Cinema

A Film that Stuns as Collective Atonement for a Terrible Injustice

Siras (right) and Deepu, in a still from Aligarh. Credit: Hansal Mehta

Manoj Bajpai playing Siras (right) and Raghavendra Rao as the journalist Deepu, in a still from Aligarh. Credit: Hansal Mehta

A cycle rickshaw trundles down a foggy lonely street and stops in front of a modest housing complex. A man alights and goes up the stairs. The rickshaw puller follows with a bag of groceries. The unmoving camera gazes from the outside as the light in one of the apartments comes on. The two men have entered the house and after sometime, the light in the apartment keeps going on and off. Slowly, the camera shifts its gaze. To show two men appear out of the fog. As they come closer, their voices become distinct. One of them is cracking a sex joke. They stop near the rickshaw and go in. Speaking in whispers, they steal up the stairs and enter the same apartment. Shortly, a commotion is heard on the soundtrack. The camera continues to wait and watch patiently from the outside. To this place and sequence of events, the film will return several times; each time revealing something new.

Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh is based on the real life events that unfolded in the life of Professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, chairman of the department of modern Indian languages at Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).

On February 8, 2010, three intruders entered Siras’s apartment and secretly filmed him having consensual sex with another man. The intruders, who eventually allowed his partner to leave, forced Siras to be photographed without his clothes and threatened to leak them to the press. While a traumatised Siras pleaded with them, senior officials of the university including the proctor arrived, as if on cue. They watched Siras being humiliated and then assured him that the matter would be forgotten if he apologised to the proctor, which he did.

The next day, Siras is shocked to discover that the incident had been reported in the front page of all the newspapers. On the same day, the university served him a suspension notice and ordered him to vacate his accommodation within seven days. The 64-year-old professor pleaded with the authorities to get a month’s extension but to no avail. On February 24, the university served him with a chargesheet alleging that he had “committed an act of misconduct “by indulging in “immoral sexual activity” in “contravention of the basic moral ethics” of the institution, thereby undermining its “pious image” and “tarnishing the image of the university”. The irony was that the humiliation of Siras and the violation of his fundamental rights came after the Delhi high court had passed its historic 2009 judgement decriminalising homosexuality.

Ramchandra Siras. Credit: CNN-IBN

The real Ramchandra Siras. Credit: CNN-IBN

Siras’s harrowing experience and the responses on campus have been meticulously recorded by sympathetic journalists and an independent fact-finding committee comprising of activists from Lucknow, Delhi and Bangalore. LGBT activists and supportive colleagues persuaded Siras to file a writ petition. On April 1, 2010, the Allahabad high court, acting on the writ petition, maintained that the professor’s right to privacy had been violated. They ordered AMU to revoke the suspension order and reinstate him. On April 7, 2010, a day before the notice of the high court reached the university, Siras died under mysterious circumstances. Murder was suspected and arrests were made but the case was closed due to lack of evidence. Once again, the perpetrators roamed free.

As Mehta’s film and the fact finding committee report conclude, the entire exercise was masterminded by vested interests within the university. The morality argument was effectively used as a smokescreen to mobilise public opinion. The committee report clearly demonstrates that public opinion on campus was sharply divided on the issue. A large number of students and teachers felt that Siras’s fundamental right to privacy had been violated. This view was shared by even those who disapproved of homosexuality.

Aligarh is about the events that unfold after the terrible night of criminal intrusion. Siras (Manoj Bajpai) is a quiet loner whose mundane life turns into a nightmare played out in full public view. He is suspended and ordered to vacate his house. The process is sought to be hastened by disconnecting his electricity. Overnight, the professor becomes a pariah. When his blood pressure shoots up, the doctor at the dispensary keeps him waiting endlessly only to turn him back.

