Hansal Mehta's Aligarh comes at an important time when the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of reopening the debate on gay rights in India. The film has its own pace and fabric as it narrates the story of 64 year old Prof Siras of Aligarh University who was suspended from the organization for being a homosexual. Based on a true story, Hansal Mehta touches upon several issues and topics apart from gay rights in this two hour long biopic.
Manoj Bajpayee plays Siras who teaches Marathi in Aligarh University. An incident changes his life overnight when members of his staff intrude his house and catch him having sex with another man. He's immediately labelled an outcast and suspended from his position. What follows is the entry of Deepu (Rajkummar Rao) a journalist who takes interest in Siras's case and wants to throw light on his situation. All through the film, there are long drawn moments of silence and pauses that like poetry have meaning if you let them seep into your consciousness.
Aligarh is more than just a film about gay rights. It documents the human spirit, and the freedom it struggles to sustain despite its oppressive surroundings. Aligarh is a story of hope and innocence in a time when prejudice and judgement substitutes compassion and kindness. Yes, it is also a story of gay rights, but more so it is a tale of human rights. Mehta has used Siras as a metaphor to highlight optimism in a time of a pessimistic environment. There are moments in the film where you feel more than just empathy and compassion for Siras.
What works for the film are the stellar performances. Rajkummar Rao who is Mehta's muse delivers yet again. His Deepu is curious and hungry for knowledge. At the very same time he's also childlike and naive. His scenes with Manoj are terrific and a lot of his communication happens through his eyes and body language. Manoj Bajpayee gives the performance of a lifetime. Not letting Siras become a caricature or an object of empathy he breathes in life and color even in the weakest scenes. The stutter, pauses, anger, sorrow, an amalgamation of emotions fill up the screen. Mehta is a storyteller and he stands by his signature style of taking time to build the story in Aligarh.
The film isn't without hiccups. There are some scenes that drag on. Siras listening to his favourite Lata Mangeshkar tracks gets a bit repetitive. Also it would have been interesting to get some background of where he's from and what his childhood was like. The end might seem abrupt to those who haven't read any material on the case. Also Deepu's track with his editor seemed like an effort to throw in a few light moments in an otherwise serious setting.
Aligarh needs to be watched. It is serious cinema and you need to be patient with the pace. But if you give into Mehta's storytelling and let Siras charm you with his innocence then Aligarh will become an instant favourite. A film about human divinity and rights about anything else, Aligarh is high on my recommendation list. After Sonam Kapoor's Neerja last week, here's another gem that definitely should be your movie of the week!