[Last week, the Indian Supreme Court decriminalised homosexuality. This is a win for the LGBTQIA+ community but discrimination still exists. There is still a long way to go. I wrote this film review for a class I had last year when I was completing my M.A in history. Everyone should watch this beautiful film.]
The words “gay” and “Bollywood” rarely intersect. Steeped in controversy and conspiracy, Aligarh (2016) is a political and subversive film. In the span of years when homosexuality was decriminalised (2009-2013) in India, Indian society was unable to break the shackles of heteronormativity which is present everywhere in Aligarh – in the songs and inside the courtroom. The story follows Prof. Ramchandra Siras (played by Manoj Bajpayee), of Aligarh Muslim University, who loses his job because of his homosexuality.
A young journalist Deepu Sebastian (played by Rajkumar Rao) is determined to take this story to the fore and bring justice for Siras. The film is primarily about the conflict between individual vs. society and more questions arise rather than answers. Visibility/invisibility of the homosexual body is an important facet of Aligarh and it helps to break certain stereotypes.
Aligarh University is described in the film as an institution that was set up to be a “scientific and progressive playground” for the Muslims during the 19th century. Ironically, it had neither of those two qualities in 2010. On the night of 8th February, Siras and his male partner were illegally filmed while being intimate with each other. As predicted, the clip was publicised, and the professor was ostracised. His house becomes his refuge.
Shame is a huge part of the film. The desire to humiliate or inflict violence on another person is too. Siras never fit into the mould of “proper” conduct – he was an outsider, an unmarried bachelor, a poet, a homosexual man – and labeled as being immoral. In multiple scenes, Siras breaks down Western notions of homosexuality: “How can someone describe my feelings in three letters?” He rejects the imposition of the word “gay” on his identity.
The main themes in the film, I find, are morality and justice. Firstly, morality of an individual is extremely subjective and cannot be seen in the black and white terms as “collective morality” often is. Siras faces multiple prejudices in the courtroom due to his age, his sexual orientation and the fact that he slept with a lower-class Muslim rickshawallah from the slums. His personal space and morality are vehemently attacked.
On the topic of justice it is important on note that the film alludes to the larger picture on the state of things in Indian law. In 2013, homosexuality was criminalised again. Did we take a step back? Section 377 is a colonial legacy; it is the working of a Victorian mindset. Justice is given to Siras half-heartedly and the day before he was supposed to go back to work at AU again, he is found dead.
It is not specified whether it was suicide or murder but what is clear is the hostility and fear in the law system and society of India. In a space where fear of social taboos is high, Aligarh does a great job in normalising homosexuality and sending a message that all love/affection is human. At the root of it, Aligarh questions the boundaries of morality. India is a diverse nation but not welcoming of its LGBTQIA+ community, its constitution is “inclusive” but not to outliers like Siras. Indian law still has a long way to go in order to be truly progressive and ubiquitous.