AligarhFilmPoster

Aligarh (Dir: Hansal Mehta, 2016)

He finds a friend in Deepu Sebastian (Rajkumar Rao), a young, restless journalist who questions the morality of invading someone’s private life. He asks Siras whether he was being persecuted for being gay. Siras does not like the word. How could three alphabets sum up the depth of his feelings? But yes, he is an outsider and people envied him. Says Siras: “In an Urdu-speaking city, I teach Marathi. Amidst married people, I am a single man. Notwithstanding, I was made the chair of the linguistics department.” While he does not state it quite so explicitly, Siras is acutely aware of the hostile power of subterranean homophobia. That his sexual partner is a “lower class Muslim” aggravates further the perception of his sexual misdemeanour. Perhaps for this reason, Siras has always guarded his privacy. He spends his evenings listening to Lata Mangeshkar and enjoying his evening drink. When he is forced to move houses and live out of suitcases, this ritual becomes his only sense of home.

After the night of intrusion, Siras becomes paranoid. When evening approaches, he starts securing the windows and barricading the door before settling down for a drink. He lives in fearful anticipation of that dreaded knock on the door. After Siras wins his case, Deepu calls to congratulate him. Siras had fallen asleep with the flickering light of the television lighting up the darkened room. They make a plan to meet. Deepu will do an exclusive interview with Siras at his department on the day he is reinstated. “You are a good boy, Deepu” says Siras before putting the phone down. Overwhelmed by drowsiness, he had cut short the conversation.

When Deepu arrives, Siras has already died. Crowds have gathered in front of the house. He watches a policeman turn his body over. In shock and despair, Deepu starts running through the darkened streets as their last conversation plays out over the soundtrack. As the film comes to a close, we are returned to the night of the conversation. Siras has put the phone down and settled back in bed. Suddenly, he sits up again. He seems to have heard something. He peers into the darkness and asks, “Who’s there?” The scene fades to black as the concluding text informs us that the police found traces of poison in Siras’s blood but ruled out foul play. The audience is left wondering whether someone was indeed inside the house or whether it was his paranoid imagination. Mehta and his talented cast and crew capture masterfully the everyday dread and unease suffered by victims of surveillance and moral policing.

Hansal Mehta’s stunning achievement is to turn what first appeared to the public as a sensational sex scandal into a quiet and reflective film that bears witness to the humiliation suffered by Siras and his struggle to preserve his dignity. To this end the film is both tribute and atonement. It is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of assenting to live by the dictates of public morality, reiterating instead the importance of constitutional morality. The Delhi high court judgment of 2009 had clearly stated that safeguarding public morality was not a compelling state interest or a valid justification for curtailing fundamental rights. Instead, what deserved to be upheld were the values enshrined in the constitution.

Inseparable rights

The trailer of the film to which the Central Board of Film Certification took such umbrage ended with the lines: “Come out and Question. Come out and Talk. Come out and Live. Come out and Love.” The film compels us to think deeply about the two intertwined rights of an individual: the right to life (of which ‘coming out’ is an integral part) and the right to privacy. The two rights are inseparable. Siras had no desire to come out but was forcibly dragged out in full public view. How, when and to whom one decides to come out is entirely the decision of the individual. ‘Coming out’ is never a one-time decision. In a largely homophobic environment, ‘coming out’ is always strategic and contingent. Most queer lives are therefore about a continuous coming out. On the other hand, as Siras discovered, the closet is never a safe place. The only way to live with dignity is to stake our claim as equal citizens.

All films based on real events have to answer to contesting claims of authenticity. It is important to note that films, unlike a legal document or a newspaper report, bring the narrative of the real in conversation with the world of imagination. In the film, Siras makes personal appearances in court as his lawyer fights his case. In real life, he never met his lawyer because he was never given permission to travel. He sent his petition by post and communicated with his lawyer on email. Similarly, Siras never met Deepu Sebastian the Indian Express reporter on whom the cinematic namesake is based. The real Deepu Sebastian Edmond, it appears, spoke to Siras only on the phone. Like his filmic counterpart, he arrived only too late. In Mehta’s film, Deepu and Siras become friends who share several happy moments together. The intergenerational bonding of these two unlikely men constitutes the affective spine of the film. It was as though the film has extended to the wronged professor what he lacked in the last days of his life – friendship, warmth and solidarity.

Shohini Ghosh is Sajjad Zaheer Professor, AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi