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Movie review 'Aligarh': Graceful, but not great

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | SUPARNA SHARMA
Published Feb 27, 2016, 1:13 am IST
Updated Feb 27, 2016, 7:02 am IST
Aligarh is sometimes brilliant, at times banal and dull.
A still from the movie Aligarh
 A still from the movie Aligarh
Rating:

Cast: Manoj Bajpai, Rajkumar Rao, Ashish Vidyarthi, Dilnaz Irani
Director: Hansal Mehta

Director Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, based on real life events, rather recent ones, is framed inside two landmark political events — two court orders which are a parenthesis of sorts. On July 2, 2009, Delhi high court struck down Section 377, decriminalising homosexuality, and, on December 12, 2013, the Supreme Court, criminalised it again.

 

In this brief window of relief, when brackets opened and before they closed, Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, a 64-year-old Marathi professor and chairman of the linguistics department of Aligarh Muslim University, lived a little and then died.

We meet Prof. Siras (Manoj Bajpai) as we met him in real life: On the night of February 8, 2010, in his house in Aligarh. Two men, one carrying a camera and another a danda, very casually enter his home, his bedroom when he was with Irrfan, his dost, a friend.

The two men beat them up, take off their clothes and make them pose.
Soon four of Siras’ colleagues from Aligarh University (in the film the M-word is silent) arrive, and the next day, without an inquiry, he is suspended and his photo flashed in local media, along with the story of a degenerate professor who paid to have sex with a rickshawpuller.

A few days later he is chargesheeted for immoral conduct and told to vacate the university accommodation.   Ishani Banerjee, on whose research this biopic is based, has done a commendable job of piecing together not just the events over two months, but also personalities.

Siras, a soft-spoken man who adopted Aligarh as his town and loves his university, is bewildered, humiliated and saddened by the violent indignity he is being subjected to. He can’t reconcile with the loss of izzat, at not being allowed to live with dignity, at becoming a pariah in his university and to people he knew overnight.

Sparse but astute dialogue, and the camera which often frames Siras in close-up, creates an intimacy with Siras. It takes us into his personal space that he guards with three latches on the door. We sit by his side, watching him sip whiskey, listen to songs we know and love.

We see a very ordinary, normal man who is being asked to fight a battle he didn’t pick. He’d rather compromise, return to his empty linguistics department. He has a few friends who understand the victimisation, but they don’t want to rock the boat, like Malayalam professor Sridharan who gets Siras to write a letter to the university, saying he is ashamed of his conduct.

Set in his habits in which he once found comfort — grocery shopping on Mondays and on somedays inviting over his “friend” — a loneliness now encases him that’s broken only when Deepu Sebastian (Rajkumar Rao), a reporter with Indian Post, arrives from Delhi to interview him.

Deepu brings along the freedom and urgency of the outside world. There’s a spring in Deepu’s step. He’s chalu, ambitious, eager, keen, but also earnest and decent. He too is struggling with his family. Deepu’s life shows things straight people take for granted, a freedom we don’t even think about. He makes out openly, with his boss, a courtesy not extended to gay men and women.

Conversations in the film are brief, but they have curlicues which embellish characters and add layers and nuance to the issue of the “other”, of being queer.
Siras talks of suicide, listens to Lata sing Aap ki nazron ne samjha… and hums along the line Ji hamein manzoor hai aap ka yeh faisla…

Woven into the film’s script and characters is a commentary about gays, homosexuality, Section 377, what’s moral, what’s natural. And, that contradictions live peacefully inside all of us. A brahmin, Siras will not have vegetarian food touched by a non-veg. Yet he says, “Dharam samajhne waali cheez nahin hai. Jahan dimag lagaya, aastha gayi.”

A linguistic professor, he has a strange relationship with words, definitive ones. Like gay. But he can describe what he feels — “An uncontrollable urge”. He was once married and is mildly in denial about his own sexuality. He is no champion of any cause. A simple, middle class man, he wants to stay in the closet. And even when he is dragged out, there is no righteousness indignation. More a silent plea at being wronged, and a suggestion of a conspiracy, perhaps.

In court, while lawyers lock horns over his moral depravity and Article 21, discuss how he has violated the collective morality of the university or is painted as a victim, he either dozes off or translates his Marathi poems into English. But this man is also flirty and romantic in bed. He is playful, gentle, and not shy.

Activists take up Siras’ case, and on April 1, 2010, he is reinstated in the university on a court order. On April 7, Prof. Siras was found dead in his rented accommodation. Traces of poison were found but police ruled out foul-play.
Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh is about that. It’s a film about how Section 377 is used, for foul-play.

Hansal Mehta doesn’t make films about people who fit in. He makes political films about people in the fringes. Here, by piecing together a tragedy of our times, he makes his point assuredly but gently and with grace.

Aligarh has lots of resonance today. A film about individual rights versus the rising chorus for conformity to majoritarian beliefs and opinions, it tells us that there is always an agenda behind moral policing.

Though a serious and important film, it is not in activist mode. It is nicely mild-mannered. There is just one brief glimpse of queer counterculture, a gay get-together in Delhi. Usually, there is an instinct to bring piety to victimised characters. Hansal Mehta and his writers avoid that.

Aligarh asks few questions and offers no answers. It simply tells a story about love, sex, religion, politics, and our courts by casting Siras less as a victim or the film’s hero, but more as a piece of evidence, an exhibit that demands contemplation. Also, by keeping Deepu’s sexuality ambiguous, the film gently fingers our own voyerism, if not prejudice, and makes us wonder, in the end, why must it matter who he wants to love and how.

But the direction is erratic. Aligarh is sometimes brilliant, at times banal and dull. Apart from the very stagey, contrived last scene, the film’s court room scenes are shockingly bad. Coming from the man who directed the superb Shahid that’s depressing.

Aligarh is shot brilliantly. We see Siras through windows, mesh, grills, curtains, behind doors with paranoid locks and latches. Manoj Bajpayee, who is practically in every frame of the film, has a few moments when he is light and in character. In these brief scenes he shines and connects as a breathing, living man. Mostly, however, he’s deliberate, heavy and rather hammy.

Bajpayee is mostly “trying to act” and that deliberate effort and attempt is all too visible and irritating. Though he uses his eyes a lot, to act and bring dignity to his character, he is mostly very studied, too conscious and concerned about impressing.  

Rajkumar Rao, on the other hand, is sharp and real. Though all accents — Rao’s Malayalam and Manoj’s Marathi — come and go, he is the foil without which Bajpayee’s show-offy solemnity would have been unbearable.

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