Indian filmmakers have often been accused of stereotyping homosexuals and showing them in a poor light in their films. Very few films have portrayed them sensitively and without resorting to any cheap gimmicks. Director Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh is based on a real life incident involving the death of an Aligarh University professor who faced a tremendous amount of hatred and humiliation after people got to know that he was gay.
Dr Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras (Manoj Bajpayee), an elderly gentleman who teaches Marathi at the renowned Aligarh University, is filmed while getting intimate with a rickshaw puller. Both of them are beaten up severely by the two men who had broken into his house. The next day, the news is all over the country and the Aligarh residents express their anger by burning effigies and shouting slogans against the professor. Even though Siras believes he has done no wrong, he unwillingly writes a letter apologizing for his ‘inappropriate’ behavior and is asked remain holed up in his house for some time. Deepu Sebastian (Rajkummar Rao), a young journalist, feels that Siras has been wronged and he must help him to get justice. Accompanied by his cameraman friend (Sumit Gulati), he rides all the way to Aligarh to meet the professor and tell the world his story.
Apart from all the difficulties and loneliness a gay man is subjected to in a country where a large number of people suffer from homophobia, the film makes one ponder over several other things as well. In a superbly written scene, Ashish Vidyarthi, who plays a lawyer in the film and is defending Siras, questions the meaning of the term morality. He, rightfully, asserts that it is a subjective word the meaning of which is interpreted differently by different individuals. The film sticks to its basic premise throughout most of its duration but there are times when the focus shifts towards Deepu’s character. Sr Siras’s character has been fleshed very well but you do wish that the writer and the director had provided one with a better insight into his life. A flashback portion depicting a few important events that happened in his life (before the untoward incident took place) would have been nice. The climax does make you sad but the strong dramatic effect one was expecting there is missing.
Hansal Mehta does a very good job as a director. He sets the tone for the film with the long, unbroken shot in the beginning and carries the somber mood of the film till the last scene. Apurva Asrani’s script is good with some terrific moments that stay with you. His editing is also very effective. Portions of the scene in which the two reporters barge into the professor’s residence are incorporated appropriately between the linear narrative. The sound design (Mandar Kulkarni) deserves special mention and it elevates the tension in some important scenes considerably. The cinematography (Satya Rai Nagpaul) has a relaxed pace to it which goes well with the mood of the film. The background score (Karan Kulkarni) is highly rousing.
Manoj Bajpayee’s filmography consists of several memorable performances and with his portrayal of an ageing man who has been wronged by the society, he delivers one of his finest performances ever. Rajkummar Rao infuses a sense of warmth and embodies a spirit of goodness as he plays an upright journalist determined to help the professor get justice. Ashish Vidyarthi leaves a huge impact in a small role. The courtroom scenes, featuring him, are some of the best scenes in the film. Sumit Gulati registers his presence as Deepu’s friend.
Apart from depicting the plight of people having an alternative sexual orientation in the country, the film raises a question as to what right do we have to question somebody’s morality and who gives us the authority to breach into somebody’s private space. The subject has been handled very sensitively by the makers and the film should put some thought into the minds of the people living in a very judgmental society.