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#UKAsianReview: Manoj Bajpayee is masterful in Hansal Mehta’s powerful ‘Aligarh’.

Events around the world increasingly reveal the construction of the “other” and the politics of exclusion – whether through nationality, religion or gender. 

Such events also underline social mind sets about the normative and the acceptable. 

Countering this world view is an urgent call for inclusiveness and tolerance, for human rights and dignity to be shared by all people of the world.

If this is the big picture, on a microcosmic scale we see the debate played out in Hansal Mehta’s new film ‘Aligarh’.  Here is the power of making the local, global.

In a small university town in north India, a middle-aged professor (Manoj Bajpai) is forced to quit his job after his sexuality is exposed.  A young journalist (Rajkummar Rao) from Delhi meets him to find out more about his story.

Bajpai’s Professor Ramchandra Siras lives as a bachelor in the university quarters.  Following a sting operation, he is found in his bedroom with a young rickshaw puller.

University authorities witness his humiliation and the next day he is suspended from his job.  Soon after he is persuaded to vacate his apartment and rent elsewhere.  Persuaded by the young journalist as well as supporters from Delhi, Siras challenges the University in a court case. 

Despite having an empathetic lawyer, Siras is further shamed in court with the prosecutor’s questions and the video uploaded on social media.  He wins the case but kills himself a day before he is due to return to his job.

Based on true events, Siras’s story is reconstructed through a series of meetings with the journalist.

He is an affectionate teacher and a sensitive poet, who asks how his emotions can be defined by the word “gay”.  

Bajpai’s Siras is complex and deeply layered, subtly nuanced like his poetry, credible and entirely humane. 

Dishevelled and crumpled, clutching his bag and papers, the vulnerable Siras seeks human touch and warmth and painfully clutches at the last vestige of dignity life can offer.

His social ostracisation, his fear and paranoia, his bewilderment and bemusement engages and involves the viewer. 

In his shabby apartment or in the gloom outside, his eyes shine in the shadows as he talks of his emotions which are like poetry, his desire which is sharp and urgent. 

Like poetry is to be found in the gaps between words, Bajpai’s Siras is constructed from unsaid words, subtle gestures and unrewarded feelings.

‘Aligarh’ captures the reality of the small town in great detail and the claustrophobia of a man whose choices are different in life. 

This is a fresh narrative about an older gay academic who is isolated without the bravura or solidarity of urban collectives. 

Director Hansal Mehta has been on a roll with socially relevant films after his national award winning ‘Shahid’. 

Committed to telling real life stories he was driven to make the film after he was sent the real life case of Prof. Siras.  Writer Apoorva Asrani had a personal stake in the project as it was his “coming out” script. 

Rajkummar Rao is a very credible young journalist who brings urbanity and even humour in the film. 

Ultimately, ‘Aligarh’ belongs to Manoj Bajpai, who owns his character, bringing to life the 64-year-old professor, betrayed by his colleagues, hounded by neighbours, facing a loveless life of solitude.

An actor of tremendous ability and range his understated performance is a study in eloquence, residual like poetry.

Mehta is on a roll this October after Aligarh received a standing ovation at the Busan Film Festival, great audience feedback at London Film Festival and it’s now set to open the MAMI Mumbai Film Festival next week. 

Mehta’s career has evolved a long way from his early producer days of the popular TV food show ‘Kana Khazana’ with Sanjeev Kapoor.   He has also been lucky finding distributors for his films. 

‘Aligarh’ is distributed by Eros International, a welcome initiative by a traditionally mainstream Bollywood distribution company.

Things have moved forward from the struggle of making Onir’s ‘I Am’ and the closeting of Rituparno Ghosh’s early films. 

Although Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was decriminalised in 2009 (just before the real life incident in ‘Aligarh’) an upholding of the Supreme Court criminalised homosexuality again in December 2013. 

Although officially same sex preferences are still punishable by law, gay identity is today a global human rights issue. 

Siras’ story needs to be told, heard and accepted. 

‘Aligarh’ is undoubtedly one of the most sensitive films about the gay experience, the politics of identity and the heartbreaking cruelty of intolerance.

I caught up with Hansal (albeit briefly) for a chat during the London Film Festival.

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