Aligarh
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The makers of Aligarh talk about creating films with a conscience

By HT

We meet director-filmmaker Hansal Mehta inside the well-lit office of Karma Pictures at Andheri. There is a storyboard of what we assume to be an upcoming movie, books by authors like Amitav Ghosh and Rajmohan Gandhi, and a lilting melody playing in the background.

Moments later, there is a hustle outside and writer/editor Apurva Asrani marches into the room. A quick embrace between Mehta and Asrani is followed by some fun banter.

The camaraderie between Mehta and Asrani (both National Award winners for direction and editing respectively), is evident as they chat about their latest movie Aligarh. Set in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), the film is based on true events that led to the demise of Maharashtra Sahitya Parishad awardee Prof Ramchandra Siras, in 2010.

Prof Siras was suspended by AMU for misconduct, after having been ambushed by a TV channel’s camera crew, having sex with a rickshaw-puller. Prof Siras took the suspension to court and was reinstated since the Delhi High Court had, in 2009, decriminalised consensual gay sex.

Shortly after resuming work, Prof Siras passed away. Aligarh is the movie made on the incident which delves on the conversations between Prof Siras (played by Manoj Bajpai) and journalist Deepu Sebastian (Rajkummar Rao). Aligarh’s dialogues, written by Asrani, contain prose and poetry which are inspired by Siras’s award-winning book of Marathi poems - Paya Khalchi Hirawal.

Mehta and Asrani previously worked on two feature films together - Shahid and City Lights. Both were based on true events and highlighted social inequalities. Aligarh is their third project together.

Recounting how Aligarh happened, Asrani says, “In May 2014, Hansal woke me up one morning and said he got an email from a girl called Ishani Banerjee in Delhi. She had seen Shahid and felt that Hansal should tell Prof Siras’s story. I told Hansal I want to write it.”

“These stories sometimes find their way into my consciousness. It found me,” says Mehta, adding, “We had the first conversation in May 2014 and by January 2015, we were shooting. Whoever wants to employ Apu as a writer, I can tell you that he is very fast.”

Mental block

The real issue they faced while making the movie was in terms of the research. “There were some authorities from the university who were kind enough to talk to us. But I don’t think they believed that he was innocent or his story should be glorified. They said we were associating something like homosexuality to the city of Aligarh and that is an insult to them and the city,” says Asrani.

Mehta adds, “Even now, those same elements have raised their heads. They are planning protests in the university. They are threatening to disrupt screenings and release of the film.”

For the promotions of Aligarh, the cast and crew created a campaign called ‘Come Out’ urging communities in India to alter their negative perspectives towards homosexuality and queer identity.

“Being homosexual is a lifestyle for many like myself; it is who we are,” says Asrani, adding, “I find it difficult when people put us in a slot. People look at us with sympathy. I think it needs to go beyond that. We should be able to accept people’s choice of sexuality as a society.”

Mehta doesn’t agree with the law stating homosexuality should be labelled “unnatural.” “Two human beings being in love with each other, how can that be unnatural? Aligarh is a metaphor for the world that we have become. We are conditioned to be homophobic, to perceive things that are documented in mythology and scriptures as unnatural. Certain ideological stances survive on creating restrictions, creating dogma around things,” says Mehta.

A cut above the rest

According to Asrani, though, Prof Siras was subjected to discrimination because he was considered ‘different’: “When someone does not conform to the idea of the family man, of the husband with a wife and children - you are already seen as an outsider. And we, as a society, like to bully the marginalised.”

Asrani and Mehta met when Mehta was searching for an editor to cut promos for his movie Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar, starring Bajpai. “Manoj introduced us. I was looking for an editor and I have tried and failed to be an editor. I had seen Apu’s work in Satya and I was struck by how somebody actually shaped the film on the editing table,” recalls Mehta.

For Bajpai to be essaying a lead role in Aligarh is only poetic justice; but he was not the first choice for the role. “We were thinking of working with a Marathi actor for Prof Siras’s role. But my casting director, Mukesh Chhabra recommended Manoj and I couldn’t have agreed more. Nobody else could have played Siras, now that we look back,” says Mehta. Asrani agrees, “For him to lend his face, credibility and body of work to a character that is homosexual, that is a brave thing to do in mainstream cinema.”

Don’t miss

Aligarh releases in theatres this Friday.