Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Rajkummar Rao, Ashish Vidyarthi
Director: Hansal Mehta
The man who gave us stark movies like Citylights and Shahid, brings yet another gritty film to theatres this Friday – Aligarh, Hansal Mehta’s film on Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras of the Aligarh Muslim University.
Professor Siras, a homosexual, was suspended for having consensual sex with a rickshaw puller in the privacy of his house. He took his case up in the Allahabad high court and won in 2010. However, he never resumed his post as he was found dead, days after the court gave verdict in his favour.
In a strong message advocating the right to privacy and equality, Manoj Bajpayee plays Prof Siras and Rajkummar Rao plays Deepu Sebastian, the journalist who brought the professor’s true story out of the closet.
Aligarh cooked up a storm even before its release as the censor board chief, Pahlaj Nihalani, rated the film and its trailer with an A certificate. His reasoning was that Aligarh was about homosexuality – a subject he deemed unfit for children. Having watched the film, we would like to tell Mr Nihalani that the film does not ‘promote’ homosexuality – it is about human rights, equality, right to privacy and the idea of democracy for all, obviously including homosexuals.
Manoj plays a shy and lonely 64-year-old man who loves his job as a language teacher, spends his free time listening to old melodies of Lata Mangeshkar and sipping whiskey – a common man with simple ideas.
His solitude is disrupted when local TV journalists break into his bedroom and film his sexual acts without his permission, at the behest of his own colleagues.
Aligarh review | Manoj Bajpayee’s impactful acting makes an umissable point
Caught in a vortex of jealousy after being promoted to head the department of Modern Indian Languages, Siras best explains his predicament: “Bahar ka admi mana jata hu, Shadishuda logo ke beech akela rehta hu, Urdu bolne wale sheher mein Marathi seekhata hun (I’m considered an outsider, I live alone among married couples, and I teach Marathi in an Urdu speaking community).”
The university takes action against Siras for his sexuality, but ignores his violation of privacy. After all, ‘morals’ of the organisation trump one’s individual rights.
Mehta’s narration of the film takes on this injustice with the simple facts. There are no iconic dialogues; but telling silence speaks volumes of Siras’s solitude and capture the audience. “Kavita shabdo ke beech ki khamoshi mein hoti hai, har koi umr aur paristhiti ke hisaab se uska matlab nikalta hai. (The poetry is in the silences between words; their meaning depends on the age and situation one is in),” Manoj’s Siras explains.This best sums up Mehta’s sensitivity towards his subject.
Unlike Bollywood’s stereotype of the loud, floral-loving homosexual, Aligarh very sensitively champions their cause. Mehta’s unusual hero takes special efforts to emphasise the fact that everyone is entitled to their sexual preference and should enjoy the freedom to love. He defies labels and often tells Deepu that we should stop trying to categorise everything and everyone.
Despite its seriousness, the film has its lighter moments – a blushing 64-year-old man, an unapologetically intrusive landlady, a meeting between Manoj and Rajkummar on the banks of Ganga.
Storytelling aside, Aligarh is supported by the immense acting prowess of Manoj Bajpayee. Be it the body language, the hint of a Marathi accent or the poetic mind of a professor, Manoj pays attention to the smallest of details.
We’ve seen in him as Bhikhu Mhtare (Satya) and Sardaar Khan (Gangs of Wasseypur), but Siras is by far his career best. A spell-binding performance with the trappings of warmth, love and agony, it is hard to look away from him.
Rajkummar Rao has a tough act to follow, but slips into his role with ease. Deepu Sebastian’s struggles as a novice in the profession are relatable, and his passion to make a difference, engaging. Ashish Vidyarthi as Siras’s lawyer supports the duo with applaudable realism.
Watch: Manoj Bajpayee, Rajkummar Rao in Aligarh trailer
At a time when notions of morality and jingoism are obstructing the ideas of freedom, democracy and individualism, Aligarh is a must-watch. It’s a reminder that freedom of choice can never be less important, and that is what democracy is about.
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The author tweets @swetakaushal