by Chahat Awasthi
The Indian silver screen landscape is rich with movies centred around the LGBTQ+ topic – some are rich, some show the heart in the right place but a mind with gaps in nuanced understanding, and some are downright disappointing. A not-to-be-missed movie here is Aligarh – a movie based on a genuine hero – a professor in a renowned university of India, who was hounded for being gay, generating important debates in the public sphere.
A modern Indian Languages Professor in India, Srinivas Ramchandra Siras, was caught in the act in a sting operation ordered by staffers from the University. People with cameras walked into his room when he was lying with his male lover – a flagrant violation of his privacy. It was followed by his vilification and ultimate suspension from his job. He won a court case against the suspension and was reinstated, only for it to end in another tragedy – his body was found in April that year. Murder was suspected but there wasn’t any proof.
The movie, telling the real life story of this man, is an intimate portrayal of an individual – his struggle with rejection and the conflict between this feeling and his loneliness, his longing and his belonging (in a society that criminalized homosexuality until 2018). One sees a gay man reluctant to be called gay, while he fights for the rights of his community. One sees a man who is trying to avert the spotlight so he can comfortably stay in the shadows, only to be dragged in the eye of the storm.
The breach in his privacy, loss of his job and the court case that followed showcase nuanced performances by the actors – restrained yet tinged with the true emotions of people who are not heterosexuals and also of those who don’t want people to be homosexuals. It is a depiction of a society at odds with itself –intolerant of homosexuality yet feels for the professor.
In the movie, it is a young budding journalist who sees the issue not as a sex scandal, as suggested by his editor, but as a human story and ultimately helps the introverted professor to speak up, thereby enabling restoration of his dignity, which was earlier trampled upon by the caretakers of society’s morality.
The depiction of the professor in the movie is sympathetic of a violated man, acutely observed. The portrayal – his psyche and personality – is par brilliance and that is where the actual strength of the movie lies. The university town itself, with its people of myriad views of right and wrong, personal and political, intolerance and boundaries, becomes a battleground of ideas that is stirring to say the least.
Overall, one finds a range of characters, vibrant and carefully built. Most performances are solid; real to the point that the viewer moves at the edge of his seat numerous times, immersed in the narrative – sexual orientation and opinion notwithstanding. It is this vivid and accurate portrayal that gives the movie a strong appeal.
However, there is a scene that deserves a special mention. At a gathering, the professor recites a religious poem, which spoke of how the Lord came to him in a dream and stole his heart, while he surrendered himself completely. He shyly accepted the applause and felt at home with those people – people who understood him, people who were like him. But the recitation was not just moving. It was also one of the finest moments of the movie as the professor was seen embracing his identity – an unintended, unforeseen benefit arising from being outed. He looked happier. Was it worth the physical and emotional assault, the trauma? One is left to wonder.
It is pertinent to point out here that instead of being hard-hitting, the movie stays in the zone of humane, nuanced, and heartfelt attributions, and that is probably what makes it stay with you longer.
What doesn’t quite fly in the movie, however, is its attempts at humour and scenes where a parallel is drawn between homosexual and heterosexual relationships. Those are too pat and sometimes awkward in their attempt to drive home the message that it is harder for those in the former.
The movie is one of the most powerful steps forward in terms of reality cinema and depiction of LGBTQ+ on screen in the Asian landscape in general and the Indian landscape in particular.