“Aligarh,” directed by Hansal Mehta, is a human rights narrative that depicts the harsh realities of gays living in the conservative Indian society. It’s a gripping storyline wrapped in a mosaic of historic verdicts, the first is the Delhi High Court’s initial decriminalisation followed by the Supreme Court recriminalizing Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.
It is a real account of Dr. Ramchandra Srinivas Siras, a professor and head of the Classical Modern Indian Languages Faculty at Aligarh Muslim University, suspended for moral reasons. The film begins with a provoking incident in which some scoundrels forcefully enter the professor’s residence and take a video of him being intimate with a rickshaw-puller.
The centred storytelling and organic performances that offer you a peek into the protagonist’s existence keep you hooked up to the screen. Considering the delicate topic, writers Apurva Israni and Ishani Banerjee have made certain that there’s nothing unwarranted or unnecessary titillation. They’ve cleverly used Deepu Sebastian’s track, who is a journalist from Delhi who works for the Indian Post, to push the storyline.
Manoj Bajpayee plays the victimised, shy, down-to-earth professor flawlessly, who is forced to struggle alone. Manoj is a character you’d believe in, with his gait, way of speaking, and understated histrionics. He effectively conveys his anguish through his performance’s silences and the vulnerability in his eyes.
Deepu is a reporter based in Delhi who learns of Siras’s story in a local paper and follows it with his photojournalist coworker. Full disclosure: Deepu Sebastian Edmond, the reporter, was working for the Indian Express at the time the event came to light and photojournalist Tashi Tobgyal also worked for the paper.
Dr. Ramchandra Srinivas Siras’s “case” transitions into the landmark 2009 Delhi High Court decision that decriminalized homosexuality, and is battled by a legal professional (Ashish Vidyarthi) who positions privacy in the bedroom far above the ‘moral’, sneering heralds of morality.’ The patronising tone of the public prosecutor in Allahabad is consistent with the general condemnation levelled at the LGBT community, and Siras’s wrongful conviction feels like a vindication, even though not for long.
What’s most intriguing about Siras is his obvious discomfort with the label “gay”; he would rather not have a label. That discomfort reveals far more about him: that he is of a generation that doesn’t go around slapping bumper stickers on others. For him, they are people, whether they dance, express their longing, attend all-stag parties, or force their way into his private space, with video cameras ready to film the action.
Siras is portrayed by Manoj Bajpayee as a person whose befuddled fragility begs for evaluation, and whose selflessness necessitates understanding and compassion. There are moments where you can see him trying, but he then transforms into Dr. Ramchandra Srinivas Siras, salt and pepper hair curling at his temples, a well-worn suit while out of his house, and an old blanket wrapped around his shoulders while at home, fingertips carving notes in the air as Lata’s voice echoes in his unkempt living room. It’s a lovely performance, both quiet and moving. One you must definitely watch.