A professor at Aligarh Muslim University, Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras (Manoj Bajpayee), is the victim of a sting operation by local television reporters, who intrude into the privacy of his apartment with film cameras and film him in a compromising position with his friend, a cycle-rickshaw driver. The video is circulated by the University authorities and a result, Siras is thrown out of the university unceremoniously. After a long drawn out legal battle, Siras finally wins the case. However, by the time the news of his victory reaches him, he has left this world, a beaten and heart-broken man…
Hansal Mehta’s Aligharh is an extremely profound film that touches several raw nerves. That not everyone who has non-heterosexual preferences are vocal and loud about it. That the words ‘activist’, ‘straight’ and ‘gay’ are easily thrown around without bothering to check what it does to those who don’t want any labels on them. That one’s personal choice is an intimate idea that one deals with in various ways. That there is no easy formula to understand people. Aligarh offers a crystallized perspective into one such life.
I have seen this moving film twice – first at the Mumbai Film Festival conducted by the Mumbai Academy of the Moving Image (MAMI) in October 2015 and subsequently at a special screening held at Films Division in Delhi last month. The day it was screened in Delhi was significant as the courts that day were deciding the fates of lakhs of sexuality minorities in India who suffer directly or indirectly due to the Indian Penal Code 377 that criminalizes their identities. Aligarh makes for a valid point on how the bitter reality of the society we live in affects our lives in myriad ways. There could be a hundred such cases like that of Siras in India. They deserve a life of dignity and our democracy must accommodate everyone in the Nehruvian idea of ‘inclusiveness’ that is well argued by the lawyer (Ashish Vidyarthi) in the film. The film holds a mirror to reality and makes us look within and reflect on how we actually perceive human identities. In that sense, Aligarh is, arguably, as important to the queer movement as MS Sathyu’s Garm Hava (1973) is to Partition cinema.
A perceptive screenplay (Apurva Asrani) and sensitive direction aided by some evocative cinematography (Satya Rai Nagpaul) and smooth editing (Asrani again), Aligarh boasts of some fine cinematic craft that complements its storytelling. There is no obvious ‘in-your-face’ spoon-feeding. Languid sequences, and even pauses, let you soak in the story as the film generously allows your thought process to mature. Told with subtlety and restraint, there are many tender moments of isolation in the film, which help you grapple with real life situations with that much more sensitivity. The three central acts, Bajpayee as the wronged professor, Rajkummar Rao as the journalist, Deepu Sebastian, who takes up his story and Ashish Vidyarthi, who fights his case, all live their roles, giving brilliant performances.
In spite of making its mark on the International festival circuit the world over, the film made news on social media for all the wrong reasons as the Censor Board gave its trailer an Adults only certificate. Laughably, Pahlaj Nihlani, the current chief of the Central Board, said the reason this certification was done was because he was ‘against the theme of the film’ and that it was a ‘bad influence’ on society. How ironic because Aligarh is, in fact, one of the most significant films ever made in India on the issues of human rights, democracy, law and identity. Don’t miss it.
Hindi, Drama, Color