Aligarh: The Silence speaks my Name
The barometer of a good movie is that it makes us think, talk, debate about it and Aligarh ticks all
Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata
“Aligarh deals with homosexuality, we have given the trailer an ‘A’ certificate and it will run with other adult films.”—Pahlaj Nihalani, Chairperson, Central Board of Film Certification(CBFC)
Those who are going to walk into the theatre this week to watch a film about homosexuality, as the Censor Board chairperson predicted, are going to be sorely disappointed with Aligarh. What they’ll walk out with instead is having watched a deeply nuanced film about love and longing, loneliness and ageing, identity and acceptance.
Aligarh is about a sensitive, fragile man, who likes his whisky and his melancholic Lata Mangeshkar songs in the evening. A man who shops for his grocery on Wednesdays and who has sex behind closed doors, like all middle class couples do. Unfortunately, a door left open, deliberately or by accident, shatters the middle-class calm of his night as a news reporter and his cameraman barge into his bedroom, invading his privacy, dignity and security. It leads to events that will strip him of his job, home, and will bring his deeply private love life into a very vitriolic public domain.
Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) has always been an outsider — a Marathi professor teaching Marathi at the Urdu-speaking Aligarh University, a bachelor who lives in a neighbourhood of married couples and families, a man with few friends, and, as his case unfolds, someone who becomes an unlikely hero for the outsiders, the LGBT community.
Based on the real-life case of the suspension of Prof Siras from the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) on the grounds that he was gay and set against the landmark 2009 Delhi High Court judgment which decriminalised homosexuality, the movie could have been a strong testament to LGBT rights, but director Hansal Mehta rightly keeps the cinematic lens on the individual rather than the community. Siras’s life after the sting operation is a series of caged, claustrophobic houses, where he remains, a silent, furtive shadow of what was already a timid self.
Siras finds an unlikely ally in Deepu Sebastian (Rajkumar Rao),who recognises the persecution of a gay professor and goes about reporting it as young reporters are wont to do, impulsively, willfully, wanting to know more about the person and not his sexuality. Even though they inhabit different worlds, different generations, they do find that their ideas, their idealism reflect each other’s.
Deepu’s life in Delhi also offers a direct juxtaposition to Prof Siras’s life and the mindset of small towns-while the young reporter is on the rise, Siras’s life is in limbo; while Deepu’s life is all about noise (the pesky water pump, the music on his headphones and the nosy landlady), Siras’s life, his poetry lingers more on the silences than the words that are being said. As he himself says, “Kavita shabdo ke beech ki khamoshi mein hoti hai, har koi umr aur paristhiti ke hisaab se uska matlab nikalta hai”. (The poetry is in the silences between words; their meaning depends on the age and situation one is in)And like his poetry , we see more of Siras in his silences—a quiet voice in a loud TV debate, a tired silence when he is being asked to confess to a crime he has never commited, soulful solitude as he listens to his old Hindi film songs. In fact, even when the two lawyers on his case argue vociferously on what does and does not constitute moral boundaries, it’s an almost detached Siras sitting in the background that catches your attention.
The editing is paced slowly, just the way small town lives are wont to be and the mis-en-scene is almost that of a play—confined spaces, concentrating on characters, not crowds, and a feeling of being engaged in an everyman’s life, almost as if it were happening in front of us.
The two songs on the soundtrack, “Aap ki nazron ne samjha pyaar ke kabil mujhe” and “Betaab dil ki tamanna hai” echo Siras’s longing for love and acceptance more than a dialogue- heavy narrative could have done. The narrative also moves seamlessly from the night that changed everything to Siras’s life after that. As the story peels away layers of Siras’s life, so does it uncover the various betrayals of that night- by the journalists, his colleagues, even his lover.
Bajpayee as Siras brings in the shyness, awkwardness and the gentleness of his character slowly but surely through the movie and Rao acts as the perfect foil to Siras’s story. However, from a director who made the superlative Shahid, the courtroom drama seems a little shrill and jars in an otherwise subtle and understated film.
The film could have been many things - a timely reminder of intolerance, a commentary on the way we view outsiders, a diatribe on homophobia, but what Mehta and writer Apurva Asrani do is steer clear of all labels and give us a film about love, a love that cannot be named, that cannot be compartmentalised, cannot be confined.
The barometer of a good movie is that it makes us think, talk, debate about it and Aligarh ticks all those boxes. What it also does is make us feel all the facets of love—the tenderness, the poignancy, the heartbreak and the poetry of this emotion, which is universal, whatever our sexual preferences be.