– By Ushasri, for IWI*
Distance is a fascinating word. Is it only a physical measurement, I often wonder? My house is equidistance from and to your house, yet, the people that dwell in it may create immeasurable and different measures of distance! What is the distance from my thoughts to yours, from my needs to yours, my morals to yours and my heart to yours! How do we measure them? What are the variables that go into that kind of a measurement?
Aligarh is a story of a 64-year-old Marathi professor, who if asked, would have had a completely unique definition for the word ‘distance’.
He would have said, ‘Distance is a word that both defines and excludes me. I am as distant as a homosexual is to the heterosexuals living in the staff quarters of Aligarh University. I am as distant as the hatred the majority nurtures toward a minority. I am as distant as the professional jealousies that crop up to sabotage my reputation and finally, my sense of self. As distant as a man stuck between hatred and struggle for life with dignity.’
Cast & Crew
Director – Hansal Mehta
Producers – Sunil Lulla, Sandeep Singh and Shailesh R. Singh
Story – Apurva Asrani and Ishani Banerjee
Screenplay – Apurva Asrani
Music – Karan Kulkarni
Cinematography – Satya Nagpaul
Sound Designer – Mandar Kulkarni
Cast – Manoj Bajpayee (Dr. Siras), Rajkummar Rao (Deepu Sabastian), Ashish Vidyarthi (Anand Grover), Gauri Balaji (Neta Grewal), K. R. Parameshwar (Prof. Sridharan), Sumit Gulati (Tashi), Dilnaz Irani (Namita), Sachin Parekh (Anuj) and others.
It is inspired by a true story of a gay professor Dr. Srinivas Ramachandra Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) ostracized by the Aligarh University administration for his sexuality. Professor Siras is a victim of a TV channel’s sting operation wherein Siras is caught on tape with a rickshaw wala. He bows to the verdict of the university to terminate his services just months short of his retirement. He is harassed and humiliated as he runs from home to home trying to live his life in solemn calm and with dignity. During his struggles, he finds an unlikely sympathizer in the form of a ‘story hungry’ young journalist (Rajkummar Rao). They develop an unlikely, yet unique bond. Aligarh is the journey of the distances between them and how they cover them.
Why you must watch it
Aligarh is the best example of teamwork. Every aspect of the film is laudable, from sound design by Mandar Kulkarni who has used even the silences and pauses brilliantly, to cinematography of Satya Rai Nagpaul for having added earthy shades to enrich each scene, to writing and screenplay by Apurva Asrani – it was a best team at work and the outcome could be nothing short of brilliance.
I’d call Aligarh Hansal Mehta’s brave masterpiece. It is subtle, quiet and yet, presents a purified, pristine perspective of both inclusion and love. I am glad he stayed away from Article 377 and the controversy surrounding it and rather focused on the human and emotional aspect of homosexuality (unlike Dostana or Bol Bachchan where it was made into a joke). Few movies cover that angle. The movie is masterfully directed with precision down to the subtlest nuances of both internal and external struggle Dr. Siras endured. I am in awe of the director for using pauses and silences to convey more than what words could have, like Dr. Siras says, ‘Kavita shabdon ke beech ki khamoshi mein hoti hai, har koi umar aur paristhiti ke hisaab se uska matlab nikalta hai.’ Also, I have to applaud Mr. Mehta for naming the movie after a place rather than a person. It invokes the dimension of distance along with focus drawn to the question – how far is Dr. Siras from acceptance? Everyone refers to Aligarh Muslim University as Aligarh University in the film and that gives the whole argument a spin and turns it into an issue of inclusion beyond borders, shedding the skin of fight for acceptance between two religious groups with opposing ideologies.
However, there was one scene in particular that left a distasteful impact on my mind as it opposed the point the director was trying to drive home. The intimate scene between Dr. Siras and the rickshaw wala compared to young journalist Deepu Sebastian hungrily groping his female boss. (Homosexual couples versus heterosexual couples, trying to invoke the sense that love is sans tags and barriers, is shoved down our throats). It raised unwanted issues that could have completely diverted the subject and my thought could have taken off on numerous unwanted tangents. Thankfully, it was brief and before I could take off, the movie was back on track.
Without applauding Manoj Bajpayee for delivering his best performance till date, this review would be incomplete. He, quite literally, got under Dr. Siras’s character’s skin. His body language, his gait, his drooping shoulders, his loneliness, his insecurity and his one desire – to be left alone so that he could live with dignity were all believable and carried with the skill of a seasoned craftsman.
His psychology was brilliantly portrayed by Bajpayee, never looking in the eye of the other person he is communicating with until he meets Deepu Sebastian, or the way he shows Dr. Siras’s coy side when he blushes upon complimented for being handsome and the selfie moment.
The scenes between Deepu and Siras were well conceived and executed. They did not leave the boundaries of the larger questions of what is love and how do we overcome hatred resonate well in all the scenes. Siras’s love for old Lata Mangeshkar’s songs was used beautifully to reflect the mood and his love for her singing. ‘Aap ke nazaron ne samjha pyar ke kaabil hame…’ haunts you even as the movie draws to a close. I hope I will someday be able to meet the actor just to tell him in person how much I enjoyed his performance in the movie.
The supporting characters, a journalist Deepu Sebastian played by Rajkumar Rao, the lawyers Anand Grover and Nita Grewal played by Ashish Vidhyarthi and Gauri Balaji did an adequate job of supporting the script with their performance. It was lovely to see Ashish’s acting skills put to good use.
Two scenes linger in my thoughts.
One is the court scene where Dr. Siras is interrogated with the following questions:
‘At 64 you feel the need for sex. Who is the man in your relation?’
And the other is one of his conversations with Deepu.
Deepu: Is he your love?
Dr. Siras: What is love? Why do you get stuck on words? You make it sound like a dirty word. I have a problem with this.
Before I leave you to make plans to watch Aligarh, here is a poem written and translated by Dr. Siras, recited in the movie…
“Oh beloved moon fear not the dawn that separates it
For we will meet again, when the world goes to sleep
In the light of day, I am unseen
It is in your light, my heart awakens
We will dance as shadows dance
To the songs of nightingales
We will touch as shadows touch
Becoming one in the midnight sun
Oh, beloved moon…. To sleep.”
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