Movie Review: Aligarh (2016)

Aligarh4 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the DVD at Amazon

Aligarh was featured at the 2016 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.

Director Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh can be summarized as a film about a professor who loses his job for being gay, but the story is less about the issue and more about the man who reluctantly becomes the face of a civil rights movement.

64-year-old Professor Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) arrives at his apartment on the campus of Aligarh University on a foggy night in 2010. The young man driving the rickshaw brings the professor’s bags upstairs for him but doesn’t come down. The camera lingers voyeuristically outside the building. Moments later, two men — one holding a video camera and one holding a billy club — sneak into the apartment. We hear shouts from within.

The next day, a Delhi journalist named Deepu (Rajkummar Rao) spots a local news item about an Aligarh professor suspended for his involvement in a gay sex scandal. With the recent overturn of India’s Section 377 law that criminalized homosexuality, this seems like a clear violation of Professor Siras’ civil rights.

In Aligarh, Deepu discovers that neither the professor nor his friends share the reporter’s zeal for justice, hoping instead that the matter will go away on its own. The element of the case that piques Deepu’s interest — the videotaped violation of the professor’s right to privacy — is the same one that makes the professor hesitate. He’s an intensely private person, and speaking about the violation publicly will only invite more attention.

When waiting for the issue to blow over ceases to be an option, Siras opens up to Deepu. Siras resists referring to himself as gay, wondering how a person’s being can be encompassed by a three-letter word. He explains that he was attacked not for his sexuality but because of internal university politics. Outing him as gay was just the most expedient method to get him expelled from a conservative, predominantly Muslim school.

The interactions between Deepu and Siras are a delight to watch for how different the two men are. Deepu talks loudly and fidgets in his seat. He even listens aggressively, hunched forward, recorder in hand. By contrast, Siras sits still as a stone. He drinks slowly. He speaks slowly. He is not in a rush.

Out of respect to its protagonist, Aligarh‘s story unfolds at an unhurried pace. There’s an economy of camera movement, with Mehta and cinematographer Satya Nagpaul favoring still shots. Minutes are spent in closeup on Siras’ face as he cries while singing along to an old movie song.

Bajpayee is impossible to ignore in any scene, and Mehta puts the actor’s particular gift to good use. A court hearing regarding Siras’ reinstatement features the two opposing lawyers in the foreground arguing precedent, but one’s attention is drawn to the professor sitting in the corner behind his lawyer, dozing off from boredom.

Rao is one of Mehta’s favorite actors, and with reason. He’s terrific yet again as a young man with a great deal of empathy, but lacking a bit in wisdom. Pairing him opposite an actor as gifted as Bajpayee is magic.

Just as Siras opens Deepu’s eyes to a broader view of humanity, Aligarh provides an important lesson in understanding why a person may choose not to fight. Siras’ sexual orientation is only one part of him, and in the decades that he’s been forced to keep it hidden, he’s cultivated other aspects of his life that give him joy, such as poetry, music, and teaching. He fears that defending the attack on one aspect of his personality could put the other parts at risk. Deepu and the activists who rally to the cause are slow to realize that what’s best for Siras the gay man may be different than what’s best for Siras the professor.

Links

Advertisements

10 thoughts on “Movie Review: Aligarh (2016)

  1. Pingback: New York Indian Film Festival 2016 | Access Bollywood

  2. Paul Smithson

    Great review as always. Sounds like a must-watch movie Kathy, but alas, it doesn’t seem to be coming to any screens near me in the not too distant future, and I don’t remember seeing it advertised over the last year. Has it been on general release?

    Reply
  3. JustMeMike

    I was able to see the film on DVD. I was so used to seeing Manoj Bajpayee in his usual villainous roles (Araakshan, Gangs of Wasseypour, Satyagraha etc) that I was totally amazed to see him in a sympathetic role that he played beautifully. As Kathy stated, the film is less about the character, and more about what goes on around Manjoj’s Professor.

    To be sure, the film is short of colorful and expansive exterior sets and activity. Instead you are pulled into the character’s stillness and it is easy to imagine his internal struggle with having to deal with the public’s hue and cry and the other side of the ledger – his own privacy.

    Well worth seeing.

    Reply
  4. Pingback: CSAFF 2016 Lineup Announced | Access Bollywood

  5. Pingback: Opening October 7: Mirzya | Access Bollywood

  6. Pingback: Streaming Bollywood Movies: Eros Now (2016 Update) | Access Bollywood

  7. Pingback: Best Bollywood Movies of 2016 | Access Bollywood

  8. Swati

    Did you know this film is based on a true story? The film is a biographical drama and the professor portrayed here was found dead in 2010 a few months after the nationwide “scandal”, and murder charges were filed but the case was later closed 😦

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s