Aligarh an attempt to break silence on homosexuality, right to privacy

February 25, 2016

Two of India’s finest actors star in a new Bollywood film that puts the spotlight on homophobia in India, with its makers hoping to rekindle the debate on homosexuality and the right to privacy.

Handout still from the film "Aligarh"“Aligarh” is based on the true story of a professor suspended by the Aligarh Muslim University for having consensual sex with a man. The film opens in Indian cinemas on Friday.

In 2010, Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, a professor of the Marathi language at the university in Aligarh, Uttar Pradesh challenged his suspension in court and won. A day before the order revoking his suspension reached the university, Siras was found dead. Police found traces of poison in his blood, but closed the case citing lack of evidence.

The Siras case has been one of the talking points of the debate around homosexuality and the right to privacy in India. The country’s Supreme Court has refused to decriminalize homosexuality, punishable under Indian law by up to 10 years in prison.

National Award-winning actors Manoj Bajpayee and Rajkummar Rao star in “Aligarh”, with Bajpayee playing Siras and Rao a journalist who writes about the protagonist and later befriends him.

“The issue in Siras’ case isn’t of bias – although bias is always there. It is one of privacy. What he did in his own house is no one’s concern,” Bajpayee told Reuters in an interview.

“Aligarh”, directed by Hansal Mehta, paints a portrait of a lonely man bewildered by the sudden turn of events in his life. It is an unusual film for Bollywood, a film industry that has traditionally ridiculed homosexuality through clichéd portrayals and crass humour.

“We are hoping that this film lends a voice to those that haven’t had a voice for long. There is a taboo that is attached to even talking about homosexuality,” Rao told Reuters in an interview. “We talk about it being a bad influence on our children. But children hear and talk about terrorism too. They don’t all become terrorists, do they?”

One of the major themes in “Aligarh” is the attitude towards privacy in small towns in India.

“Big cities are OK – you can find places to hide. But in a small town like Aligarh, even your own house is not safe,” said Bajpayee. “For that reason, they chose the name ‘Aligarh’ – it is a symbol of small-town bias. You can’t lead the life of your choice.”

These biases are evident in details through the film. A male colleague quietly pulls his hand away after Siras touches it while making an impassioned plea, and his landlord forces him to vacate the house after learning of the case.

Bajpayee says he relied on director Mehta’s vision of the film, and tried to give Siras his own voice.

“We had no way of meeting him, and he was estranged from his family. For me, above all else, it was this man’s loneliness that struck me,” he said. “That is what I have tried to portray.”

(Editing by Tony Tharakan; Follow Shilpa on Twitter @shilpajay and Tony @TonyTharakan. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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