A man is going home in a cycle-rickshaw. The rickshaw pulls to a stop and the driver joins the man in his apartment. After some time, two other men enter the building, slowly and hesitatingly, one egging the other one on. No sooner do they break inside the apartment, the sounds of screams and whacking pierce the cold, dark night.
This is the opening scene of Aligarh, and while this may seem like any other ordinary scene, it is not. We don’t see what goes on inside the rooms of the said apartment, we only hear the proceedings and see signs of activity from outside the building, like a cheeky passer-by or neighbour, looking up at the window and trying to decipher the goings-on inside.
This is the central event around which the film revolves- that of a university professor being walked in on during a strictly private moment. The depiction of this scene from the perspective of an onlooker far away from where the main action is taking place is deliberate and a stroke of genius, visually telling us the nature of the content of the scene- a gross violation of something that should have remained private and personal.
Aligarh is about a professor Dr. Siras, who after being illegally filmed during a homosexual act, is suspended from the university he teaches at and is slapped with charges of homosexuality and of tainting the university’s reputation. In comes a young, enthusiastic journalist named Dipu, played by Rajkumar Rao, who befriends the professor. He slowly draws the professor out from his cocoon until the latter confides in him.Throughout the film, we see shots of Dr. Siras peeking from behind closed curtains and dark windows- the perfect metaphor for someone who lives life cowering in fear, and who can never come out of the closet. The scene in which Dr. Siras is implicated, stripped and filmed is later shown to us again, once from the perspective of a camera that is part of the sting operation and once from the perspective of the professor himself. During both times, there is strong tone of voyeurism, of showing us something that should not have been seen.
Homosexuality may be the theme which one would associate with the film, but it is the theme about the right to privacy which stands out the most, all the while without downplaying the humiliating ostracism faced by homosexuals in our society. While their sexuality is central to their brutal treatment, oppression and discrimination by others, the film refrains from reducing them to their sexual orientation alone.
When Dr. Siras is interviewed by Dipu about the night in question, he describes how he is an outsider, a professor of Marathi among people who speak Urdu. He then goes on to talk about poetry and rues about how little people engage with it today.
He composes poems in Marathi, has several books to his credit which have seen little circulation and is self-deprecating about his spoken English skills, yet perfectly translates his own poems into English. We see him caged in his apartment, wrapped in a long shawl softly mumbling a song by Lata Mangeshkar, as he sighs in melancholy. He is a multi-dimensional character, a person very much among us and a part of us.
His rejection from society is shown right from his understated dismissal by a physician when he goes to see the latter, to his outright removal from his rented quarters, not once but twice. The poor Muslim cycle-rickshaw driver Irfan, who was with him during the fated night, is hardly brought up again, except when Dipu goes looking for him. We hear he has disappeared after being mercilessly beaten up by the cops. Again, giving him very little attention in the narrative is deliberate. Irfan is a person from one of the most marginalized sections of society, who completely slips from under the radar and barely registers on the film’s universe- just the way it is in real life.
Even after being cleared of charges that the university had accused him of in court, we see that it means very little to Dr. Siras. What good will winning a case do to a person who has been rejected by everyone around him, even his family, and forced into a life of loneliness and dejection? Of what use is the apartment that is returned to him a day after he takes his own life, when he has been deprived of respect and dignity all this time?
The writing is vivid. The direction succeeds in showing the increasing suffocation and paranoia faced by Professor Siras. Rajkumar Rao is wonderful, but it is Manoj Bajpayee who takes the cake and breathes life into the professor, a man pushed to the brink of society. His performance is both moving and hard-hitting.
We not only see Dr. Siras’s descent into despair and anguish, but also see Dipu getting affected by it and internalizing a deep sense of discomfort. He complains angrily when he finds one of the women he is staying with as a paying guest, in his room tutoring kids without his permission. He loses his temper even at the slightest hint of the invasion of his privacy, thus making us think about what Professor Siras must have gone through. There is a sense of being watched and eavesdropped which pervades the film and which Dipu betrays in a scene where he keeps checking his back as he leans in for a kiss in a secluded location, with no signs of anybody around. The closing scene ends on the same note- with Dr. Siras squinting, straining his ears as he sits on his bed and asks if anybody’s there, before the screen turns black.
Packed with powerful performances, an impressive screenplay, astute direction and compelling subject-matter, Aligarh is an important film that deserves a larger audience, but will often be relegated to the viewing lists of the discerning few.
The author is a Research Associate at Prayas Energy Group, a liberal in terms of outlook with an education in Economics and a film buff at heart.