Aligarh, directed by Hansal Mehta, is based on the true story of Dr Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, who was suspended from his job as a Marathi professor at Aligarh Muslim University after he was publicly exposed for being a homosexual. Two men barged into his home with cameras, filmed him in bed with his male lover, and the story was leaked to newspapers. Weeks later after his suspension was revoked following a court battle, Siras was found dead under mysterious circumstances.
The incident occurred six years ago, in 2010, but the film’s themes – the violation of one’s privacy, imposing one’s morality on others, intolerance, and society’s tendency to persecute the already marginalized – are as relevant today as ever.
Aligarh arrives at a crucial time when the conversation around Article 377 has gained momentum in the mainstream, and the contentious issue of criminalisation of homosexuality is being vociferously debated at the highest levels. Yet the film itself is about more than just the ‘gay issue’. Mehta and writer Apurva Asrani offer a thoughtful exploration of what it means to be lonely and ageing, and an outsider for more reasons than one.
His hair and stubble greying, his shoulders drooping, Manoj Bajpayee beautifully imbues 64-year-old Siras with melancholic reserve. He’s a man content sipping whisky in his modest flat while a Lata Mangeshkar song fills the air. Siras writes poetry and is full of deep thoughts. He doesn’t like labels, and balks when he’s described as gay, insisting that his feelings cannot be summed up by a three-letter word. He isn’t looking for a fight when he’s unfairly suspended, but encouraged by activists he takes his case to court, keen to get his job and his home back, and his dignity restored.
Ashish Vidyarthi is terrific as the lawyer who takes up Siras’ case, vanquishing the public prosecutor determined to shame his client by arguing that it is unconstitutional to employ ‘morality’ to deny a person his basic rights. Yet it’s Rajkummar Rao’s charming portrayal of Deepu Sebastian, the intrepid young journalist who urges Siras to fight for his cause that is another of the film’s big strengths. Deepu is the perfect foil to Siras: a young, eager beaver, easily adaptable in an ever-evolving world. The two men form a tentative friendship, and their moments together are some of the best bits in the film. A scene in which they lunch together at a local restaurant is warm, even funny, and subtly reveals that no one is above prejudice…even victims of other people’s prejudice.
Aligarh is an important film, and it’s powered by sensitive writing, nuanced direction, and masterful performances from its central players. The image of Siras, a grown man blushing when he’s described as handsome, or when a gathering of gay men hail his poetry, stays with you long after you’ve watched the film. Its deliberate pace occasionally makes you restless, and you long to know more about Siras than the plot lets you in on. What kind of professor was he? Did he have any friends? How did his ‘shaming’ impact his family in Nagpur?
Crucially though, the tragic climax never pierces you in the manner that it ought to. The emotional wallop is missing.
Mehta eschews melodrama throughout the film, but in blunting this key moment in Siras’ story, the filmmakers deny the viewer a chance to bring one’s feelings to a boil. Sometimes a good cry is a way of saying I care.
I’m going with three-and-a-half out of five for Aligarh.