Aligarh - An excellent biopic

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‘Aligarh’ refers to the town in U.P. where Aligarh Muslim University is there and where the story is primarily set in. It was an excellent biopic. Aligarh primarily asks us examine two things, 1. If code of conduct on an institution is equated to law, would an illegally obtained ‘evidence’ be admissible in enforcing that very code? 2. Is morality an absolute value? Any rational, intellectual person would answer an emphatic No to both these questions, but that’s not how the world works.

Aligarh tells the story of Prof. Ramachandra Siras who was the subject of an Allahabad High court case in which he sued the university challenging his suspension. There’s no reason not to mention the story because the basic information is well documented in various newspaper articles, and in Wikipedia.

The story outline barely touches the issues of rampant homophobia, the diabolical scheming of jealous colleagues, society’s lack of respect for individuals, the public shaming, lack of respect for individual rights, and most importantly internal conflict of a human being who is not able to fathom why the world is against him when he has done nothing wrong.

Manoj Bajpai, who IS Prof. Siras in the film, really bowls you over with his soulful performance, he has not just donned the character, rather he permeated the character and let the character consume him. His body language, expressions, his speech pattern, everything is so transformed, you won’t know where does Manoj Bajpai end where does Siras begin. Rajkumar Rao (who is frequent contributor of director Hansal Mehta) plays a journalist with a conscious, and its pleasant surprise to see an old fashioned journalistic pursuit in a modern movie, rather than focusing on TV reporter style journalism. Ashish Vidyarthi delivers a powerful performance as Anand Grover, who represented Siras in the court.


The movie’s pace is pretty slow going, but that’s real life, in real life the dramatic moments don’t just arrange themselves in order like in a movie screenplay, and obviously the film doesn’t have any commercial touches like songs or fights etc. Manoj Bajpai portrays the internal conflict of a person who is homosexual, when he is caught on video (which we see only in glimpses throughout the movie), the brief moments in which we see the shock, shame, disgust, regret and the pain. When he is confronted by the university officials, prosecutor or even reporters, he can’t fashion the right words to express his feelings accurately, at one point when someone says, ‘is it because you are gay?’, he responds with obvious pain in his voice, ‘you make it sound like a bad word, how can you understand the love and feelings that I have if you keep using that word as if that is the be all and end all of what I am’, he speaks of an uncontrollable urge, which he can’t do anything about, that’s what he IS, it’s not something he chose to be.

The court room is sans any cinematic touches, we just see a simple room with a bunch of people much like in real life, in fact we don’t even see the judge most of the time, what we do see is how the prosecution focuses on the so called “moral conduct” and “misbehavior” of the professor, instead of focusing on the real issue whether the tape which is obviously the result of a planned sting operation by the university officials, is admissible or not, and what right someone has to film someone’s bedroom conduct? In fact, everyone including prosecution knows that the tape itself is inadmissible so they “leak” the video to the media and claim innocence, but the damage is done as far as Prof. Siras is concerned.

Hansal Mehta who directed another excellent biopic Shahid, directed Aligarh and he did a great job elucidating the story and instead of relying on preachy dialogues or overly dramatic imagery, he lets the performance of his actors, and our imagination do the job. He doesn’t even speculate about the nature of the sting operation, backroom scheming or investigation, rather our view into the story is from the protagonist and the journalist’s perspective, that said, some of the scenes could have been trimmed, but he was going for verbatim storytelling, so we have to live with it. The feelings and anguish of Siras are expressed with his verbal and non-verbal communication when he interacts with journalist Deepu, those are definitely the highlights of the movie, along with the excellent court scenes.

It’s really saddening to see the state of affairs in India concerning this issue, the verdict is still out as of this writing on whether section 377 is unconstitutional or not, let’s keep our fingers crossed and hope Indian legal system does the right thing and decriminalize this inhumane law. This forces us to think what is moral, what is legal? Should everything immoral be illegal? By that definition, some vegetarians think eating meat is immoral, should meat eating be made illegal? Some people think extra-marital affairs are immoral, should they be penalized too? In fact, in the penultimate scene, Siras says ‘Sochtahoon ki retirement ke baad America chala jaoon, waha hamare jaise log ijjat se reh sakte hain’, but of course even America is not a bed of roses for gay people, cities like New York might not care (The annual Gay Pride parade is a spectacle to behold), but there are still southern states and Midwestern states where gay marriage is illegal, and gay people are not welcome. The gay pride moment in USA blazed through fire to get where it is right now, and now its India’s turn, 50 years ago, if someone was told about homosexuality, they might not have believed such a thing could exist, now at least everyone knows and the issue is out in the public debate, I have faith that we will get there, and stories like Aligarh are a sore reminder and films like this act as a mirror to the society so it can reflect upon how its treating people of a different orientation.

Bhaskar Gandavabi
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