Hansal Mehta and his team deserve all the good reviews they've been getting for the, frankly, quite amazing movie, Aligarh. Very rarely do you get such a subtle, quiet, nuanced work out of Bollywood: Aligarh forces you to slow down, and feel.
Feel the sense of isolation and alienation of a man in his 60s who works in a hostile environment, and lives in a hostile society. Everywhere he goes, he is an alien; people vary and judgmental, jealous of his success, suspicious of his motives, of his life.
Through Aligarh, you can not only imagine Dr Siras' difficult days but actually live through them with him - as him - every day from February 9 to April 7, 2010. Every window he shuts to the world, every time he closes his eyes in disappointment at people ready to label him, you can feel Siras; you are in his mind; you are him. Yes, congratulations are due to Manoj Bajpayee; what an ace performance. There is no doubt about it: Aligarh is a great cinematic achievement, a piece of art.
I have two quibbles with the movie. First, in trying to address the stigma Aligarh Muslim University and society had attached to Dr Siras, the movie ends up stigmatising the poor. It is not clear whether Irfan the rickshawala takes money for sex, it is suggested and never refuted, but it is quite clearly suggested that Irfan may have been in cohorts with the bad guys. So the poor guy is ready to betray his partner of months for a few bucks; he has no integrity. Here's more: he also has goons for relatives who beat up clearly harmless people for asking a few questions. He and his family are too casual a sacrifice in telling the main story.
Then, in the only lovemaking scene between Dr Siras and Irfan, Irfan is so awkward and stiff, it seems like the professor is manipulating the young man instead of them being in an eight-month long mutual affair as the professor claims. "Ek teevr ichcha" suddenly doesn't sound so pretty. The intellectual audience can work it out for themselves - could be one of many things from them being awkward and shy to the mood of the day - but to an audience that is not sensitised to gay love, by which I mean almost everyone in India, it may look like, as someone I know put it, a creepy old uncle trying to force a young guy. Possibly using money.
This brings me to the larger question: who is this movie for? There have been great reviews by everyone I know, not just critics. The gay community and supporters of gay rights, like me, people like you and me, are impressed and pleased with the intelligence and nuance with which Aligarh has handled a stigmatised issue.
And yet, it's a wash out at the box office, with its opening collection falling under Rs 2 crore. Low numbers means fewer screenings, which means less exposure to a film which is as much a message to our vacuous, selfish, brutal society, obsessed with the familiar and scared of the other, as an enjoyable work of art.
If the critical mass does not see it, has it achieved its purpose? Does it make sense to congratulate the makers at how well they have underlined what is wrong with the thinking of the great Indian unwashed masses, when the masses are not receiving that message? You and I already know and understand, we are already empathetic, we already agree with each other, and we already feel Dr Siras. We enjoyed Aligarh as art, but we didn't need it.
So rarely do we portray gay rights, or even just the gay community, well in cinema that I'm dismayed that it hasn't, and it won't, reach those who need to see it most. I don't expect people who question the name of the movie (idiots), or want to ban it, to sit up and think, but if their cousins saw it, if their neighbours saw it, if their children saw it, heck, if just more people saw it! Why aren't they?
While the critics are reviewing it glowingly, a glance at some of the layperson reviews will show up comments like "boring", "slow", "overwrought"… What works best for the movie as good cinema, works against it where mass appeal is concerned. Some of the scenes are so overlong and stretched every movement and response so painstaking, that I could hear the restlessness in the air in the hall.
The movie is great, the halls are empty. Such a shame that Dr Siras' story is only being circulated among those who are already with Dr Siras, those who did not want to alienate him in the first place.