A rare Indian movie tackling homophobia gets its Indian premiere on Friday at the prestigious Mumbai Film Festival with the filmmakers hoping it will help change attitudes in a country where homosexuality is illegal.
‘Aligarh’ is based on the true story of a university professor who was suspended from his post after a television news crew filmed him having sex with a rickshaw puller in an undercover “sting” operation.
But the film is more than just about a man and his sexuality, as director Hansal Mehta told the UKAsian during a visit earlier this month to London where ‘Aligarh’ was screened as part of the London Film Festival.
“‘Aligarh’ is about a man who wanted to be left alone”, Mehta said.
Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, then 64, was teaching at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in February 2010 when his private life made headline news.
Siras, who was also an award-winning poet, was suspended and briefly fought to be reinstated, but was found dead in his apartment in suspicious circumstances two months later.
Traces of poison were discovered in his body and police initially suspected suicide, but they later made several arrests, although no one was convicted and the case was ultimately dropped.
Media reports at the time alleged the university had ordered the sting to hound Siras out. AMU denied it was involved.
“Aligarh”, which stars Manoj Bajpayee as Siras and Rajkummar Rao as a journalist who befriends him, opens the 17th edition of the Mumbai Film Festival after showings in London and South Korea’s Busan.
The Hindi-language movie is unusual in that it shines a spotlight on attitudes towards homosexuals in socially-conservative India where Bollywood movies often ridicule gay characters and portray them as being extremely camp.
The film’s script was originally penned Apurva Asrani, a long-time collaborator of Mehta’s. Asrani used the story as his own story of coming out.
“Very few films tackle the subject head on. Either they pussyfoot around it, insinuating a character’s sexuality but never quite confronting it, or make a mockery of it,” Asrani told AFP ahead of the film’s screening in Mumbai.
The film is due for general release in India early next year, but before it hits screens nationwide the film must pass India’s notoriously strict censor board.
The hounding of Siras came during a brief period in Indian history when homosexuality was actually legal.
The Delhi High Court had decriminalised the colonial-era ban on homosexuality in 2009, only for the Supreme Court to restore it in 2013, stunning rights campaigners and the gay and lesbian community.
“The law was actually in favour of same sex. In spite of this, a 64-year-old scholar was harangued and shamed till his death,” said Asrani.
“Can you imagine the state of Siras in today’s context? Where does a man go for justice? And what of all those people who came out in 2009? Can they go back into hiding now?” he added.
Anyone found guilty of same-sex activity can face life imprisonment or up to ten years in jail and a fine under the controversial Section 377 of India’s penal code.
Although prosecutions have been rare, the gay community says it faces significant discrimination as well as harassment and blackmail from the police in India.
Surveys show broad disapproval of homosexuality in India, forcing many gay men and women to live double lives.
“Aligarh” must also still pass India’s censor board before its general release. Earlier this year the Central Board of Film Certification muted the word “lesbian” from a Hindi language film and blocked the release of “Fifty Shades of Grey”.