Bombay Showcase

Aligarh: Autumn of loneliness

Aligarh is a jugalbandi between a man of stillness and another with nervous energy. Manoj Bajpayee plays Dr Shrinivas Ramachandra Siras and Rajkummar Rao essays the role of journalist Deepu Sebastian.  

Hansal Mehta may have named his film after a place but Aligarh is essentially an individual’s film. It is about one person at a traumatic juncture in his life; an acutely observed, dignified and sympathetic character study of a violated man. Dr Shrinivas Ramachandra Siras, who was ousted from Aligarh Muslim University for homosexuality, was later found dead under mysterious circumstances. The retelling of his life is addressed against the backdrop of the contentious issue of criminalisation of homosexuality in India. The film’s strength lies in capturing the personality and psyche of Siras. Not just as he looks from outside but more so his inner life: his loneliness, advancing age and the betrayal and humiliation in the winter of his life.

So you have Manoj Bajpayee, with method acting at its peak, interpreting Siras in his own way: working at that fidgety gait, the halting voice and his love for Lata Mangeshkar captured through songs such as ‘ Aap ki nazron ne samjha ’ and ‘ Betaab dil ki tamanna yahi hai ’. There are some details that linger. Like how he dislikes the reduction of his passion for another man into a three-letter-word: gay. “It can’t quite capture the depth of my feelings,” he says. For him it’s an uncontrollable urge. If love is a word that needs to be felt and understood instead of being spelt out, the religion, according to him, is not something worth understanding because the minute you start putting your mind to it you will begin questioning your own beliefs and value systems. “The minute you put your mind to it, your beliefs and value system will disappear,” he says.

There is his suppressed anger coming out at a young reporter hounding him, telling them that he is not a circus joker. Then there is his quirk of signing with his own pen; the blush that creeps up when he is told that he is handsome; how he talks about searching for true poetry in the silences and pauses between words; or when he takes refuge in poetry during court proceedings claiming to be a reluctant activist, unaware of the legalese. All he wants is to be left alone, with his dignity intact.

Despite the underlying violence, physical as well as psychological, of the situation there is a quietude, gentleness and sincerity of treatment which heightens the larger, central debate of the film: should we be bothered about a person’s so-called immoral conduct or take up cudgels against society’s uncalled-for intrusion into the privacy of an individual? The shabby homes and the wintry, foggy, sinister air of a small North Indian town are captured well by the camera of Satya Nagpaul. What is better is the evocation of the town’s warped public moral compass; the gloomy university that took the lead in taking the scientific temper and progressive thoughts to the Muslims, yet started going downhill because of internal politics.

However, it’s not just the one man at the centre. It’s also about his relationship with a gregarious, ambitious journalist Deepu Sebastian (Rajkummar Rao) who is initially out to get a good story but gradually becomes his confidante and sounding board. It’s a jugalbandi between the man of stillness and another with nervous energy.

There are other idiosyncratic folks in the background who leave a great impression. Like KR Parmeshwar as Professor Sridharan, Siras’s colleague from the Malayalam department, and the two lawyers arguing in the courtroom over his dismissal.

Ashish Vidyarthi is all solidity and strength as he argues for Siras. Mehta had Shalini Vatsa as a fierce rival lawyer in Shahid . Here he brings us face to face with an even fiercer one in Gauri Balaji.

Aligarh opts to remain in a humane and heartfelt zone than become hard-hitting. Some elements don’t come together as well in the overall narrative. The attempt at humour with the “put the pump on” scenes doesn’t quite fly. Similarly, Deepu’s illicit passion paralleling Siras’s becomes too pat a way of driving home a point. And, the scene of Deepu realising the eventual tragedy doesn’t quite pack in an emotional wallop and feels too awkward and worked at.

The film is a unique step forward in reality cinema in that it uses actual names of people and places involved in the real incident. But then it still has to put a disclaimer at the start.

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Printable version | Apr 12, 2021 5:32:30 PM |

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