Thursday, March 10, 2016

14. Aligarh

Suppose - in a middle class colony in any of our major cities - a single middle-aged man is found to be sleeping with his domestic help. 
Every other detail about the situation just ceases to matter in a situation like this. Maybe it was consensual? Maybe they were in love? How did people find out about it? Did they invade his privacy? None of this matters. Personal choices and preferences take a backseat to the societal norms formed over years of sediment emerging out of ancient scriptures of all religions. 

Aligarh takes this basic issue of privacy and sets it in the landscape of gay rights in India (or the lack it). By tracking the story of a Aligarh University professor who was persecuted for sleeping with a rickshaw-puller, he uses gay rights to raise questions about privacy. When a man is killed in India (a place less than 100 kms from Aligarh), we never ask who killed him. Instead, we ask what meat he had in his fridge. Likewise, we don't ask how a camera-toting thug entered a law-abiding professor's private residence without permission. We ask who was in bed with the professor. 

The story of Aligarh is simple but the screenplay asks several questions, leaving us to work them out. Beyond the social commentary, it is also like a thriller where we are never sure of which testimony is dependable and who colluded with whom. By leaving certain strands of the story hanging and moving on to other strands, it creates a deep sense of unease that is possibly reflective of the way we choose to outrage about some victim today and then conveniently move on to another one tomorrow - without bringing any closure to any of those. 

Manoj Bajpayee does a stellar job of playing the disgraced professor - helpless and strong in turns, heartbreakingly real for the entire film. His Marathi-accented Hindi, his halting poetry recitation, his guilty drinking, his anger, his laughter... are just perfect. 
Equally strong is the second lead - Rajkummar Rao - who brings alive the young, idealistic, Malayali journalist out to give the professor a fair hearing. 
In fact, the entire cast does a great job of looking and playing the parts to perfection. 


When I last heard, an alumnus of Aligarh University (or was it a resident of the city of Aligarh?) had petitioned to have the name of the film changed because being associated with a 'gay film' would have a negative impact on the city and its residents. 
Bombay did not run in Bombay without cuts mandated by its most powerful resident. Aligarh, thankfully, did not meet the same fate. 

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