Biopics are all the rage in Hindi cinema, with the hunt for a heroic figure who embodies courage, success and national glory going beyond history textbooks into the realms of sport (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Mary Kom) and current affairs (Airlift, Neerja).
Director Hansal Mehta is also interested in the biographical film, but he has a different view of heroism. His 2013 movie Shahid was based on the life of Shahid Azmi, a human rights lawyer who was mysteriously killed in Mumbai while representing Muslims falsely accused of terrorism. Mehta’s quest for the genuine Indian heroes, the ones who fight deeply entrenched injustice and ask uncomfortable questions, has now led him to adapt the story of Aligarh Muslim University Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras. Like Shahid, Aligarh is an account of persecution, sexual identity, and the right to choice told through an individual who, like Shahid Azmi, would be called “anti-national” if he were alive.
Siras, the head of the Department of Modern Indian Languages at Aligarh Muslim University, was suspended in February 2010 after a sting operation ordered by staffers caught him in bed with his male lover. The flagrant violation of Siras’s privacy – he was at home when the cameras came bursting in – and the vilification that followed – he was suspended and reinstated after a court battle – ended in tragedy. Siras’s body was found in April, and though murder was suspected, it could not be proved.
Aligarh’s co-writer and editor, Apurva Asrani, uses the well-known facts of the Siras incident to present an intimate portrait of an individual’s struggle against rejection and loneliness. Siras, beautifully played by Manoj Bajpayee with defiance tinged with melancholia, does not like to be called gay, although that is what he is. The elderly professor is a reluctant recruit in the larger battle to strike down Section 377, which makes homosexuality a criminal act. Siras argues that his sexual preference is his own business (he says his feelings cannot be summed up in three words), but does object to the manner in which his private life has become an excuse to drive him away from his work.
The nuances of Siras’s story are revealed by intrepid journalist Deepu, based on a correspondent with The Indian Express and played by Rajkummar Rao. In what is essentially a two-hander, Ashish Vidyarthi has a cameo as the lawyer who takes on Siras’s case pro bono, and who argues that it is unconstitutional to deny somebody the right to eat meat or the right to choose a lover. Aligarh depicts the university town as a battleground of ideas and makes a strong appeal for decriminalising homosexuality, but its larger message about intolerance has gained far greater traction since this film was made.
Mehta and Asrani use the friendship that evolves between Siras and Deepu as a device to bring out their varying personalities. Siras is as reserved as Deepu is a go-getter. One is hooded and autumnal while the other is eager-eyed and alive. Bajpayee’s experience has suitably prepared him for this role, which is unlike any of the charismatic gangsters he has played before (although his Marathi accent is a bit dodgy), while the talented Rao’s ever-growing range and ability to turn on the charm when least expected hold him in good stead in a movie that essentially belongs to his co-star.
The contrasting personalities throw up parallels, some of which are necessary from the scripting viewpoint to remove the largely accepted view of homosexuals as perverts. However, some of the similarities are laboured, such as the lack of privacy for both Siras and Deepu, and the awkward suggestion that while Deepu manages to openly pursue a relationship, Siras is hardly so fortunate.
The movie is most powerful as a miniature about a man who prefers the comforts of the shadows rather than the glare of the spotlight. Mehta and Asrani put forth the message of the personal as political with as much restraint as is possible in a mainstream movie. Deepu draws the introverted professor out of his self-imposed prison and seems to be able to restore some of his trampled-upon dignity. There are some benefits to being forcibly outed. Siras recites his poetry at a gathering, shyly accepts the applause, and, for the first time in days, feels better about himself. It’s one of the movie’s most affecting scenes and Bajpayee’s finest moment.