Aligarh : Film Review

I watched ‘Aligarh‘ today, and was quite impressed with the understated passion that Manoj Bajpayee brings to the character of Prof. Siras, hounded and dismissed by Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), because of his affair with a rickshaw driver. Mysterious goons made their entry into Prof. Siras’  apt. and ostensibly filmed him having sex with the rickshaw driver. Other accounts suggest CCTV cameras installed in the apt. bedroom, possibly by university hirelings. Many suspect the collusion and involvement of the AMU admin.

The persecution of Siras became a pivotal LGBT issue in the heady aftermath of the Delhi High Court’s decriminalization of same sex relations in 2009.

Siras later won his case against AMU in the Allahabad High Court, and then died mysteriously at his Aligarh apartment (university housing),  a day before the court judgment reached the university–despite a murder charge lodged against a few suspects, the police claimed that nothing could be proven, and the case was quietly dropped. No one knows why Shrinivas Siras died. Murder at the hands of university goons who did not want to re-instate him, in accordance with the court judgment? Or suicide, caused by a sense of shame?

Bajpayee’s character in the film reveals his gentleness, poetic consciousness (‘poetry is not about words and meanings, but about spaces and silences’), and the painful awareness of outsider status. Shrinivas Siras was an outsider not only in terms of his sexuality, but also as a Hindu at AMU (paradox: a majoritarian ‘minority’ at a minority institution), a professor of Marathi in Aligarh which is largely an Urdu and Hindi speaking town.

The film ‘Aligarh’, reveals the subtext of the charges against Siras: the horror and the abjection of the violation of caste and class taboos, as well as the inter-religious sex taboo in sex with a rickshaw driver. I think it’s simplistic to say that Siras was hounded solely because of homophobia.

It is tempting to speculate on what would have happened if Siras had a quietly closeted relationship with a same sex, same economic class and caste friend, say, a colleague from another department of AMU. I certainly don’t think the witch hunt would have been this rabid.

Curiously, the film pulls off the fictionalized relationship between Siras and the journalist Pradeep Sebastian (‘Deepu’), very well. In real life, Sebastian was the journalist who exposed the Siras case and gave it national attention and publicity. Rajkumar Rao plays the young Sebastian with superb elan.
The relationship between the professor and the journalist does not blossom into overt romance–yet, the fictional Siras enjoys a great male bonding comfort in his various tete-a tetes with Deepu, in his greatest hour of crisis.

Paradoxically, in so doing, the film re-inserts the need for  caste, class, or at least educational commonality , a need that it challenges at other levels.

For, Irfan the rickshaw driver, is but an extra in the film, and his relationship with the professor appears to be centered on sex and a common love for the Bollywood voice over genius Lata Mangeshkar.

‘Aligarh’ is well worth a watch, and is a minor marvel in the Bollywood context, with all the issues it raises and exposes.

–Raj Ayyar


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