I got to know Prof Srinivas Siras when he joined Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) as a faculty member. I was a witness to his suffering and loneliness, without any support group to help him. He found in me, I think, someone who could help him recover from the trauma of being treated as a fugitive. I had been with him through his tears and laughter, from suspension as faculty member to losing his position as chairman of the department of modern Indian languages, from being forced out of the university and residence to his unfortunate death – on the day he found out of the relief granted by the court directing the university to revoke all orders against him. I also know Deepu Sebastian, the journalist portrayed in the film.
When I saw Aligarh at a private screening in Delhi a couple of months before its general release, it was impossible for me not to travel back in time. It was impossible for me not to end up with tears in my eyes. Apurva Asrani’s sensitive script and the handling of the subject by director Hansal Mehta were beyond my imagination. The impressive and brilliant acting by both Manoj Bajpai and Rajkumar Rao did not allow me to feel for even a moment that it was a film. I saw my past with Siras, the lonely figure trying to struggle with injustice, loss of dignity, desperate about his lost freedom and choice, and not knowing whether he will win his battle, both legally and socio-culturally.
When the film opened for general release, I was away from Aligarh. Despite reports of it not opening in town, the movie was screened there from the day it released. A friend of mine saw the film at a prominent theatre in Aligarh although the audience was unexpectedly small, he said.
Triumph despite homophobic intolerance
Shockingly, the later shows were suddenly stopped, without pressure from any authorities, and without a big hue and cry over its screening. A very small local organisation and the Aligarh unit of the BJP protested that the film and its depiction of homosexuality defamed Aligarh. This objection from a fringe, covertly asserting the superiority of heterosexuals, upholds the notion that a different sexual orientation can have no moral legitimacy; this homophobic premise leads them to conclude that the film is somehow defamatory. The cinema hall showing the film took it off, apprehending trouble.
No fringe elements protested against films like Bombay defaming the metropolis. In Aligarh, however, the homophobia of a microscopic fringe prevented the majority from exercising their right to choose – not realising that posterity is likely to use the film to sensitise children on how individuals with a different sexual orientation have been persecuted. A liberal democracy will fail in its duty if it does not ensure equality before the law to all minorities, including sexual equality.
Aligarh, with its university and a flourishing lock industry, has little to offer in terms of entertainment, except for cinema and a yearly three-week long exhibition. The cinemas are normally full with residents and university students. AMU has been a hub of debate and houses a prominent drama club that has produced many leading Bollywood actors and actresses. Many films have been shot on the campus. The university has been mentioned in several films, including the recent Haider. There have never been any protests because we all realise that any aesthetic product, including films, transcends its spatial location through the deployment of metaphors to create a wider significance – which Aligarh has done, without any doubt.
The homophobic intolerance of a fringe did not stop Aligarians – it just encouraged them to take a day off to go to other neighbouring places to watch the film. Most came back delighted, convinced that the protest was much ado about nothing. The ban also got Aligarh some free publicity. Bans always defeat their own purpose.
The film is a fictionalised socio-politico-cultural narrative and not a documentary about a city. It is about loneliness and the infringement on the privacy of a person with a different sexual orientation. It is a film dealing with social relations and the constraints an individual feels in a homophobic society. In a panel discussion on a news channel before the release of Aligarh, representatives of two major religions stated that every individual had a right to privacy; the objection they had is to the public display of different sexual orientations. In India, the public display of even heterosexual emotions is censored. The film’s biggest asset is that at last Bollywood has produced a serious film sensitising people on the issue. The film threatens to change Indian sensibilities on the issue of homosexuality and sexual equality.
I found myself unable to differentiate the film from reality and somewhere in the corner of my heart wished the film hadn’t ended with Siras’s death. The film showed how someone like Siras feels in homophobic surroundings and made me recall the plight of the French philosopher Foucault, who left his faculty position at a prestigious university to take up an assignment as a school teacher in Scandinavia expecting more respect there for his sexual choices. However, he returned disappointed and eventually met a tragic end, suffering from AIDS. I felt at many times that Siras would jump out of the screen and say to all of us, “I am here”. Not even for a moment did I feel that the setting in any way damaged the reputation of Aligarh.
Tariq Islam is a Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the Aligarh Muslim University