Aligarh begins with two people barging into the house of Prof. Siras, and that sets the tone of the film from the beginning. Director Hansal Mehta remains focused on the events that unfold in the life of Prof. Siras and the emotional turmoil that he goes through. Having been able to hide his sexuality successfully for the last 60 years, this sudden onslaught on his privacy leaves Prof. Siras exposed to the harsh realities of homophobic violence. With little support from anyone, he follows the advice of his friend and colleague and writes a letter to the Vice Chairman expressing his regrets at what happened.
It is not until Deepu Sebastian (played by Rajkumar Rao), a reporter from India Post, comes to investigate the case that Prof. Siras finds the courage to fight back his suspension and open up. But even then, he remains a reluctant fighter- pushed to the front by circumstances beyond his control, when he would much rather drink his whisky and listen to songs.
When Rajkumar asks him if he is gay, Prof. Siras shows his disdain for labels. “How can someone understand my feelings in 3 words?” he says. He doesn’t want to be tagged with labels, and abhors labels for his poetry as well. Asked by Deepu if Irfan (the rickshaw puller) was his lover, he doesn’t want to define his relation with him, and instead urges him to understand the meaning of love. When lawyers representing him tell him that he has to publicly state that he is gay, there is certain uneasiness. But what choice did he have? The court proceedings bore him, and he sleeps through them mostly or translates his poems in English. He wanted to live his life in peace, but is pushed to fight for his rights.
The movie shows the harassment he had to undergo, when he is asked to vacate his room within a week, and has his electricity connection cut off. It portrays the difficulties that a single unmarried gay man faces finding accommodation for himself. There is a threat of eviction that looms large. Prof. Siras gets thrown out first from his residence in AMU, and then by his landlord who probably gets to know about his sexuality and gives the excuse of renting his room only to “family” and not to bachelors.
Like Hansal Mehta’s previous films, the movie touches the class and caste issues as well, though he refrains from going deeper into them. Much of these class-caste issues exists within the LGBT community but are hardly spoken about. While Siras has no problem having sex with a Muslim man, the Brahmin within him doesn’t allow him to be served food by Deepu in a restaurant since he was having non-vegetarian. Similarly, Irfan, the rickshaw puller, is the one who is beaten up by the police. Siras expresses his remorse at how a poor man is having to suffer. His concern remains for Irfan.
Yet, despite going through so much trauma, his love for Aligarh University never decreases. He explains it to Deepu, “I am considered an outsider here. In an Urdu speaking city, I am teaching Marathi.” But he says he could never have got so much respect anywhere else. In Nagpur, where there are so many Marathi speaking person, he would have lost himself in the crowd.
But was the sting operation on Prof. Siras merely because he was gay, or was it a result of internal politics at AMU? The movie leaves little doubt on the complicity (and active involvement) of the administration of the university in framing Siras. He wins the case eventually, but loses the fight for survival.
Aligarh in a way is not just the story of Prof. Siras, it is the story of thousand of LGBTs who have to face discrimination, extortion and live under threats. It is the story of fear under which LGBTs live in this country. The fear that if their landlord finds out about their sexuality, they may be evicted from the house. The fear that if their colleagues at office were to know, they may be thrown out of their job on some petty excuse. It is the story of the mental agony a closeted man goes though on being outed forcefully. It also shows how removal of Sec 377 could help gay men live with dignity.
Manoj Bajpayee is brilliant in the role of Prof. Siras and Rajkumar Rao supports the movie well with his acting skills. The movie at times is slow in pace, but then, it is in these silences, that the film exists.
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