Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Rajkummar Rao, Ashish Vidyarthi
Director: Hansal Mehta
Early in Aligarh, a newspaper journalist named Deepu Sebastian is pitching the story of a gay Aligarh University professor to his editor. Professor S Siras was filmed having sex with a rickshaw-wallah. Though the sting operation was clearly a violation of his privacy, the university chose to punish the victim instead of the culprits. Siras was suspended and evicted from his home. Deepu, pleads with his boss, to let him cover the controversy. Deepu says: it's a human story.
This is also director Hansal Mehta's approach to the material. Hansal and writer Apurva Asrani have mined from real events but their dramatisation of Siras' tragedy isn't shrill or militant. Aligarh is a hard-hitting film that clearly advocates gay rights but the beauty is that it does so by constructing a deeply moving portrait of love and loneliness. The film invites you into Siras' world. It makes you understand the very marrow of his melancholy. And then devastatingly, it indicts you for his terrible predicament. Siras dies, under mysterious circumstances, absolutely alone. And we understand that we have all contributed, in ways big and small, to the creation of a society, which hounds a mild, smiling man to death simply because of his sexual preferences.
This is a bleak tale told with tenderness. Hansal is a humanist who creates, even in the darkest moments, a sliver of beauty. So Professor Siras finds solace in the voice of Lata Mangeshkar. In a remarkable, three-minute scene, Siras is listening and swaying to Lata's magical voice singing Aapki nazron ne samjha pyaar ke kaabil mujhe. A poet himself, Siras finds bliss in the lilt of her voice and the poignant words. The lyrics — koi toofan se kehde mil gaya saahil mujhe — are especially haunting because we know that for Siras there will be no shelter from the storm.
Aligarh would be impossible without the prodigious talent of Manoj Bajpayee who plays Siras. His shoulders are stooped. His smile is hesitant. And his eyes seem permanently bewildered by the brutality of the world. In a lovely scene, Deepu takes a selfie with Siras. Siras looks at the photo and says "I'm looking so bad." When Deepu insists that Siras looks good, Siras almost blushes. It's absolutely heartbreaking. Watch Manoj's expressions in another scene, in which Deepu asks Siras if he's gay. Siras responds with: how can someone describe my feelings in three letters? I know it's only February but I think it's safe to say that this is the finest performance of 2016. I will be pleasantly surprised if any other actor tops it anytime soon. Rajkummar Rao is also lovely as the spirited journalist who forges an unusual friendship.
Despite the contentious subject matter, Aligarh is a quiet, meditative film. You might find the pacing slow. Parts of the screenplay might seem clunky. But I urge you to see it. Because Aligarh isn't just a fine film. It's also important, necessary and timely. It will shift something inside you.