The film takes up the real-life events of Srinivas Ramchandra Siras’s life. He was an award-winning author and scholar of Marathi, not to mention Chair of the Department of Modern Indian Languages at Aligarh Muslim University in 2009, when a sting operation was conducted by two men who broke into Siras’s house and filmed him having sex with another man – a rickshaw puller. Following the release of the video the next day by university authorities who had appeared at the scene soon after the confrontation, AMU suspended him from his position on charges of ‘gross misconduct.’ Many students and the public at large supported AMU, burned effigies of Siras, and demonstrated against him. Although this situation was only revealed as a result of a violation of Siras’s privacy, those who illegally entered his home and illicitly filmed him were not questioned; rather, Prof. Siras was tried in the court of public opinion. Amidst all of this negative media attention, his case was also picked up by journalist Deepu Sebastian, and he did have some support from gay rights activists in India who helped him in filing a case against AMU. After the court ruled in Siras’s favour, he was found dead in his apartment. Police ruled his death a suicide; however, the details were disputed.
In India, the so-called morality police, with their often regressive and ultra-right wing viewpoints, bring national and international attention to these types of issues, which act as a stark reminder that India has a long ways to go in addressing socio-cultural attitudes grounded in mind-sets that now contravene internationally acceptable human rights standards of the individual. These moral controversies continue to play themselves out in the media and public sphere—often revolving around issues of sexuality, such as LGBTQ rights, to India’s rape culture which attracted international media attention with the release of Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter, last year, which was, and remains, banned in India. Aligarh seeks to voice similar concerns; the film opens with this statement: “Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code criminalizes sexual activities against the order of nature. This includes homosexual acts. On 2nd July 2009, the Delhi High Court declared section 377 as unconstitutional. Homosexuality was decriminalized.” However, the Section 377 was reinstated in 2013, and thus, homosexuality remains criminalized. The end of the film reminds viewers of this legal change. The fight for constitutional rights continues.
In the film, Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) is in his 60s, and he is portrayed in some ways, as a stereotypical poet and academic: he lives a simple life with few worldly possessions. He spends his time writing poetry, listening to old Hindi film songs sung by Lata Mangeskar, a veteran Hindi film singer, and having a drink or two. All he wants is to be left alone and be able to live with dignity. However, what sets this poet apart, is that he is quite fearful, and seemingly paranoid. There are multiple locks on the doors of his apartment, which he checks and double checks. Throughout the film, wherever he is, he consistently closes doors and windows meticulously—afraid of being ‘found’—which viewers quickly discover is a valid concern.
After the sting operation, when AMU suspends him and his case becomes public, Deepu Sebastian (Rajkummar Rao), a young journalist working for a national newspaper, begins covering his case. Initially, Siras is uninterested in working with this young reporter and kicks him out of his apartment, but Deepu perseveres, and eventually Siras confides in him. The two become friends, and as a result of Deepu’s media reports, Siras’s plight becomes known to many. His case is then taken up by gay-rights supporters who seek his permission in declaring that Siras is gay. Siras’s first response is to resist this label. He doesn’t understand: Why do people need to identify themselves through labels – whether they are about their religious practices, sexual orientation, or any other identity issue? As Siras puts it, one cannot understand the feelings of a human in three letters – G-A-Y – how can one’s existence be labelled? Love needs to be felt, not understood; love is an uncontrollable urge, Siras says. After all, he is a poet who thinks ‘poetry is in the silence between words.’
In fact, Siras is a common man who finds the courtroom proceedings quite mundane. He sits through one session of the proceedings translating his Marathi poems into English. In another, while his lawyer (Ashish Vidyarthi) makes some very passionate arguments, Siras is napping. The film carefully captures the drama of the courtrooms where Siras is subjected by the public prosecutor to ridiculous and embarrassing questions about his intimate life.
Siras’s arrest and trial took place on the heels of homosexuality being decriminalized by Delhi High Court on July 2nd, 2009. On April 1, 2010, Allahabad High Court ordered the University to reinstate Siras. On April 8, he was found dead. In 2013, the Supreme Court of India reinstated homosexuality as a criminal offense. As a result, in 2016 at the time of this film’s release, the law is no longer on the side of queer communities. In response to activist protests, in February 2016 India’s Supreme Court has agreed to reopen this issue again soon.
Aligarh raises a number of important questions around queer politics, but leaves other aspects of the plot unexplored and left to viewers’ imagination: the possibility that Siras’s partner himself may have given him away; Siras’s relationship with his wife who left him; the involvement of the university staff in the sting operation; the likelihood that his death was not suicide. These issues, while important to Siras’s individual case, do not form the crux of the film. Had those become the focus, it might well have turned into a film about an unsolved suicide/murder. Instead, the film’s creators focus on presenting the life of an individual who has suffered an extreme form of sexual discrimination, clearly advocating for rights of LGBTQ communities, and the right to privacy. What business do neighbours or lawmakers or governments have in people’s bedrooms? When two consenting individuals are in a relationship, does anybody else have a right to interfere? These are some of the questions that the film raises. Through the portrayal of the life of Prof. Siras, the film questions the inherent homophobia in India, and the need for an open conversation.
There are moments when the film loses its subtlety. For instance, the scene of intimacy between Siras and his partner comes right after a similar scene between Deepu and his female boss, Namita. While this scene is meant to ‘normalize’ love in all its forms, it seems gratuitous. Likewise, the film falters during some of the newsroom scenes, which are quite stereotypical, and unnecessary to achieve the larger goals of the film.
Whatever the drawbacks of the film, they are compensated for by Manoj Bajpayee’s excellent performance – it is this that ultimately stays with viewers. It is an absolute pleasure to watch Bajpayee embody the character of Siras—a common man on the streets fighting a battle for dignity, privacy, and human rights. Bajpayee is able to capture the isolation and the confusion of this character extremely well. Bajpayee is an actor par excellence, and he proves it one more time with his performance in Aligarh.
Director Hansal Mehta has given yet another brilliant activist film after Shahid (2013) which was a story of a murdered human rights activist, Shahid Azmi. Aligarh is a call to come out and talk, live, love – these are the rights of every human being. It is thought-provoking – a must-see film.