Cinema

Language that Binds, Language that Frees

No matter how many times Aligarh’s Siras changes his physical address, his emotional address remains the same

Manoj Bajpai as Professor Srinivas Ramchandra Siras in a scene from Hansal Mehta's Aligarh.

Manoj Bajpai as Professor Srinivas Ramchandra Siras in a scene from Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh.

“Pray, do not mock me. I am a very foolish fond old man. Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less. And to deal plainly. I fear I am not in my perfect mind”, says King Lear in Shakespeare’s tragedy of the same name. And these same lines are spoken by Jennifer Kendal in Aparna Sen’s 36, Chowringhee Lane (1981) when she realises how she has been taken advantage of, how her craving for human company has brought her humiliation. She feels cheated. It’s Christmas Eve. She is out on the street, with only a stray dog for company.

Mrs. Violet Stoneham, Kendal’s character in the film, loves Shakespeare. Her pet cat is named after a Shakespearean character: Sir Toby Belch! She used to be an English teacher in a school. She lives in verse, Shakespearean verse. That’s her ultimate refuge. Professor S.R. Siras used to be a teacher of Marathi at Aligarh Muslim University. He lived in verse. That was his ultimate refuge. Both teachers, both old, both single, both lonely. The difference lies in the fact that Mrs. Stoneham was reconciled to her loneliness. Prof. Siras was not reconciled to his. He refused to be the acceptable old man: “”Last scene of all… Is second childishness and mere oblivion, Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” That’s from another play by Shakespeare: As You Like It. He had his teeth with which he enjoyed his food. He had eyes that registered beauty, especially the beauty of the young human male, he had his taste for a drink in the evening, and he had his sexual desire. And he was not ready to offer it all up at the altar of a sexless old age. This disobedience cost him dearly.

Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh (2016) is, among other things, about language. It is about the play of language, the almost hide-and-seek that language thrives on, especially when it luxuriates on the endless fields of poetry. Poetry allows for simultaneous screening (as in “screening from view” or hiding) and screening (as in “screening a film”, or showing) of the poet’s emotional self. Poetry abhors a fixed, definite meaning. Poetry abhors a permanent label. Poetry thrives on ambiguity. Poetry reveals more when it hides more. Perhaps this is why Prof. Siras is a poet. It is the one window which he can keep wide open and stand naked before it and yet people will see him naked but not entirely naked.

The trepidation with which Siras (Manoj Bajpai) peers out into the world through the window of his university quarters is not necessary when he writes poetry. The firmness with which he shuts the two windows of the third and last apartment that he moves into is not required in his poetry. He can reveal all and yet reveal nothing. It is this happy license which is appreciated and celebrated by the men who organise a party in his honour. One recites an English translation of Siras’s poetry as a message of comradeship. It says, “I know, and I like it.”

Siras’s misfortune is that his life has to face the brutality of a language that is intolerant of ambiguity. Everything has to be fully declared, exposed, named, labelled. To his gentle ears, the word “gay” is harsh. He refuses to apply that word to himself, and quite rightly too, because that word is as sufficient to categorise Siras as the word “city” is to categorise the world. He flinches at the word. He also flinches when the sympathetic, but poetry-deaf young journalist asks Siras if he and the rickshaw-wallah were lovers. He bemoans the fact that the young journalist is trying to only ascertain the sexual part of the relationship by using the word “love”, when there is so much more to it.

It is interesting that when Deepu Sebastian, the journalist, is asked by Siras if he has read any poetry, the young man laughs bashfully and says that Tennyson et al. used to just go over his head. The fact that, of all poets, Tennyson should be mentioned is poignant because that 19th century British poet laureate wrote a poem called “In Memoriam” which mourns the death of his dear friend Arthur Hallam. The sheer power of that grief gestures towards feelings that cannot be adequately contained within the word “friendship”. But again “friendship” can also be expanded to include all kinds of relationships, not all of them exclusively platonic. Which is why Prof. Siras prefers to refer to the rickshaw-wallah Irfan as his friend. Prof. Siras finds in that word enough room to accommodate his emotions and his sexual attraction for the young man.

One will never know if Siras had read a particular poem by the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman, but if he had, he would have perhaps been pleased with Whitman’s use of the word “friend” in the poem “When I Heard at the Close of the Day”:

“And when I thought how my dear friend, my lover was on his way coming, O then I was happy,
I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed to me whispering to congratulate me,
For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,
In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me,
And his arm lay lightly around my breast – and that night I was happy.”

The poem by Siras that is quoted repeatedly in the film is addressed to the moon; the moon as a friend only in whose light the poet can truly be himself. In the one scene in which we see Siras make love to Irfan, it is night, like in Whitman’s poem. But whereas Whitman’s poem has the two men sleeping in each other’s arms in the open air, without fear of any criminal charge that may be slapped on them, Siras and Irfan make love in the privacy of the professor’s bedroom and yet are charged with a criminal offense.

Violence through words

The courtroom cross-examination of Siras feels like violence because it is exactly that: violence. He is being forced, violently, but through words, to define his relationship with Irfan. He is being forced to own the tag “gay” for himself. The world of the courtroom and the world of his poetry are as if two different countries, speaking two different languages. No wonder, he spends his time in court either sleeping or by escaping into his own world through the happy task of translating his own book of poetry.

It was not as though he was unfamiliar with legalese. As he tells Deepu over lunch, he had grown up in a house echoing with legal terms, but he understood nothing then and he understands nothing now. What he does understand is the poetry of Raja Mehdi Ali Khan as heard in the song we find Siras listening to: “Aap ki Nazron ne Samjha” from Anpadh (1962), or in Kaifi Azmi’s “Betaab Dil ki Tamanna Yehi Hai” from Hanste Zakhm (1973). These words allow him enough room to bring in his own emotions, without any hesitation, any trepidation. It is true that the legal world does pronounce in his favour but not before he has been labelled “gay” by a force that is intolerant of ambiguity: the media.

When he tells Deepu that poetry does not reside in the words of a poem but in the silences, the gaps between the words, it is these spaces that he is talking about: spaces where you can be yourself, without labels, without paying any price, without depending on anyone’s approval, in the silence of your heart.

Aligarh becomes a film about language. A film about the many languages that bind us in our public life, but also the many languages that free us in the privacy of our own home, and that home can be as big as a small book of poems. No matter how many times Siras changes his physical address, his emotional address remains the same.

Niladri Chatterjee is a Professor of English at the University of Kalyani, Nadia, West Bengal