Sunday, February 28, 2016

Movie Review: Aligarh

The Story Frame:
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Aligarh is based on true events linked to a 64 year-old man Dr. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras who taught Marathi at Aligarh Muslim University. A sting operation conducted by a local TV channel showed him engaged in carnal pleasures with a friend (a rickshaw puller). He was removed from his position of Reader and Chair of Modern Indian Languages on charges of homosexuality. He was an acclaimed writer, poet and a recipient of Maharastra Sahitya Parishad Award for his contributions to Marathi literature. Though, he won the case against the unlawful act of Aligarh Muslim University, destiny had something else in store for him. Unfortunately, a good soul, a man who believed in love and compassion was found dead in his flat under mysterious circumstances.

Aligarh is a biopic made by Director Hansal Mehta and it is written by Apurva Asrani. Manoj Bajpai plays the role of the protagonist and Rajkummar Rao essays the role of a scribe. It deals the subject of love through the eyes of a homosexual, it raises some pertinent questions about our prejudices, biases and notions of morality. It also places the spotlight on the controversial and much debated Section 377, IPC that criminalizes homosexuality.  

Cast: Manoj Bajpai (Professor Siras), Rajkummar Rao (Deepu Sebastian), Ashish Vidyarthi (Advovate Anand Grover), Dilnaz Irani (Namitha), Sukesh Arora (Tahir Islam), Balaji Gauri (Nita Grewal), Divya Unni (Reporter), Sumit Gulati (Tashi), KR Parmeshwar (Professor Sridharan), Ishwak Singh (Arvind Narayan), Nutan Surya (Anjali Gopalan), Suman Vaidya (Shadab Qureshi)

Genre: Biopic /Drama

Direction: Hansal Mehta

Written by: Apurva Asrani

Produced by: Sunil Lulla, Shailesh R Singh

Production Company: Eros Entertainment, Karma Pictures

Story idea and Research by: Ishani Banerjee

Cinematography: Satya Rai Nagpaul

Screeplay: Apura Asrani

Music: Karan Kulkarni

Film Editing by: Apurva Asrani

Theatre Release: 26th February, 2016

Language: Hindi

Duration: 120 Minutes
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Reviewer's Thumb Mark

Hansal Mehta's film Aligarh is a lyrical expression of a man's loneliness. A man whose name is Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras (Manoj Bajpai), who is the only Marathi Professor amongst a Urdu speaking majority Aligarh city and single in a residential area of married people and conservative families. He is a man of letters with a flair to write poems in his mother tongue (Marathi), who in his solitude find solace in the company of  Lata Mangeshkar's old melodies while he down a couple of pegs of his chosen spirit daily and occasionally seeking a partner who just happens to be of the same sex to make him feel wanted to soothe his soul. What is his offence? His offence is his choice of partner. A choice that does not fall within the moral frame determined by the so called moral watchdogs of the society. And, therefore, the voyeuristic society who often find pleasure playing peeping toms sends their mercenaries armed with a video cam in the middle of the night to Professor Siras' 21 Medical Colony flat of Aligarh Muslim University, where he and his partner is filmed while they are engaged in carnal love. They are beaten up, humiliated, made to pose in different manners to be clicked, and are threatened. Their right to privacy is breeched not only by the hired men but also by the university officials namely the Proctor, Deputy Proctor, PRO and the Media Advisor who joins them in a few minutes as they act in connivance with them. 

Fooled by the University authorities that the matter will remain confidential, the photos of Professor Siras along with the juicy story of  a pervert's sexcapade with a rickshaw puller is released to the media which forms the headlines of newspapers the next dawn. What follows is unpleasant, ugly and painful. He is hounded by the media, pried by his colleagues, ostracized socially and suspended from his job. He frets even at a feeble voice on his door or outside his flat. His basic amenities like electricity is snapped and is rationed to him only for four hours late evenings; he shifts houses from one alley to another as a nomadic clarifying and assuring landlords and agents that he is married but stays alone because his family is away from him; and he is influenced by his colleague and friend Professor Sridharan who teaches Malayalam  to tender an apology letter to the authorities expecting that this will mellow the university authorities against Professor Siras, which actually goes against him initially in the court as he conceded that he is guilty in the letter.  The vulnerability and loneliness of the sexagenarian is played so well by Manoj Bajpai that you are in awe of him. He is par excellent. Manoj Bajpai's Professor Siras makes you feel hurt, vulnerable, sad, depressed, lonely and poetic with him. His act makes the audience internalize the agony of Professor Siras.

