Chitra Palekar on ‘Aligarh’

I went to see the film Aligarh feeling quite excited but also a bit apprehensive. I knew nothing about the film except the subject. Being closely connected with LGBT issues as a parent, I was glad that a film was being made on the travails of an elderly homosexual professor. But being a filmmaker myself, I was also aware that merely choosing a worthy subject was not enough. It was the ‘treatment’ that really mattered. In the past I had seen too many insensitive, vulgar parodies and clichéd portrayals of homosexuals. So I simply kept my fingers crossed and hoped that Aligarh would be different! IT WAS, AND HOW!

The story, as most people know by now, is about a much respected academic who was hounded out of not only his job but also his life by a homophobic system. I felt that the extremely sensitive and nuanced treatment of the story, especially that of the central character professor Siras played brilliantly by Manoj Bajpayee, makes this film groundbreaking and iconic in the Indian context. It may be the first time that a gay person is not shown as someone obsessed only with sex, but is portrayed as a human being with many aspects to his life! Bajpayee conveys each and every aspect most convincingly. Professor Siras is good at his profession, loves poetry and music, enjoys a drink in his own home, and leads a quiet life. Being neither effeminate nor flamboyant, he is a contrast to the clichéd perception of a gay man! In fact, except for his sexuality, in every other way he is an epitome of ‘mainstream middleclass respectability’.

Professor Siras is not an activist. He knows no labels, not even the word ‘gay’! Yet he considers his homosexuality natural. He neither questions it nor feels guilty. He simply calls it ‘my urge’, and when asked to analyse, says it is like poetry or music—an intrinsic part of his being! The delicate and sensitive way in which Bajpayee delivered these lines was extremely touching.

In the above context, there is a sequence which I’d particularly like to mention. Deepu, a young journalist, is following Siras’s story. At one point in the film, there is an intimate scene between him and a female colleague. While watching it, what struck me was that the characters, full of lust, are standing against a wall in a cramped public space, furtively groping each other—the sleazy manner in which ‘gay sex’ has often been shown in films.

From this scene, director Hansal Mehta cuts to Professor Siras in his own bedroom with the rickshawala, whom he refers to as a friend. Siras kisses his friend’s face and body so shyly and gently, so lovingly that while watching it I had tears in my eyes. This was a beautiful cinematic moment for me. The contrast between the above two scenes speaks volumes for love between persons of same sex. It also reminds us that ironically, it is this very love in the privacy of his own home that caused the hounding of the professor and destroyed his life! To me, the sequence was no longer about sex. It was about injustice.

However, I must say that the sensitive handling of a gay subject was not the only reason that I liked the film. Right from the first scene, the film gripped me and till the end the tension never slacked. The credit for this goes especially to Manoj Bajpayee who has completely immersed himself into the character of Siras. His eyes, face, gestures, all express innumerable, complex emotions—the anger and fear when attacked; the bewilderment at being accused of something he considers natural; the hurt at being abandoned by friends and colleagues; the serene enjoyment of music and whisky; the overpowering loneliness and finally the joy when Deepu befriends him. I have rarely seen such a complete, performance! (Thank you Manoj for the unforgettable experience!)

In other technical aspects too I found the film good. And, if a few minor things jarred me a bit—for example, the forced cheeriness of Deepu in his office or the shrill voice of the public prosecutor—Bajpayee’s performance and the overall impact pushed these to the background.
Through professor Siras’s life, Aligarh succeeds in conveying many problems that gay persons confront all the time—especially the prejudice and hostility resulting from being considered an immoral, corrupting influence. This hostility prevails not only in the society but in all the systems too. And it results in homosexuals being denied their fundamental rights to privacy and dignity.

Professor Siras does not make big demands. But he wants his colleagues to realise that he is the same person whom they had always respected. Yet, even the colleague who is friendly and wishes to help Siras finally abandons him due to social pressure. One of the poignant moments in the film for me was when Siras says, ‘When I retire, I want to go to America. People like me can live with dignity there.’ What a sad comment on our inclusiveness!

