Genres: drama, social issues
Set in the city of Uttar Pradesh and based on true events, the plot revolves around Dr Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras who taught Marathi at Aligarh Muslim University. He was sacked from his position of Reader and Chair of Modern Indian Languages, on charges of homosexuality. A sting operation was conducted by a TV channel which showed him in an embrace with a rickshaw puller, at his house inside the campus.
The audience in the theater found quite a few moments of (intended) comic relief in Aligarh. Siras pushing his landlord inside his own house on being forced to relocate yet again; the University staff reacting to the Siras ‘scandal’ on being questioned by Deepu; Siras’ innocent questions to the lawyer: “Is he a gay?”
Yet, I found myself unable to laugh along. For 115 minutes, all I felt was an unsettling sympathy for Manoj Bajpayee’s touching, poignant and sombre portrayal of Siras. Uplifted by Apurva Asrani’s subtle yet powerful screenplay, and Hansal Mehta’s tactful direction, Aligarh has to be one of my favourite movies from the past few years, and here’s why:
I loved the little peeks into Siras’ sexuality, and I wondered how intentional the narrative of Siras’ possibly fluid sexuality was: his hesitance on being labelled gay, his marriage that perhaps didn’t fail because of his sexuality, referring to being gay as being ‘a gay’? Siras has lived in a small town, Aligarh, a place where the idea of a gay rights movement is alien to most. He was married, separated and on growing older, even lonely, and so he had sexual relations with another man who happened to feel the same way. We aren’t told much about this man – he’s but another character written to help us understand Siras better, and I absolutely loved these little insights into the primal and somewhat undefinably nature of attraction, sexuality and loneliness – “ an uncontrollable urge” – that Apurva has written. Siras has nothing to do with stereotypes associated with being gay. He’s an elderly professor at a Muslim University who teaches Marathi in a small town, far away from the cries for acceptance that resonate in metropolitan atmospheres. He’s so separated from these voices that he’s uncomfortable even being associated with activism. How he tries to deal with being ousted and ostracised, when he never intended for anyone to find out about the life he silently harbored, is what this film is about.
Our cinema makers are rarely brave enough to include lengthy, continuous shots; the audience’s ever decreasing attention spans and the admission of smart phones in theatres has cemented the trend. So I can’t complete this review without lauding the bravely shot close up of Siras’ lonely rendition of Aap ki nazaron ne samjha pyar ke kabil mujhe, accompanied by just his whisky. I don’t know deeply this scene has resonated with the audiences. But every now and then, a film comes along and leaves you going back to a certain frame of mind, and some moments just stick with you. For me, this is one of those haunting narratives. Mehta at a recent screening of the film at JNU said that the original scene was about 7 minutes, and it was a heartbreaking decision to make, to cut it down to a little over 3 minutes.
Aligarh’s Siras is a simple man – he isn’t looking to associate with any activism, he isn’t comfortable being labelled gay, he prefers the company of music and alcohol in his closed quarters to anything else. The layered complexities of this imperfect man are untangled for us, with different perspectives on the first scene of the film presented as the film progresses. Manoj Bajpayee’s touching portrayal leaves one engrossed, throughout. His restlessness on being questioned about the most intimate moments of his life in court, his helplessness on being made to wait for an hour and a half for a simple blood pressure check- all paint for us a realistic image of what it is like to be discriminated against, for not being straight. And who can forget the adorable, slightly effeminate laugh when Deepu calls him a handsome man?
But Manoj’s acting chops deserves a separate article dedicated to them altogether.
And can I just say, a HUGE shout out to Karan Kulkarni for the fantastic music score. I always find it hard to find words for my thoughts on music, so I borrow (and modify) the writer’s: it’s the silence between the notes that speaks to us.
You can find the original post here.
Vaishali blogs occasionally on this blog but is very active on twitter. Tag her @thatforestgirl and keep an eye out here and on the blog linked above if you like what you just read.