Manoj Bajpayee’s Aligarh paved the way for Ayushmann Khurrana’s Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan; it deserves a reappraisal
Before there was Moonlight there was Aligarh. But unlike that film, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2017 and made $65 million worldwide, Aligarh came and went largely unnoticed by the star-crazy Hindi film industry, not even a juicy controversy enough to attract audience interest in its same-sex love story. It was snubbed at the National Film Awards and failed to recover its modest budget at the box office.
But its impact can still be felt. Aligarh walked so that one day, films like Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan could run.
Unlike Aligarh, which told the story of a closeted professor at the conservative Aligarh Muslim University in a very understated manner, actor Ayushmann Khurrana always insisted that Shubh Mangal -- touted as Bollywood’s first gay romance -- would be more mainstream in its approach because they wanted to reach the widest audience. “When I decided to back Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, my intention was clear that I wanted this film and its message to reach as many families and homes as possible,” the actor said in a statement after the film’s healthy box office debut.
He added, “The box office result over the weekend only goes to show that we have been able to do our bit in spreading the message of gender inclusivity in India. It goes on to show that we have done our bit to make the people of our country conscious about the discrimination that exists basis gender and why this needs to be corrected.”
Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan made close to Rs 10 crore on its opening day, while Aligarh managed only Rs 31 lakh, despite Manoj Bajpayee delivering one of the best performances of his career.Director Hansal Mehta in a piece for Scroll lamented about how the film has been treated after its release. He admitted that making it and releasing it were Herculean tasks, but “What is disappointing is how the film was treated long after it was out: an extremely mutilated version was released on Zee5. Half the film has been chopped up, and the word homosexuality has been beeped at several points.”
Mehta added, “Things like this make you question whether people don’t want to see mature cinema or if it is the gatekeepers and exhibitors who are paranoid about what the people would want to see.”
Also read: The Manoj Bajpayee you never knew
Aligarh isn’t just a good film, it’s a cultural milestone in our country. It’s particularly sad to revisit a hopeful comment made by Bajpayee ahead of the film’s release. “I think films like Aligarh should make money at the box-office as that will dilute the gap between art cinema and so called commercial cinema because for me there is nothing called art or commercial cinema. A good film is a good film and a bad film is a bad film. I think things will improve with time,” he’d said in an interview.
While the actor has routinely balanced populist entertainment with arthouse fare, Aligarh captured him in fine form. It also served as a sort of handing of the baton between Bajpayee and Rajkummar Rao, who insists on following in the footsteps of Ayushmann, but should realise that it is Bajpayee whose career he should be trying to emulate.
But, despite everything, Mehta said, “I want to look at the positives. I got a lot of love from the LGBTQ community for Aligarh. Sometimes they stop me on the streets randomly and give me a hug.” Aligarh braved protests and calls for bans; it fought audience apathy and an old-school censor board. But the film made it through, and survived.
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