I avoided watching Aligarh for a long time in spite of its rave reviews, mainly because I try not to watch depressing films. So I ended up watching it only last week when Tata Sky was showcasing a few films from MAMI, the Mumbai Film Festival, which I believe opened with Aligarh.
Aligarh is not a film about homosexuality. It is a film that shows up our society where we do not allow anyone to be different from ourselves in any way – whether by caste, colour, sexual preferences or anything else. It is a film that is chilling because it is a true story and because there are countless more such stories in our society – many of whose protagonists meet the same fate as Prof Siras.
And it will be difficult to find a protagonist who is less retiring, less shy and less withdrawn. Who is less gentle and compassionate than Prof Siras. And yet he was not allowed to live, even after the court cleared him and ordered his reinstatement.
The film moves at a slow pace, like the poetry that Prof Siras reads out. Like Prof Siras’s own movements, his speech, his expressions – slow, hesitant to show up. Here was a man who loved his university, loved his job, was promoted to the head of his department in spite of not being a ‘local’ or having any influential friends. A poet at heart, who loved to listen to old songs of Lata Mangeshkar and have his drink in the quiet solitude of his own home. Who loved his job and wanted to go back and continue to teach. All he asked was probably to be left alone to do his life! We do not know how much was known about the real life professor whose biopic this is, nor how much of the film has been creatively added to fill the gaps. Whether there was a Deepu Sebastian in his life who provided him some relief and fun. I hope there was someone.
What we do see is that the sting operation was created by some members of the University’s faculty and staff, as alleged by Prof Siras, because of professional jealousy at an ‘outsider’ doing so well in the university.
What we do see is that Prof Siras did not commit suicide. He spoke with Deepu and told him that he will meet him one day later at his office in the university and they will celebrate his victory. That he would grant him an interview at length and that perhaps he should go to the US after retirement because gays are accorded more respect there. And then he said, ‘I am sleepy, I will sleep now’. The next morning he was found dead with poison in his system.
Aligarh is a film that stays with you long after it is over, like a dull ache. It is a film that lets you peek into the lives of others that we in our cocooned lives do not otherwise get to see. It lets you know that in this society, if you are different, you will have to fight for your rights and even when you win, you may lose.
Exceptionally subtle and nuanced acting by Manoj Bajpayee, very real acting by Rajkummar Rao too. A must watch. Thank you Hansal Mehta for the very real handling and thank you Apurva Asrani and Ishani Banerjee for a heart-breaking story.