Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt said, “I have always believed that stories have the power to awaken us to the truth. Works of writers, who write from their wounds, have the power to take us via their stories into the truths of other people, whose lives we are willfully blind to, because we are busy amusing ourselves with comfortable lies. Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
Director Hansal Mehta and writer Apurva Asrani do just that in their film ‘Aligarh’. They take us from our safe sanctuaries and our prisons, out of the same old Bollywood stories we have been telling ourselves, and pull us into the life of Dr Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, a linguist and author in Aligarh University, who was humiliated and ousted from his position because of his sexual orientation.
This under-two hour biographical drama, made by brilliant technicians and actors, Manoj Bajpayee and Rajkummar Rao, is not just a film about the rights of homosexuals. It is a passionate cry, bringing into focus every human being’s right to be different from the herd, and to demand from the custodians of law our right to live our lives our way.
From the first shot of Dr. Siras being driven home in a rickshaw on a wintery night, and the subsequent nightmare that unfolds thereafter, Hansal makes the viewer realise that the problem of this persecuted minority is a burning issue, simply because of one’s own apathy. He makes us realise that we are personally responsible for viewing homosexuality as something disgraceful, and have turned the other way when they are humiliated by society under our noses. As I sat watching this film, I couldn’t help but marvel at how India of 2016 has drastically changed from the India of the last century. Here is a filmmaker and his team who have taken a clear position and are crusading to change the nation’s belief towards sexuality.
I remember that in 1998, Dilip Kumar, Javed Akhtar, Vijay Tendulkar and I filed a PIL in the Supreme Court when the film ‘Fire’ was obstructed by the Shiv Sena. We had sought a directive to restore the rule of law and the Constitution, before the situation slipped into total anarchy. During that process a lot of gay rights groups suddenly appeared out of the woodwork and wanted to jump onto the ‘Fire’ bandwagon, taking out candle light protests outside theatres. Their voices sought to be heard not just on the issue of freedom of speech in the virtual world but also in the real world.
They attempted, at that point, to broaden the discourse. When they approached us to join them, Dilip saab took a step back. He did not want us to crusade for gay rights, only for freedom of speech back then. When I look back at that moment now, I marvel at the quantum leap that Hansal, Manoj, Rajkummar and Apurva have taken. They’ve given us a moving document, which will make even the stone-hearted, blinkered viewer feel the pain and loneliness of Dr. Siras, perhaps make him feel that he too was responsible for the tragic hand that he was dealt.
If attention is indeed the rarest and purest form of generosity, then ‘Aligarh’ is the most generous human document to have flowered in these mind-numbing times. Where most filmmakers are attempting to lull an audience into sleep, ‘Aligarh,’ and the haunting face of Manoj Bajpayee, wakes you up, jolts you out of your slumber.