Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh tells the story of Dr. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras (Manoj Bajpai), a Marathi professor at Aligarh Muslim University who was suspended from his job because of his sexual orientation. Aligarh’s larger concerns are with the perception of homosexuality and Section 377 (Delhi High Court’s ruling of 377 as unconstitutional was instrumental in Dr. Siras’s case in 2010 but in 2013 the Supreme Court upheld the section) in India. But when we watch the film homosexuality and everything related to it recedes to the background. We realize that Aligarh’s concerns are at a more complex level.
It is the idea of privacy in the modern life or lack thereof. We are shown the incident that sets off the events in Aligarh in installments. We first see what happens before as part of the film’s opening. We then we see what is, for all purposes, breaking and entering, and then we see what happens after. Mehta places these scenes at different points in the film and it creates an inquisitive atmosphere where we are the voyeurs, slowly prying into a personal life. He seems to constantly ask, oh you didn’t get the money shot? Here, this is the other angle of the event. And here’s another. This is not one off either. In the opening shot, miscreants are interested in events inside Siras’s apartment and it is framed from the outside. We see a CCTV camera looking back at us from the front of the building. Mehta often constructs such situations where personal and public space intermingle without borders. Dr. Siras buys alcohol from a shop that is literally behind bars. Aligarh also tells the story of Deepu Sebastian (Rajkummar Rao), a sane voice in the media who recognizes the human interest element in Siras’s case where others see sex scandal. This is the interesting part about Mehta’s treatment in Aligarh, where everyone struggles to negotiate their public and private spaces. Sebastian stays as a paying guest and in just a couple of frames it is established how he has to step over others space to get to his own, how he lives in the midst of noise – be it the motor running beside his room or the noise in the media, both in his office and at home (the ever recognizable Arnab Goswami’s voice exploding out of an invisible television).
While all this symbolism of space is arresting, Mehta lets his actor take over during the moments that are now at premium – privacy. Dr. Siras is at his most comfortable self with a drink in hand and Lata Mangeshkar in the air. Mehta gives him all the time for a sequence over the full song of aap ki nazaron ne samjha and Bajpai goes from quiet admiration to a foot wafting solo performance. Is it indulgent? No doubt. But it gives that rare glimpse of a man living carefree in his surroundings and unburdening his paranoia in song. Not to mention the glimpse of an actor at the height of his powers. The camaraderie between Dr. Siras and Sebastian keeps the compass away from melodrama. There isn’t a single moment where we are forced to take pity on Dr. Siras. When asked about the court proceedings, he says they are boring. And how he started translating his poems to make use of the time spent in court.
Aligarh is a powerful film even if it is rough around the edges. There is more flair from Mehta as he films the court scenes from the judge’s point of view. The audience becomes the judge and the lawyers present their arguments to us, the people. The court scenes therefore border on the theatrical and added to that, the prosecution lawyer is made a caricature. Thankfully this doesn’t pull Aligarh down to a message movie. There is another scene in the end when Sebastian is informed something at a funeral that comes across as another thing tonally different from the rest of the film. To constantly pull us back, there is the allure of Mehta’s visual gags that continue throughout. An activist, a friend and a lawyer urge Dr. Siras to fight the case but for that to happen, he has to declare himself as gay. In other words, he has to come out. He refuses but we smell uncertainty there. The very next scene we see him coming out of his quarters with his belongings – he is vacating, moving to a different place. To make its point better, Aligarh also highlights a spark of a heterosexual relationship, consummated under the naked sky for the whole world to see and not a sliver of paranoia coming in the way. Ultimately, Aligarh is about different rules for different people and different moralities for different people. The Maratha Brahmin who won’t touch Malayali Sebastian’s food, and his sexual orientation. His partner, Irfan the rickshaw puller, who comes from a part of society that we see right through. Siras gets a lawyer and activists behind him but such is Irfan’s class that his story vanishes without a trace. The liberal minded straight Sebastian who is surrounded by a cynical media and an encroaching landlord. Ultimately, Aligarh is about all of us and the air we breathe.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)