Aligarh appeals directly to our emotions and more importantly, to our sense of justice. Slowly, the film goes beyond the story of a gay person and becomes the story of any human being who is different from the majority, or how an unjust, prejudicial system tries to destroy an individual it does not approve of in any way.

This makes the film highly relevant and important in today’s times. Finally, it is a human interest story which I hope will be seen by everyone whose conscience speaks against injustice in any form.

What if . . . considering Chitra’s daughter is an academic . . .
When I signed the Parents Petition to the Supreme Court for maintaining the reading down of Article 377, I had given an affidavit mentioning my various concerns as a parent of a lesbian daughter. One of the points I made was about discrimination at the work place. I said that my daughter was a professor in a college. Because of Article 377, the tag of criminality was attached to her. Although it seemed merely theoretical, in actuality this tag hung over her head like a Damocles’ Sword. In case of a complaint from a homophobic person, despite all her achievements and popularity, there was a real danger of blackmail, suspension, and the loss of dignity. Worse, being considered a criminal meant she could not appeal to the courts for justice.

That such things did not take place was my daughter’s sheer good fortune. Now she is abroad and, as an academic, does not have to hide her orientation. She has legal rights and lives a life of dignity and respect—what Professor Siras craved—but the film Aligarh brought back all those old memories, validating my apprehensions at the time. The irony is that Professor Siras’s story took place in 2010, when sex between consenting same-sex adults in private was no longer a crime.

Aligarh appeals directly to our emotions and more importantly, to our sense of justice. Slowly, the film goes beyond the story of a gay person and becomes the story of any human being who is different from the majority, or how an unjust, prejudicial system tries to destroy an individual it does not approve of in any way.

At the end of the film, there is a line that there was poison found in Siras’s blood but the police said it was not foul play! Despite the law on his side, the prejudice victimised Prof. Siras. I cannot think what can happen today, when homosexuality has been re-criminalised.

Why does Chitra do the work of sensitising people even if her daughter does not live in India?
Initially my interest in understanding LGBT people was to understand my own daughter. When she told me she was a lesbian, I felt that sexuality may be just one aspect of a person’s life, but it is also a very important part of one’s identity and being. Since I loved her, I did not want to be alienated from that part of her being. So I started reading about the subject, meeting her LGBT friends, and so on. As I came to know more and more people from the community, I began to realise their concerns.

My daughter, on coming out, was accepted by our family and friends. But a large number of people I met were not so fortunate. Their families had rejected them due to social and religious pressures. Many people hid their sexuality because of the fear of rejection and backlash. They were often forced into marriage which invariably ended tragically. Being in the closet did not allow people to live life fully. I felt upset about it.

I wanted all to be accepted by their families, lead a happy and fulfilling life just as my daughter did. Hence, with support and encouragement from her and some of her friends, I started working in this area . . . sharing my own experience and all possible information with parents, supporting them embrace their children.

I further realised that the archaic Article 377 was at the root of many problems faced by the LGBT community. By branding these people as criminals, Article 377 denied these people their fundamental rights which are granted to every citizen by the Indian Constitution.

I believe in full justice for every citizen, rather every human being. Hence, I signed the Parents’ Petition to the Supreme Court. However, according to me, that alone was not sufficient. The legal battle would take its own course. It was equally important to sensitise the civil society, give them correct information, point out the false myths and prejudices, and tell them the repurcussions of homophobia.

So I started giving talks in various institutions and answering peoples’s queries. I am happy to say that almost all the people who have attended the talks have been very receptive and have responded positively.

My daughter may not be physically present with me but she supports my endeavours a lot by providing me with the latest research and answering my doubts. Her friends too support me in various ways. For me, the cause of LGBT people has now gone beyond being ‘just’ personal.

(The writer is a mother, actor and director of theatre and cinema)
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