If the public prosecutor (Gauri Balaji) had her way, there wouldn’t be a case at all. As much as her small-town mind struggles to wrap itself around the fact that the defendant – 64-year-old professor, Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras (Manoj Bajpai) – had sex with another man, the bigger issue seems to be that he had “sex karne ki shakti” in the first place. And instantly, we’re reminded of why it’s so difficult to talk gay rights in India, where large swatches of population still believe that sex is something you do for a few years after getting married, and once you have children it gradually stops. Sex for non-procreational purposes, for fun? At this age? And with someone of the same gender? In a way, it’s only right that Hansal Mehta’s quietly moving new film isn’t named Siras but Aligarh. (Siras lives and teaches there.) The place is a kind of microcosm, and Mehta puts it under the microscope. In the opening scene, the camera pitches camp outside Siras’s apartment and looks up unblinkingly: someone is always watching you. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the real India. You people in the metros may be marching with pride, but out here, a gay man is essentially buggered.
But Siras wouldn’t like to be labelled gay. He doesn’t like the word. Its three letters are incapable of containing his multitudes of feelings. He doesn’t like the word “lover” either – it sounds dirty. One reason could be that he doesn’t speak very good English, and isn’t comfortable with its nonchalant ways. It’s not “a gay,” a sympathetic lawyer tells him – just “gay.” And of the English translation of his book of poems, he says, “It is too much badly done.” I was reminded of Aakriti Kohli and Sandeep Singh’s documentary In The Mood For Love (see here), where one of the featured characters, Shabnam Shaikh, says, “The LGBT community fighting, at the forefront, belongs to a particular class, speaks a certain language, and has a presence in the media but you will not find any representation of rural India.” Her point is emphasised doubly because it’s made in Hindi. Siras is a step further removed. His language is Marathi. So he sticks out amidst Urdu speakers. He is single. So he sticks out amidst householders.
So how does the young, straight journalist Deepu Sebastian (an outstanding Rajkummar Rao, who almost walks away with this Manoj Bajpai vehicle), claim, “Unka pain samajhta hoon?” Because part of Mehta’s agenda is to lay out how things aren’t all that different here, whether you’re gay or straight. Aligarh plays out as a set of echoes. Both Siras and Deepu (who’s writing about the case and slowly becomes Siras’s friend) are outsiders – the former a Marathi-speaker in Aligarh, the latter a Malayali in Delhi. Both suffer encroachment of their personal space – the encroachers, in both cases, aren’t the least apologetic. Both find themselves looking for a new place to live. And both are seen having a casual sexual encounter. The other part of Mehta’s agenda is to lay out how things are completely different for gays and straights. For when Deepu’s personal space is invaded, he rages, he rants, he demands to be heard. But Siras, he pleads shamefacedly. He doesn’t want justice – he just wants to curl up and die. Or take the sex scenes. Deepu is with a colleague, while Siras ends up with a lower-class rickshaw-wallah. Even their kisses are different. Deepu and his colleague crush their lips together and writhe like animals in heat, under the open sky, while Siras, in his bedroom, bestows chaste pecks on his partner’s face, hardly the “uncontrollable urge” he spoke about earlier. The film’s timidity in this matter may be its own kind of statement.
Then again, Siras is a timid man, a conservative man, an orthodox, god-fearing Brahmin (note the stickers in his house) who doesn’t want to call attention to himself. Bajpai plays him like a sensitive Guru Dutt character. Watch the pain shoot across his face when Deepu tells him what happened to the rickshaw-wallah. This is an atypically mannered performance from Bajpai. It’s gesturally, posturally micro-calibrated – we often catch him “acting.” But it all adds up to a larger portrait, and it’s quite affecting. Even the way he sits makes us ache for the man. He hugs his satchel, arms and legs drawn close. He’s tight, contained – he wants to take as little space as possible so he won’t be noticed (perhaps he’s like the moon in one of his poems, unseen during the day). When the resolutely non-judgmental Deepu hugs him outside the hotel he now lives in, he doesn’t return the gesture. His hands stay stiffly by his side. He’s learnt to control PDAs, or maybe he’s scared of them. Only within four walls does he give vent to emotion, eyes moistening to Lata Mangeshkar songs – not just any Lata Mangeshkar songs, but the ones she sang for Madan Mohan, steeped in yearning. Are his tears due to the marvellous music – or because all these emotions are available to him only vicariously? “Is umar mein log aksar akelapan mehsoos karte hain,” he says. His only companion? A voice on a radio.
It takes a while getting used to the pace. Shahid was a fiery film about a fiery man. Siras (and Aligarh) is the opposite. He’s not an instinctive, spontaneous person. He’s guarded, his movements are careful – and the camera reflects the inertness of this man who believes that poetry is not in the words but in the pauses, the silences. He’s silent even in court, where Anand Grover (an excellent Ashish Vidyarthi) thunders on his behalf. Siras’s colleague tells Deepu that Aligarh University (standing in for Aligarh Muslim University, where the real-life Siras’s case played out) was “a nursery for freedom fighters.” This case, too, is a fight for freedom – the freedom to live one’s life without being hounded, ostracised, violated, judged. But Siras is no fighter. When the university asks him to leave in a week, or when they cut off his power supply, he protests very mildly. He’s made to wait for a long time in a clinic, where he needs to have his blood pressure checked. But everyone leaves. Again, he just offers a mild protest. He then goes into the doctor’s room and checks his BP – by himself, like he does everything else in his lonely life. It’s only later, when a hotel proprietor asks him to vacate the room, does he really raise his voice, demand justice. It’s the end of the tether. It’s good to see Siras snap.
But soon, he’s back to normal – it’s no accident that in the last scene, we glimpse him through the window, through what seem like prison bars. The best sequence in the Aligarh is when Siras escapes this self-imposed incarceration and goes to a gay party. He meets men being flamboyant, men being subdued, men being all kinds of things – for the first time, he meets men like him in the open, socially, and not for sex. (The character of the lawyer who brings him to this party is beautifully portrayed. Unlike the gay characters in most of our films, there’s not a thing that’s obvious about him.) Siras sings Marathi songs. Everyone listens appreciatively. In a different kind of film, this would be the upbeat last scene. Siras is accepted, for the first time, as who he is – an aging, gay Maharashtrian. But Siras has been in the shadows for too long. A little later, we see revellers on the streets, in groups, celebrating the Delhi High Court’s overturning of Section 377. And we cut to Siras, alone at home, windows and doors closed. He’s probably too old for this kind of “activism,” which he says he’s not interested in. He’d rather escape to the US. “Mere jaise log wahan izzat se jee sakte hain.” The grass is always pinker on the other side. But at least he gets a hint that the future here could be different. He’s estranged from his brother, but gets along with his nephews and nieces. “Children don’t judge you.”
- sex karne ki shakti = the stamina for sex
- Unka pain samajhta hoon = I understand his pain
- Is umar mein log aksar akelapan mehsoos karte hain = People often experience loneliness at this age
- Mere jaise log wahan izzat se jee sakte hain = People like me can live a life of dignity there
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.