movie failed to challenge the social dominance of cisgendered heterosexual patriarchy.
Lack of representation in movies is not limited to sexual minorities alone, it applies to other kinds of minorities too. For example, we apparently still need the likes of Priyanka Chopra to bring home legendary boxer Mary Kom‘s struggles to us. One of the many things that people from the Northeast have to fight in “mainland” India is racism, and for women, misogyny is also thrown into the mix. The struggles of Mary Kom are not represented anywhere in the movie, nor could they have been. In another example, take the struggles of Dalit women like the late Phoolan Devi, which were grossly misrepresented in the movie Bandit Queen, and which was given a right dressing down by the matchless Arundhati Roy.
The complexities of the politics involved in these struggles can be explored best by those who have any experience of them. To let Bollywood’s upper caste North Indian Hindu privilege (or maybe “Aryan privilege” is a better term?) co-opt those unique struggles for commercial benefit is less about sensitizing, and more about seeking out “exotic” subjects to appease the “market”, the Indian middle class overrepresented by upper caste Hindus; it’s to tell them, despite deep discontent of the underrepresented groups raging somewhere out there, that “sab theek hai“.
Perhaps I am expecting too much! After all, in India, violent mobs appear to be ubiquitous. Lest this be mistaken for a somewhat belated, frustrated tirade against an “A” movie for not having enough of homoerotic titillation in it, allow me to point to another scene in “Aligarh” where Prof. Siras thanks his lawyer Anand Grover for “fighting it out for us”, only to be politely informed that Grover is not “gay”. Siras expected his lawyer to be gay, to actually “represent” not just him and those like him, as well as their lived experiences. This is the central point here, a lack of representation.
Where are the LGBTQ lawyers in our country? Where are they in our judicial system and as our lawmaking representatives? Where are they in our defence forces? Where are they in our sports teams? Where are they in our movies playing characters like Prof. Ramchandra Siras? Even after the limited repeal of Section 377 last year, why are gay people still afraid to come out? It’s all about visibility. The more gay people we see among us, know to be part of our families, our friend circles, our neighbourhoods, our constituencies, our workplaces, our movies as actors, directors, producers, our plays, our novels, our retail stores and malls, our Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha and Assemblies and Councils and Panchayats, the more people will come to realise that gay people are human beings with human needs, desires, fears and aspirations.
That’s the only way they will find greater acceptance in society. Laws can only be the beginning of our quest for justice, not the end (after all, Section 377 had already been read down by the Delhi High Court in 2009 by the time Prof. Siras was suspended from AMU in early 2010). Justice comes through change in social attitudes. Change in attitudes can come only when changes are made visible. And this visibility is what LGBTQ people lack right now. Most of them have been left with very little choice but to retreat underground because of who they are, and to have an integral part of their humanity de facto criminalized.
The problem of inadequate representation is not just about mass media. It’s not just about the movies. It is an issue of immense political significance. Let’s take women’s issues as another example. The travesty of justice we are witnessing in India’s highest court of justice highlights not only the hypocrisy and whimsicality of the highest judiciary, or the vulnerability of India’s democracy, but also the fact that the number of female judges in positions of power in this country, is almost laughable. The three-judge “inquiry” committee that “heard” the woman who accused CJI Gogoi of sexual harassment and intimidation, had its male head appointed by the accused himself, and had just one female judge on it. The result: death of the twins, i.e. Justice and Fairness. The aggrieved woman might yet see justice done to her, but this case amply demonstrates how male privilege operates by keeping women away from positions of power, and asserts it through bullying and intimidation.
In patriarchal India, women are grossly underrepresented among lawmakers as well, with only 8-9% of all lawmakers being women, leading to calls for legislation to ensure 33% seats for women in Parliament that have so far gone unheeded. Even 33% is minuscule when compared to the proportion of women in India’s population; women will still stay starkly underrepresented in Parliament in case such legislation is realised. Women never form more than 10% of the candidates pitched for seats in Assemblies or the Parliament. Further, a disturbingly large number of male candidates standing for various major political parties are accused of crimes against women, further showing that women’s basic concerns has only been paid lip service by major political parties. It’s decidedly worse for women if they happen to be Dalit or belong to a religious minority. Women hardly form the grassroots of any of these parties. The result is continued disenfranchisement of women, especially of the majority who are poor and vulnerable.
Yesterday, a rally was held at a ground in support of the CPI(M) candidate in my Lok Sabha constituency, which goes to polls in the seventh and final phase of the LS elections. I felt a little queasy to learn that the former Supreme Court judge Asok Ganguly was also present there, though he was not one of the speakers. Ganguly was once accused of having sexually harassed an intern when he was chairman of the West Bengal Human Rights Commission. He then resigned, having duly played his “victim” card and received unequivocal support from senior male politicians like the late Somnath Chatterjee (“left”) and Subramanian Swamy (right). He was subsequently “cleared” with zero consideration given to the victim. It was quite surreal to hear the (mostly male) speakers raise the issue of women’s rights and their violations “under the current governments”.
I wonder if any of them asked Justice Ganguly what he had to say about the CJI scandal (or even his own). I also wonder what it says about the candidate’s commitment to protection of women’s rights. That aside, claims were being made that the candidate Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, a senior lawyer at the Calcutta High Court, would “fight for the poor and the vulnerable”. One look at his election affidavit reveals that he is a high net worth individual – a “crorepati“. Is it possible that his commitment to social and livelihood security for those engaged in informal labour is as good as his proclaimed commitment to women’s rights? Regardless of what he claims about his “lifelong fight” for the poor, there’s no way to know. What is known is that he doesn’t represent either group.
There are a plethora of rich people and alleged criminals wielding enormous influence who are seeking office. There is every evidence that wealth inequality is growing by the minute in India, yet we have a bunch of crorepatis at the helm of our lawmaking. It’s glaringly and sickeningly obvious that these people don’t represent the interests of the majority of Indians. Very few of them are accessible to constituents once they are voted to power, if any. It’s why we see budgetary allocations to education dipping every year, yet the law to implement the shady electoral bonds scheme gets passed through the emergency Money Bill route. It is difficult to convince oneself that our “representatives” can be held accountable for anything. Those among us who are most eager for political representation – with all the complexities in their politics – have been marginalized and disenfranchised. They have been made almost invisible.
Common women, men and transgender people who sincerely want to bring about positive changes in society through legislation, don’t have access to the kind of funds and campaigning strategies that candidates from major parties do. On the one hand, appeals to emotion, caste, religious or “nationalist” sentiments tend to trump policy-based and rights-based appeals, if and when made. Lack of proper representation, even with all the “good intentions” of the representative, risks converting a fight for survival into an ideological fight. This is exactly why Dalit women need to represent Dalit women, agricultural labourers need to represent agricultural labourers, and homosexuals need to represent homosexuals. Their lives cannot be seen as props for the ideologies and whimsies of the privileged, whose own lives are unlikely to be going along the same the line.
If people cannot take it upon themselves to change their collective condition through lawmaking (or even filmmaking), fail to bring their unique experiences to the table in a democracy, what good is that democracy? Is it any surprise that more than 70 years after independence, our illusion of democracy is still sustained through yearly circuses of what are for all intents and purposes anti-democratic elections? When we watch Aligarh, do we see Prof. Siras, or do we find Manoj Bajpai playing a gay man?