The misconception and prejudice towards LGBT and their sexual orientation people have in general is questioned subtly but quite poignantly in Aligarh. India is a country where homosexuality is against the law of the land (Section 377, IPC, 1860). This section was later reversed by an amendment done by the Delhi High Court on 2nd July 2009. Aligarh story tells us about Professor Siras and his ordeal after this judgment in 2009. The story of Aligarh propels further with the entry of a Keralite, Deepu Sebastain (Rajkummar Rao) who is a journalist for Indian Post Newspaper. Deepu happens to find Professor Siras' story in a local newspaper and expresses his keenness to cover the same but his boss Namitha (Dilnaz Irani) hands over the task to another colleague of his because Namitha finds his colleague more experienced in covering sex scandals. Deepu even questions his boss with whom he has a good rapport by asking her that how can she belittle such a happening which cause pain and humiliation to a man of repute as sex scandal? Deepu's insistence and his take on his colleagues report on the story she wrote as a mere gay-right article he finally gets the nod by his boss to pack his bag with his photojournalist, Tashi (Sumit Gulati - who was much noted for his act as compounder Krishna in the movie Talwar) head to meet Professor Siras to tell his story with a human angle to the world. Deepu Sebastian's initial encounter with Professor is unwelcomed by the sexagenarian when he comes to know that he is from media and thinks that he is yet another journo who is part of yellow journalism.

Deepu Sebastian's patience, sensibility and persistence makes Professor Siras to open his home to him. There are so many beautiful and soulful moments shared between them in Aligarh that makes you sensitive, sensible and responsible towards people, their life, emotions and choices. It makes you think and understand human beings beyond the so called man-made boundaries of gender, caste, region, language, sexual orientation and religion. In one such conversation when Deepu asks Professor whether he is a 'gay'? Professor very philosophically counter him that how can anyone restrict and define a blissful feeling of love in just three words. Their talk on poetry and Professor Siras telling him that poetry lies in the silence and space you find between words and lines are touchy. Their bonding reaches a high when Professor Siras blushing when he agrees for a selfie with Deepu. The last scenes with Deepu and Professor tugs at your heartstrings.
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Professor Siras is urged and convinced by his well wishers, activists and Deepu to fight a case to revoke his suspension, regain his dignity, challenge the unlawful discrimination for being a homosexual and his right for privacy. His fight receives an ammo when his case is taken up by a noted lawyer Anand Grower (Ashish Vidyarthi) who is known for his stance for the rights of the LGBT community. But Professor Siras dislikes to be labeled, and is too meek to hold cudgel against his tormentors. This is so true and evident when the audience find him either dozing or translating his poetries in English during the court proceedings. His attendance in court is a mere representation for a cause for people who are like him but then he is beyond all these technicalities and legal nuances. His love for life is pure and beyond mortal definitions and understandings.  
Image Courtesy: (Manoj Bajpai with Hansal Mehta)
The choice of Aligarh's release is significant at such a juncture when the debate and deliberations around  Article 377 has gained public attention and momentum. The July 2nd, 2009 ruling decriminalizing homosexuality was a welcome relief for many and then the Supreme court of India washing it's hands saying that amending or repealing this section  lies with the parliament and not with the judiciary on 12th December, 2013  had disheartened the LGBT community and their well wishers.  Nevertheless, the constant and persistent efforts by the LGBT community and many activists have made the Supreme Court recently state on 2nd February, 2016 during the hearing of petitions submitted that all the curative petitions submitted will be relooked and reviewed again by a five-member constitutional bench. 

Ishani Banerjee's story idea and research has done wonders and reflects throughout the film. The background music by Karan Kulkarni is good. Apurva Asrani's editing and Satya Rai Nagpaul's Cinematography are worth mentioning.

Hansal Mehta's treatment of a sensitive, not so comfortable and socially taboo topic is commendable.  His choice of two high-octane actors like Manoj Bajpai and Rajkummar Rao  makes Aligarh a delight to watch. The deadly duo - Hansal Mehta and writer Apurva Asrani takes the viewers through an exploratory journey within, to feel and understand what it means to be alone at the autumn of one's life and that too when you are perceived as the 'other' by a majority in the society just because your sexual orientation doesn't toe the line. Hats off to Apurva Asrani for an honest and compelling story. Hansal Mehta's Shahid, City Lights and now Aligarh will be always remembered in the history of Indian cinemas for sure.

Go and watch Aligarh to bulldoze the naysayers who says that such movies doesn't appeal a larger audience. While I am writing this review it is sad to now that the film had quietly been banned in Aligarh city. It is being reported by a major daily that the city mayor and some local group, mounted a protest against its screening. She felt the film would 'link the city with homosexuality', which would be nothing short of a defamation. Director Hansal Mehta told TOI (as reported in 27th feb, 2016 edition) that "This is a homophobic decision". The scriptwriter Apurava Asrani in his media interaction (as reported in TOI, 27 Feb, 2016) has said that "the decision reeks of homophobia and that the opponents of the film will have to come to terms that 2% of India's population is from the LGBT community" At a time when jingoism, communalism and unwarranted censorship are posing real challenge to the democratic fiber of our nation, freedom of expression and unity in diversity, Aligarh is a must watch.

Life Connoisseur Movie Rating: 4.75/5