In a heartbreaking scene from Hansal's Mehta's Aligarh, sexagenarian Professor Ramchandra Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) signs a letter at the behest of Aligarh University, pleading guilty to immorality and undesirable sexual conduct for the "crime" of being a homosexual. This scene of angst-ridden resignation left me with a feeling of profound hopelessness and rage in equal measure. In its silence, it speaks volumes of a stagnant society that is contaminated by the filth of human apathy. It tells us that mankind, which was created by our Maker as a bedrock of inclusivity, equality and acceptance, sadly missed the memo and chose to instead walk the path of vilification, intolerance and injustice towards its own kin.
In a telling encounter between Professor Siras and journalist Dipu Sebastian (Rajkummar Rao), the former, in a rare instance of letting his guard down, expresses the desire to free himself from the glare of public opinion. It is a beautifully written scene that captures an ambience of cautious charm and comfort shared by the two characters while laying down the grim reality of the protagonist's ironic predicament. Professor Siras of Aligarh University didn't want acceptance or empathy. He didn't look to validate his sexuality nor did he imprint his personal life choices forcefully on anyone. All he desired was to live life on his terms with the dignity and respect that every human being deserves.
Hansal Mehta has been a pioneer of sorts in giving his audience hard-hitting true tales through films like Omertà and Shahid. With Aligarh, the filmmaker recreates the poignant story of a renowned professor who is ostracised by his own peers, and society at large, after his private space is invaded, leading to him being caught on camera sharing an intimate moment with a man. As he stoically fends off the barrage of criticism and condemnation hurled his way in the aftermath, his suffering also serves as a catalyst for change, inspiring a social revolution. His untimely and mysterious death, though, cast a shroud on the progress made in LGBTQ+ rights, proving that as a nation, we have miles to go before a complete reset in liberal thinking is woven into the social fabric of our judgemental society.
It is impossible to analyse Aligarh without touching upon the masterfully nuanced performance of Manoj Bajpayee. Whether it is his deep and palpable loneliness when listening to Lata Mangeshkar's lilting voice in "Aap Ki nazron" or his simmering and desperate anger as he is forced out of his beloved university quarters, Bajpayee lives and breathes Professor Siras wholeheartedly and organically. Rajkummar Rao as the young and earnest Dipu Sebastian infuses his character with a genuine warmth and kindness. Through Dipu's steadfastness in seeking justice for Professor Siras, Rao presents a picture of hope for future generations, demanding respect for the freedom of choice and the freedom to embrace the uniqueness of love. Yet, the professor's demise, and Dipu's helpless guilt in failing to foresee the tragedy, is an eye-opener to all of us: while one person can rattle the cage of homophobia, so to speak, it is the power of a collective consciousness that can upend it.
I stumbled upon Aligarh during one of my random digital searches to unearth some cinematic gems and it left me feeling ashamed at my grossly misplaced self-pride. Up until then, I considered myself aware and informed about the perils of a hypocritical mindset. I thought that I upheld the values of inclusivity and tolerance. But Professor Siras's fight taught me that it is not enough to merely be moved to tears by injustice. It isn't enough to make disapproving clucks at the grating double standards that plague our society. We, as coexisting citizens of a community, must channelise these tears that we shed or the anger that we feel into concrete action, thereby changing our archaic perceptions of right and wrong.
Yes, Aligarh completely changed the way I perceived the world. It made me appreciate people for their contributions and not their preferences. It made me understand that love and companionship are sacred in all forms. It taught me to accept and uphold choices even if they made me uneasy. It taught me to uplift and not demean. It instilled in me important lessons about the myriad shades of love and the distinctive beauty in each. Through the melancholic unravelling of Professor Siras's life, Hansal Mehta presents a grating critique of the hypocrisies of societal thinking and culminates it with a simple but overpowering question. If we cannot accept, comprehend or even tolerate, couldn't we possibly respect and let live?