Friday Review

‘Aligarh’ goes beyond Aligarh

A view of the Aligarh Muslim University Photo R.V. Moorthy.

A view of the Aligarh Muslim University Photo R.V. Moorthy.   | Photo Credit: R_V_Moorthy

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The university and the city are incidental to the poignant story of “Aligarh”.

Names of cities have often been used in the titles of films. Mumbai and New Delhi have appeared more often than any other city in India. Kolkata, Chennai, and Hyderabad are not far behind. More recently smaller places such as Ghaziabad, Wasseypur and Badlapur have also appeared in the titles of films. Hansal Mehta’s ‘Aligarh’ is the latest.

‘Aligarh’ aroused the curiosity of a number of people who know the place because of the Aligarh Muslim University and the lock industries. There have been some protests over the title of the film, and a kind of ‘unofficial ban on the film’ on the grounds that the historic and culturally-rich city will have a permanent association with same-sex relationships.

Opposed to the idea of a ban, the vice-chancellor of Aligarh Muslim University, Lt. Gen. Zameer Uddin Shah, says, “It is my experience that banning anything excites curiosity and does not achieve the purpose for which the ban is imposed.”

Aligarh Muslim University has provided a backdrop for quite a few Hindi films. The most prominent examples include ‘Mere Mehboob’ (1963), and ‘Nai Umar Ki Nai Fasal’ (1966). It has also been referred to in many other films such as ‘Mohabbatein’ (2000), ‘Pyaar Ishq Aur Mohabbat’ (2001) and ‘Raanjhanaa’ (2013). In fact, if ‘Mere Mahboob’, a popular film in the genre of Muslim socials, presented a romantic, though certainly unrealistic, image of Aligarh, ‘Haider’ referred to Aligarh Muslim University as the place where young men would imbibe intellectual ideas and lessons in good behavior.

Any artistic production, a film, novel or a play, always transcends its immediate context and generates meaning and significance for a wider audience. ‘Aligarh’ is a narrative film, not a documentary and as such it is part biopic and part socio-political critique. The film is important for the sensitive treatment of its subject than for the representation of a city or a university. The main concern of the film is an individual’s right to privacy and the film handles this subject competently. Aligarh city and Aligarh Muslim University are just incidental to the subject of the film. The city and the University represent the larger society in the film.

The second important concern of the film, related to the first, is the private world of Dr. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, a professor of Marathi, who lives among the Hindi/Urdu speaking people in Aligarh. Manoj Bajpayee brings out the extreme loneliness, sense of anguish, and the frightened state of a professor who otherwise loves Lata Mangeshkar songs and discovers poetry in silences between words.

Aligarh Muslim University, though not unscathed in the film, is not painted in black and white either. Siras repeatedly speaks of his love for the University. The University is described as having the best campus in the country. If Siras gets a raw deal from the official discourse in the University, exacerbated by what he explains as Departmental politics, there is also support and understanding for him coming from some quarters in the university. A philosophy professor in the University, played by Sukhesh Arora, offers to help the journalist taking up Siras’s case though the professor ‘cannot rock the boat too much’.

The university campus is largely missing in the film and the action of the film takes place mostly within closed doors of different houses. In fact, just as ‘Mumbainess’ of Mumbai is usually presented through Gateway of India or Marine Drive, ‘Delhiness’ of Delhi through India Gate and Red Fort, films and documentaries about Aligarh have traditionally shown Aligarh’s historic 140 year old buildings like Victoria Gate and Strachey Hall to capture ‘Aligarhness’ even if they have not been shot in Aligarh. “Aligarh” does not show any in the film, though a microscopic view of the poster of the film does show the University’s Victoria Gate in the background. In fact, the film was shot mostly in Bareilly College Bareilly. As the Vice-Chancellor Lt. Gen. Shah put it “This is a very sensitive subject and that is why, to avoid controversy, we did not give permission for filming inside AMU premises.” Not that it takes anything away from its main subject but only to stress that ‘Aligarh’ is all about an individual’s right to privacy and a general lack of understanding towards a sexual minority than about Aligarh Muslim University or any other feature or trait exclusive to Aligarh.

(The writer teaches English at Aligarh Muslim University)

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Printable version | Nov 21, 2019 7:31:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/aligarh-goes-beyond-aligarh/article8309888.ece

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