Director: Hansal Mehta
Cast: Manoj Bajpai, Rajkummar Yadav, Ashish Vidyarthi
Director Hansal Mehta has come a long way from his small screen cookery show Khana Khazana days in the 90s. His 2012 biopic Shahid about a human rights activist lawyer won National Award for him and even his 2014 film Citylights got critical appraisal for its stark story-telling about a young couple from hinterland getting lost in the maze of the metro life.
In Aligarh Mehta presents yet another biopic, yet another gritty tale with dark tidings.
What’s the plot?
Aligarh is mainly a story about two real life characters- Dr. Shrinivas Siras, a professor of Marathi in Lucknow’s AMU (Aligarh Muslim University) and Deepu Sebastian, a young reporter (who in real life worked in Indian Express). The reporter is intrigued by the news about a local TV sting operation on Professor Siras. The news mentions Siras being caught ‘red-handed’ in his own apartment while having sex with a male friend and also says that the university is suspending the professor for his ‘immoral’ act!
The young scribe now begins his own investigation into the whole matter. He is surprised that instead of taking action against the sting operators for intruding upon the professor’s privacy, the university is hell-bent on removing the ‘errant employee’. He encounters initial resistance in establishing a rapport with the tensed up professor, who is literally being hounded out by the university officials but who is also receiving support from some of his colleagues, students and activists. Slowly the reporter strikes friendship with the ostracized man, who inadvertently has become a centerpiece of gay activism in India.
As the reporter learns more about the incident in question, it starts becoming clear that it was stage-managed by some people keen to get rid of professor.
On the basis of an earlier Delhi High Court verdict for striking down IPC Section 377-(based an archaic British law which criminalizes Homosexuality!)-a famous lawyer fights in Allahabad High Court for reinstatement of Siras in AMU. The old professor wins the case after a lengthy, bitter battle but will he be able to enjoy his victory?
All credit to Hansal Mehta for choosing such a bold and controversial theme and making such a sensitive film. He makes this film not just a biopic but turns it into a subtle yet scathing commentary on the social status of homosexuals in India, exposing the Indian society’s bigotry in the process. Perhaps the most important thing he does is to do away with the caricature-ish gay character portrayals in Bollywood and bring reality and sanity in portraying people with different sexual orientation.
Mehta’s two lead actors-Manoj Bajpai (as Prof. Siras) and Rajkummar Yadav (as reporter Deepu Sebastian) are superb in their roles and so is Ashish Vidyarthi (in a cameo as the lawyer fighting for the professor’s reinstatement).
Yadav’s youthful, socially aware, sympathetic news reporter is endearing but Bajpai’s shy, scared, bewildered yet dignified elderly professor is simply haunting. Siras’s lonely poetic persona, his love for Lata Mangeshkar’s classic songs, his vulnerability in face of the controversy and his old world ignorance about changing social trends….Bajpai’s portrayal is surely a performance worthy of accolades and awards.
It is not a perfect film. It is far too slow-paced and takes long to establish the characters and the story. It is a film meant for niche audience with intellect and empathy.
The most telling message it delivers is how fickle and flawed is our public understanding of gay rights. A caption at the end informs us that the Indian Supreme Court reinstated IPC Section 377 in 2013, once again opening the door for criminalizing and marginalizing homosexuals! Currently the matter remains under further legal review.