A Film for Our Times

Hansal Mehta's Aligarh is a reminder of the dangerous confection that self-appointed guardians of morality can produce with modern cameras and an outdated statute book.

Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh is a reminder of the dangerous confection that self-appointed guardians of morality can produce with modern cameras and an outdated statute book.

A still from Aligarh.

A still from Aligarh.

Aligarh, Hansal Mehta’s latest feature, is a biographical drama based on the story of Srinivas Ramchandra Siras, a professor in the linguistics department at Aligarh Muslim University. The university suspended him on charges of homosexuality and ‘gross misconduct’ in February 2010 after some men entered his house and filmed him in bed with a rickshaw puller. In April the same year, after successfully fighting a case that revoked his suspension, he died, under what some have claimed as mysterious circumstances.

There was nothing particularly unique about Siras. He was a man with impeccable taste in poetry and music. A man who refused to be defined by his sexual orientation and straitjacketed under the label ‘gay.’ His case, however, is a true reflection of where we are as a society, a stark reminder of how under the garb of modernism and collective morality our mindset hasn’t evolved at all. In lesser hands, this story could come off as either a simplistic retelling or a high handed moral lecture. But under the masterful supervision of Mehta, Aligarh makes for a powerful and compelling drama, bleak and terrifying in equal measure, but illuminating nonetheless.

Hansal arms his team with the formidable duo of Rajkummar Rao, an actor with a filmography that can put to shame some of his senior contemporaries, and Manoj Bajpai, a once-in-a-generation talent. Rao plays Deepu Sebastian, a journalist who believes Siras has been wrongly suspended and befriends him. While Rao was brilliant as the lead in Mehta’s other masterpiece, Shahid, here he shines in a supporting role – bringing to it the raw intensity and realism that he infuses in every character he plays. The scene where Deepu receives news of Siras’s death is almost muted, understated and yet moving, and Rao put his own unique mark on it. His performance never brackets Deepu as a character etched out in a script. Instead it plays out like someone  straight out of a documentary feature. With this quality, Rao stood out first in Kai Po Che, then in Queen and Shahid and now in Aligarh. It’s a rare gift and one that I hope he continues to channel in the future.

But make no mistake, the films belongs to Manoj Bajpai. In an already distinguished career spanning decades, Manoj Bajpai delivers a performance that is as much a tour de force of acting as it is a brilliant character study. Adopting Siras’s crippling loneliness and wearing it as a cloak, Bajpai completely disappears into the character, giving it subtle traits and nuances that only an actor of his caliber can. Perpetually drooped shoulders, a shy demeanor and hushed tone are all personality traits that one would associate with a lonely 60-something-year-old man. And yet, when Siras breaks into a loud and almost violent outburst, it never feels out of place. Instead, it feels almost natural, as if his frustration was always at the brim waiting to be unleashed and bottled up again. Here is a man who gave us the inimitable Bhiku Mhatre in Satya, a crazy to the point of comical odd-ball Sardar Khan in Wasseypur, Master-da in Chittagong,  and many other standout performances. It is the hallmark of a great actor, however, that he should be able to deliver his finest performance in a role that is in such stark contrast to the roles he is fondly remembered for.

Hansal Mehta’s brand of filmmaking is stripped of pretence. He rarely uses quick edits or even the shaky cam, instead resorting to long shots with a fixed camera. This immerses the audience in the experience and directs our attention to wherever he wants us to go. It’s a tool lesser filmmakers shy away from but Mehta is a masterful director. For most shots involving just Siras, he uses long unbroken shots, fixating on close ups, shot in dim light. Thus, allowing the audience to feel Siras’s discomfort, his uneasiness. In contrast, shots with Deepu are usually staged outdoors in bright light with a more kinetic pacing. This is top notch craft, a filmmaker at the very height of his prowess. Mehta also uses music very sparingly but effectively. The closing shot is accompanied by a haunting melody that will stay with you. Another commendable quality in Mehta’s directing is his aversion to melodrama and exposition. His movie’s action or lack of it is usually implied and so are the underlying values . This minimalist approach leads to a powerful film in which the message hits home, stays with you, all without you feeling emotionally manipulated into believing anything. Aligarh is truly Hansal Mehta’s masterpiece, created with a unique style that he has made his own.

Apurva Asrani’s writing is sublime. There are small details that I thoroughly enjoyed like Deepu’s frequent use of ‘Aiyoo!’ and Siras’s frequent use of ‘Baba’. These minute details go a long way in creating believable characters that are so integral when you are dealing with a biographical story, a sensitive one at that. Asrani’s nonlinear screenplay is effective and innovative.  The pacing could have been slightly better, but I am picking on thin straws here.

Aligarh is a rare film first for the manner in which it treats a homosexual, not as a prop for comedy, but as a real person with real habits. It cuts right to the chase and slowly grips you in its narrative with such power that you leave the cinema hall slightly dazed and completely moved. Not only is Aligarh a technical masterpiece, a lesson in filmmaking and storytelling, it is also an important film for today’s times – a reminder of the dangerous confection that self-appointed guardians of morality can produce with modern cameras and an outdated statute book.