By Prerana Panja

Aligarh is a 2015 biographical drama on the life of Prof. Ramchandran Siras of Aligarh University. The film is directed by Hansal Mehta and stars Manjoy Bajpayee and Rajkumar Rao in lead roles.

Official poster for Aligarh

The film opens with a night scene, we are at Aligarh Medical Colony. A greying man arrives on a hand-pulled rickshaw. He and the rickshaw puller ascend up the stairs. It’s a quiet night, the streets are empty and the only sound that can be heard is that of a train passing by.

A still from the film.

The camera is directed at the window of a first floor flat where the comes on and off. We see two figures inside, presumably, the two men who we saw a few minutes ago. Our attention is redirected towards two men chatting and walking on the street leading to the flat. One of them has a camera. We watch them as they climb up the stairs and disappear from the screen. Moments later we hear muffled shouts are heard and we’re taken inside the flat where we see the old man, naked on the floor, knees to his chest and crying.

A still from the film.

This opening scene is fascinating as it denotes hiding in, in a film that urges people to come out. It is worth noting that the director keeps coming back to it, embellishing it each time. 

The story is of the man we saw weeping on the floor, R.Siras, a 64-year-old professor of Marathi at the esteemed Aligarh University. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras was a real-life professor at Aligarh University.

 Like in the film, his flat too was broken into and his private moments were filmed and leaked online. He was suspended from the university the next day and asked to vacate his home. He challenged the verdict in the Allahabad High Court and won the case.

Director Mehta and writer of the film, Apurva Asrani tell this story through the bond between Siras and a young journalist from Delhi, Deepu Sebastian, played by Rajkumar Rao. Siras was approached by Deepu after he learned about what happened and was interested in the case.

A still from the film.

Manoj Bajpayee is truly an actor who keeps getting better with each performance. He essays Siras in his own unique way – his fidgety walk, his halting voice and his love for Lata Mangeshkar songs. One of the scenes which capture you is when Siras and Deepu are in a boat and Deepu asks him if he identifies as gay. Siras dislikes it saying that his passion for another man shouldn’t be reduced to a three-letter word – gay. “It can’t quite capture the depth of my feelings ” he says. He is of the belief that love is a word that demands to be felt and not spelt out.

A still from the film.
A still from the film.

Other such moments are in his suppressed anger, his little quirks like insisting on signing with his own pen, finding the meaning of true poetry in the pauses and silences, that slight blush which is visible every time someone calls him handsome and him finding peace in poetry during the court proceedings as a reluctant LGBTQ activist. At the end of it all, he is just a man who wants to be left alone and be let to live with dignity.

Contrasting this is the character of Deepu who is a bundle of nervous energy who initially sets out in search for Siras simply because he wanted a story but slowly and gradually becomes his friend and confidant.

Rao and Bajpayee in a still from the film

It’s this chemistry and bond between the two which is the heart of the film.

Despite the violence and torture, physically, emotionally and psychologically, there’s a certain tenderness and sincerity in the treatment of the issue. Mehta raises a poignant question through the film, that is, what exactly is the definition of moral boundaries, as morality in itself is subjective. DOP Satya Nagpaul does justice to the shabby homes in the winter, frosty air of Aligarh.

 Aligarh chooses to deal with the issue in a heartfelt and humane manner rather than being hard-hitting and uncompromising. However, the film doesn’t come without its flaws. The scene where Deepu is informed of Siras’s death and he grieves by projecting it onto another woman seems forced and unnatural.

Siras’s dead body was found in his apartment a few weeks after the verdict. Traces of poison were found in his blood, foul play was ruled out and the case was initially ruled as suicide.

The letter officially revoking his suspension arrived the day after his death. Siras was due for retirement in 6 months.

A murder case was later registered and six people were arrested. On 19th April, the Superintendent of Police said that 3 journalists and AMU officials were identified to be part of the crime. However, the case was closed without resolution due to the police failing to find sufficient evidence.

On the whole, the film is as timely and it is telling given the situation in the country in 2015, regarding homosexuality and how its viewed. Bajpayee’s interpretation of Siras as a gentle, still and fragile man and the way he and Rao keep the audience engaged in their scenes are the highlights of the film. 

It is a known fact that any film in India talking about gay rights and lives will be seen as a “propaganda film” but if the film manages to convince the vaguely homophobic viewers and have them empathize with Siras’s character then it should be considered as a victory for the film. My only hope is that these viewers are able to understand Siras and his distaste for easy labels and accept that at the end of the day, they’re people just like everyone else, they too sit with a drink at the end of a long day, they too listen to old Hindi songs and they too deserve to live with dignity like the rest of us.

Check out the official trailer for the film:

The film is available for paid HD viewing on YouTube at a mere cost of Rs.50.

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