Aligarh

Aligarh-poster

Aligarh
Release date: February 26, 2016
Directed by: Hansal Mehta
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Rajkummar Rao, Ashish Vidyarthi, Dilnaz Irani

Two men walk toward a building in the dark of the night in the foggy town of Aligarh. They speak in muffled voices about the character of a particular woman. It’s difficult to make sense of it, and isn’t really a pleasant conversation to be a part of. The same men walk in from a distance to Professor Siras’s house, to bust his sexual relationship with another man. Two men with questionable integrity assume the position of authority over another man’s actions.

Their self-righteous vigilantism is intended at shaming the Professor throughout the university, and in the society as a whole. In the small-town Islamic community of the university and the city, indulging in acts of passion and lust with a person of the same sex is often shown to be called an “immoral activity”. Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) is relieved of his duties as the chairman of the linguistics department. His co-employee suggests that he write a small apology letter for his “mistake”, to which Siras questions what wrong has he done.

The supposedly minor incident’s repercussions don’t stop at the firing. As he’s just a few months away from his retirement, the after-effects of the entire fiasco begin to manifest in almost every aspect of his life. His sense of loneliness is only aggravated, his state of mind worsened at this great backlash from the university to which he’s devoted more than thirty years of his life. Amidst constant chaos, Siras tries to restore some sanity by, as they say in Hindi, Maahaul Banaanaa, or turning on some sweet Lata Mangeshkar with a little marketable whiskey in his hands.

The camera stays with him, as he rhythmically taps his feet, singing along Aapki Nazaron Ne Samjhaa in a trembling voice that collapses at times to give way to wistfulness. These fixed closeups divulge only as much as you can make yourself see, refusing to break into single person monologues just for the heck of establishing what’s going on in his mind. The pace of the film is deliberated, just like the general speed of time is, in a tier-2 city that strives to be a tier-1 metropolis during the day, and falls back to its cold and misty, thoroughly tamed, dull and uneventful darkness when the sun sets. Silences are powerfully emphasized, instead of resorting to mushy, background scores.

Deepu Sebastian (Rajkummar Rao) is a young intern at a newspaper publication who wants to follow Siras’s story. The professor doesn’t warm up immediately to him and their first meeting ends up in him almost breaking down. Siras’s struggle to get reinstated at the university gains national headlines as a lawyer, who got the Delhi High Court to decriminalize homosexuality, decides to take up his case. A greater conspiracy by university officials starts to unearth as the case is actually contested in the Allahabad High Court.

Manoj Bajpayee embodies his 64 year old’s character’s mannerisms beautifully. He sinks his shoulders in, clenches on to his objects tightly, blushes cutely when someone compliments him and inculcates an effeminate Marathi accent. The writing keeps Siras sane, composed, and even lets him retain a certain sense of humor. Though, with the dialogue, the film rarely scratches below the surface of the issues at hand. Cliched statements about love, poetry, and people’s need to label relationships and sexual orientations spring up, even in perfectly relevant situations.

Rao, as the young South Indian, drops only a single “Ayyo”, and a charming Hindi diction. The makers depict a camaraderie between Siras and Deepu which is engaging, but slightly contrived, so as to keep the dynamic as non-homoerotic as they can. Their conversations throw the most light on Siras’s traits and his ideologies. Props to the guys who did the post production VFX for keeping the breaking news section on a news channel contextual to the happenings of 2010.

Mr. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras’s moving story makes for a very strong picturization for the level of isolation the minorities, of the sexual or any other kind, can be subjected to by our prudish “collective morality”. The film rises higher than just being a character-study or a biographical drama, yet the subtlety of it all stops short of making you want to let your eyes well up. Nevertheless, it’s an extremely important film for our times, when the Supreme Court has again criminalized homosexuality.

My rating: ***1/2 (3.5 out of 5)

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