On the afternoon of 11 February 2010, four armed men stormed into the claustrophobic office of the lawyer Shahid Azmi in the Mumbai suburb of Kurla. Azmi died in a hail of bullets.
A renowned human rights activist, Azmi was defending a number of individuals charged under India’s draconian anti-terror laws. One of those individuals was a man charged in connection with the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai.
Two days before Mr Azmi was murdered, a respected linguist and author named Ramchandra Siras was the victim of an appalling invasion of privacy at Aligarh Muslim University – hundreds of miles north of Mumbai.
Professor Siras, 64, had been enjoying the company of a male companion on 8 February when four men, hired by the University and armed with cameras, barged into his campus apartment for a “sting operation”.
On 9 February Professor Siras, an authority on Marathi culture and language and who was on the verge of retirement, was suspended from his job for “gross misconduct”.
That suspension was later overturned by a court.
But, devastated by what he had endured, Professor Siras took his own life in early April of 2010.
The stories of Mr Azmi and Professor Siras have much in common – the intolerance visited on men and women in India who find themselves outside the suffocating “norm”; the extreme actions individuals and groups resort to in the name of “tradition” and “religion”; and Hansal Mehta.
The National Award-winning filmmaker had been lured out of self-imposed exile in 2012 to bring the story of Shahid Azmi to the big screen and it was an immediate triumph. Mehta’s ‘Shahid’ was a thoughtful and moving exploration of a grave injustice but which refused to be contemptuous or cynical.
Mehta, who had begun his career by creating a wildly popular cookery show before crashing and burning in Bollywood, was feted around the world.
Two years later the acclaim continued for ‘City Lights’, about a poor farmer from rural Rajasthan who moves to Mumbai for work.
And now, Mehta is back with ‘Aligarh’, the big screen re-telling of Professor Siras’ story.
Mehta is once again triumphant – helped along with a quite magnificent performance by Manoj Bajpayee as Professor Siras and writer Apurva Asrani who first discovered the story – in a film that re-lives a painfully sad story without overwhelming the audience with rhetoric or politics.
Much like Professor Siras, ‘Aligarh’ is blessed with a quiet, meditative quality – Mehta’s touch through and through – which leaves one feeling even more outraged at what happened to a man who “just wanted to love and be left alone”.
With ‘Shahid’, ‘City Lights’ and ‘Aligarh’, Mehta has rediscovered his voice – one of the finest in India – by telling the stories of the everyman outsiders of society – men and women just like him.
Here’s Mehta, in his own words.