Aligarh is a 2015 biographical drama film staring Manoj Bajpayee in the lead role of Ramchandra Siras. Siras was a professor of Marathi and the head of the Classical Modern Indian Languages Faculty at the famed Aligarh Muslim University, who was suspended on grounds of morality.
The movie is a poignant and sensitive portrayal of a person’s utter loneliness that follows from what happens when his most basic defining trait (his sexuality) is held against him. Every frame of the movie is about the man’s loneliness.
Bajpayee won critical acclaim and a Filmfare Critics Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Siras. This actor’s avoidance of stereotyping and continual experimentation probably makes him one of India’s all-time greats. More so because none of the greats have managed to avoid stereotyping the way he has.
The movie was released 3 years before the Supreme Court struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code calling it “clearly unconstitutional”. The historic verdict followed a long struggle to decriminalise homosexuality in India by LGBTQ activists and human rights advocates.
While the 2018 verdict was a cause for celebration, I felt that there was a certain futility in striving for the revocation of Section 377. Watch the movie to realise that homosexuality not being regarded as a crime will only be the start of a long and difficult struggle for acceptance of a people who are otherwise no different from “normal” ones, and the extent to which they do differ is less than harmless once you get over conditioning-fed biases.
As if to prove the extent of the struggle involved, here is the Central Government’s submission to the Supreme Court on 14 September, 2020, two years after the repeal of Section 377:
The bias stems from perceptions of homosexuality being “unnatural” and even “a disease”. Sample what prominent bigots currently in power had to say when P Chidambaram (then Home Minister) and the UPA government pushed for repeal of Section 377:
Needless to say, religion and a need to pander to it for political gains is the source of the bigotry. Section 377’s potential repeal offered a rare opportunity for all religions to come together in an unparalleled show of unity:
And it seems extremely rich for a lot that doesn’t give a damn about nature to label something unnatural. For me drowning a good 18-year old Single Malt Whisky in Duke’s Soda (a very common crime, especially in India) is more unnatural than homosexuality! This despite being a lifelong heterosexual with a wife and two kids, a.k.a. the stereotypical Indian ‘normal’ male.
What that doesn’t make me in any way though is insensitive towards someone who isn’t like me, especially if he/she is an oppressed minority. Periyar said it, only as well as he could:
If you aren’t “like that”, give up the despise, the hatred, the bigotry…it will be one less negative emotion in your life.
Coming back to Aligarh, the movie.
The Indian release in February 2016 came nearly 2 years into the term and at the zenith of the right wing led government, which panders to the kind of religious bigotry that opposes homosexuality. Besides this, their supporters are known for strong arm tactics that criminally prevent dissemination of anything they disagree with. Considering this, it was widely expected that the movie will be banned in BJP-ruled states and movie halls screening it anywhere else will be intimidated by party workers. Yet, nothing! The release went off peacefully. As for commercial success, as would be expected, the movie did not fare all that well collecting ₹4.27crs against a budget of ₹11crs.
Spoiler alert follows:
My theory on the absence of any protests by the right wing loonies against Aligarh, despite their public disgust with homosexuality, is that they knew it is a true story in which the protagonist kills himself in the end. ‘The evil of homosexuality is vanquished in the end and not victorious so people can see it’…so went the loony fairy tale ending.
Rather, I feel these blinkered souls who see the world in only 2 shades should be made to watch the movie. Watch how the world comes together to harangue a perfectly harmless and sensitive man into killing himself. Bajpayee’s performance, the gritty shots, and the knowledge that all of it actually happened to a person possibly have the potential to change the train of thought of at least a couple of bigots, surely? If it does then Aligarh deserves the highest accolades.
At the time, Modi’s Teacher’s Day Address was making headlines, mostly for the wrong reasons as over-enthusiastic and pandering school/college principals made attendance compulsory for kids. I’d rather they made Aligarh mandatory viewing in every secondary school, college, and RSS Shakha.
Watch Aligarh if you are sensitive towards LGBTQ rights. Watch Aligarh if you don’t give a damn either way, because you need to give a damn. Watch Aligarh especially if you are a bigot, because you are the one with the “disease” and a watch may just make a tiny difference.