‘Aligarh’ rooted in reality of homophobia in India

October 21, 2015

Marathi-language professor Shrinivas Siras killed himself in 2010, a few days after Aligarh Muslim University suspended him for having consensual sex with a man.

He is the subject of a new film called “Aligarh,” starring Manoj Bajpayee and Rajkummar Rao, which will open the Jio MAMI festival in Mumbai later this month and come out in India sometime early next year. Bajpayee plays Siras and Rao plays the fictional role of a journalist who comes to write about the protagonist and later befriends him.

Siras’ suicide was emblematic of homophobia and the deep mistrust of homosexuals, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people that exists in India. The film tackles this topic, but director Hansal Mehta said, “My film is not so much about homosexuality and attitudes towards it in India as much as it is about privacy and people’s right to it.”

Mehta’s long-time collaborator Apurva Asrani wrote the script. Asrani, who has edited several of Mehta’s films, said he wanted to try his hand at writing.

“This story came to me in the form of an emailed news clipping. There are many news stories that can touch you, but not all of them become films. It was only after I read the script that Apurva wrote that I was provoked and moved enough to make this film,” Mehta said.

The Aligarh suicide is the basis for the film, though it draws from other instances of homophobia that have been reported in India.

“I am trying through ‘Aligarh’ to point the lens at us as a society. We take voyeuristic pleasure in these stories when in a modern-day democracy these should be non-issues,” he said.

“Aligarh” is the rare Bollywood film that turns the spotlight on homophobia. Homosexuals in Hindi films are usually objects of ridicule or crass humour. Films like Deepa Mehta’s “Fire“, which depicted a same-sex relationship between two women have been subjected to violent protests. Even as recently as 10 months ago, the government-appointed censor board asked that the word “lesbian” be deleted from a movie.

India’s Supreme Court has refused to decriminalize homosexual sex, which is punishable under Indian law by up to 10 years in prison.

“The fact that this is not even coming up in parliament – this bothers me. But it also tells me that people are not even bothered about other people’s sexual preferences. I think society is ready, but it is the people who decide for us, who need to wake up.

“I don’t think they are bothered. That is troubling. There is a mass of people who are marginalised, and were deemed criminals overnight in 2013. Because of your attitude and biases, you are condemning someone to a life of loneliness,” he said.

Even researching this film was full of hurdles. Mehta said his team wasn’t allowed on the university campus, and he refused to say to whom he spoke for research on the film.

“They are still scared. They don’t want the university to look bad, but I kept telling them that it was not about the university or the place. It is about what happened to the individual.”

(Editing by Robert MacMillan. Follow Shilpa on Twitter @shilpajay and Robert @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

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