I knew Aligarh had played the festival circuit, premiering last February at the Busan International Film Festival in South Korea to a standing ovation. It finally recently played in Chicago at the South Asian Film Festival but by then it was streaming on Eros Now. I took advantage of ErosNow’s new offline feature, and downloaded Aligarh to play on a flight this past weekend.
I have always loved Manoj Bajpayee in just about any movie he’s been in. He’s typically the villain, as he was in Tevar. This role was something completely different. I did not know that he was playing a real person until I looked up the film after I got home. He is Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, a slightly eccentric, quiet professor of Marathi, head of the modern languages department at the University in Aligarh.
Siras was suspended from his job and kicked out of his university housing because men burst into his apartment and filmed him with a rickshaw driver. He was let go because he was gay, but this happened in 2010, when Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code had been overturned a few months previously.
Rajkummar Rao plays a young journalist who reads the wire story, and helps him connect with an activist lawyer to take on his case. They become friends over the course of the film.
Manoj is just exceptionally good in this film. He shows how Siras just wanted to live his own quiet life and not bother anyone else, but he also shows the loneliness he felt. He gets beaten down by one indignity after another, people he thought were his friends not standing by him, and yet perfect strangers coming to his aid. The real life Siras loved to listen to old film songs, and this scene is so moving and devastating. I wish this clip had subtitles, but the lyrics were very meaningful — Lata singing is her love acceptable…
Siras isn’t shown to be perfect or a saint. One of my favorite scenes is in the courtroom when his advocate is making his most forceful point, and Siras is dozing in the back of the room missing it all.
This is a landmark film in India. I can’t pretend that I really know anything about the state of gay rights in India, but this film reminded me of the moment in the US when Philadelphia came out and Tom Hanks won the Oscar for playing a gay man who loses his job because he has AIDS. It was a watershed moment.
Aligarh recently played on TV in India, and it has been prominently promoted on the Eros Now site. I hope it is widely seen, because it’s about an important subject. There still seems to be a long way to go, with Section 377 reinstated, and headlines like this one about Manoj daring to play a gay man on film:
Despite more than a month of preparation and shooting for a role that was homosexual in the film “Aligarh”, actor Manoj Bajpayee says he is still straight.
One thing about the movie really bothered me, and I guess this headline shows why the filmmaker felt he had to include this scene. Rajkummar Rao becomes quite close to Prof. Siras, taking a selfie with him, and hugging him when Siras gives him a translation of his book of poetry.
It just felt so gratuitous and unnecessary that this seduction scene of Rajkummar by his female editor had to be included. It had nothing at all to do with the story, other than, sure he hugged a gay man, but don’t worry, he’s not gay now! Ugh.
The film is based on real events but director Hansal Mehta keeps a tension throughout this quiet film. The ending came as a surprise to me as I did not know the true life story of Prof. Siras. It ends in somewhat of a mystery as it does in real life.
Highly recommend this film. Manoj Bajpayee gives one of the best performances of his entire career.