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.
Writer-director Ruchika Oberoi’s debut film Island City explores the pressures of life in modern Mumbai through three connected narratives, with varying degrees of success.
The movie opens with “Fun Committee,” a story about a middle-aged salaryman, Mr. Chaturvedi (Vinay Pathak). He files into his cubicle at Systematic Statistics along with the other drones, an interchangeable cog in a giant machine.
To remedy persistent employee dissatisfaction, the company installs a “Fun Committee” to randomly award workers with a day away from the office. For a guy like Chaturvedi, whose job is his life, such a reward feels like a punishment.
According to an anonymous committee member heard only over the phone (voiced by Rajat Kapoor), the day away is scientifically planned to maximize “mandatory” fun. Chaturvedi is dropped off at a shopping mall, under orders to utilize a stack of coupons for free stuff like balloons and lollipops.
The film’s limited budget becomes a problem as the narrative shifts into a surreal examination of consumer culture. Retail employees sing when Chaturvedi redeems his coupons as shoppers mill about nearby. Are the shoppers also a part of the alternative universe inhabited by Chaturvedi and the store workers? Are they even aware of it? A bigger budget would’ve allowed Oberoi to build a more immersive world, avoiding the questions of who’s involved and who’s just a regular person who happened to be shopping on the day of a movie shoot.
Sympathy for Chaturvedi’s plight is undermined when he extends his frustration with his soul-sucking job beyond the callous management to his fellow employees. They’re just as much victims of the system as he is. “Fun Committee” ends on a grim note.
The second story — “The Ghost in the Machine” — is the best of the three. Housewife Sarita (Amruta Subhash) learns that her husband, Mr. Joshi, is in a coma. Sarita, her two young sons, and her mother endure neighbors dropping by to offer condolences in exchange for tea and cookies, but the family knows the truth: Joshi was an overbearing jerk, and their life is more enjoyable without him.
All four family members get hooked on a TV serial about an ideal man. The TV hero (Samir Kochhar) is handsome, affectionate, kind, generous, and polite: all the things Joshi is not. The serial allows the family to envision a better life, while comatose Joshi hovers over their dreams like a not-quite-dead ghost. The story is delightfully clever, especially in the way the TV serial’s narrative evolves to depict the family’s desires.
“Contact” is the last of Island City‘s short stories. Unlike the middle-class protagonists of the other narratives, “Contact” features a poor heroine. Aarti (Tannishtha Chatterjee) endures a hopeless existence, commuting for hours to a manual labor job at a newspaper print shop. Her father has arranged her marriage to a foul-mouthed boor, Jignesh (Chandan Roy Sanyal), who insists that dour Aarti smile without giving her a reason to.
An anonymous love letter professes to see the passionate fire hidden within Aarti’s sad eyes. The mystery awakens not just Aarti’s sense of curiosity but a belief that perhaps she deserves a more fulfilling life than the one she has. Chatterjee’s touching performance lives up her consistently high standards.
Island City is pessimistic about life for the average Mumbaikar. Hope is either a lie, or it comes at an astronomical cost. “The Ghost in the Machine” is the only one of the three tales that is fun to watch.
It’s hard to reconcile how the salaryman’s story fits with the other two. The image of the zombie-like office worker is well established, but Chaturvedi is there by choice. There’s no sense that he quashed some vibrant part of himself to take this job. He has no family to support. He’s there because there’s nothing more to him.
Contrast that with both Sarita and Aarti, whose opportunities are dictated by the men in their lives. Joshi forced Sarita to stop working in a career she loved. Aarti works in a dead-end job, and she’s forced to marry someone she finds repulsive. Not only are Chaturvedi’s self-imposed troubles deemed equivalent with those of the two women, they’re given prominence by being placed first in the story order.
It feels like there’s a piece missing from Island City that might have better connected the three stories. Maybe it was just a matter of weaving the narratives together rather than presenting them separately. As constructed, Island City only hits its stride after a third of the movie is already over.