Aligarh: A poem about a man who loves another man. Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh (2016) begins with the screeching noise of a train as the camera focuses on the deserted, smoggy street of Aligarh lit by yellow street lights.
Professor Siras, played by actor Manoj Bajpayee, and the rikshawala pull through the thick, murky air and drive to the decrepit apartment of Professor Siras. Both climb down the rikshaw and get into his worn-out, tiny apartment. The camera refuses to get inside the apartment, rendering the viewer into a mere spectator as few minutes later, two journalists barge into the apartment with a camera and a stick. The camera lingers on the apartment and its dark, greenish iron window fence. The silence of the night is broken by inaudible voices, screams, pleads and the sickening sounds of the stick hitting human flesh. Silence again.
The camera finally moves into the apartment: Professor Siras is sitting in a foetal position on the ground next to his bed, whimpering and trembling and is almost naked, wearing only his underwear and his socks.
In the scene that follows, another journalist, Deepu Sebastian, played by actor Rajkummar Rao, rides his scooter in the bustling street of New Delhi. Deepu pleads to his superior to let him cover the “human story” of Professor Siras who has been suspended from the university because he was caught on camera engaged in a sexual activity with another man. Deepu sneers at another journalist’s coverage of this incident, telling her that her article “feels like some gay-rights protest statement, not a story.”
Deepu travels miles to meet Professor Siras as he seeks to bring forth the humanity of a man who does not go with the flow of traffic, whose humanity is lost in the bustling streets of everyday life in which we thirst for sex scandals and sensationalism. This scene is crucial as this is what Hansal Mehta does with his film which is based on the real life of Ramchandra Siras, an Indian linguist and author. His film is a story which conveys the deepest emotions of Professor Siras, a soft-spoken middle-aged man who walks with a slightly hunched back. It is a narrative which bespeaks his fears and desires, a narrative of a man who is more interested in the meaning of the word “love” and less interested in the proceedings of the courtroom.
Scenes which stood out are the close-ups which convey his vulnerability: his battered face as he listens to “Aap Ki Nazro Ne Samjha Pyar Ke Kabil Mujhe”, alone in his cramped apartment, and sings along. Or when he does not use the noun “gay” properly and is corrected when he says “he is a gay”. Another significant scene is when his voice is muffled by the voices of others during his own interview. Mehta gives Professor Siras a voice to tell his own story, primarily through his silences. The setting, the stained walls of his cramped apartment and the thick, smoky air of the streets, becomes a significant medium through which Mehta funnels Professor Siras’ sense of entrapment, constrained by social norms and by language. Mehta’s film is not simply a “gay-rights protest statement”. Aligarh shows what it MEANS to be the transgressor of social rules, what it means to be a man who falls in love with another man, a man who has been robbed of his dignity. It is a visual poem or like Professor Siras himself says in the film: “It’s like poetry… Emotional. Something that is deep within.”
Now that section 377 has been struck down by India’s Supreme Court, the air is less smoky, the room is less cramped and the walls have been partially scrubbed of this colonial stain and conservatism.