My Mirror column today:
Hansal Mehta's Aligarh is both a tragic bio-pic and a finely-wrought critique of our mediatised present.
What follows is indeed dangerous. A man is forcibly photographed in the privacy of his own house, and those images are used to humiliate, blackmail and illegally shunt him out of his job. This is what really happened to the unfortunate Dr. Shrinivas Ramachandra Siras, a Reader in Marathi at the linguistics department of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), in 2010.
A camera crew barged into Siras's house without his permission, and shot video footage of Siras and his male friend, using physical coercion to keep them in the frame. These media persons then called in three AMU faculty members, who were given access to the footage, which they used to charge Siras with "misconduct". Accusing him of having "indulged himself into immoral sexual activity and in contravention of basic moral ethics", AMU instituted a departmental enquiry against Siras.
Even while the enquiry was pending, the self-appointed moral guardians of the university had pronounced their judgment: Siras was suspended, his electricity and water supply was cut off, and an order was issued giving him seven days to vacate his house. Meanwhile, the footage was leaked to local television channels, and it became difficult for Siras to even find an alternative house to rent. Initially persuaded that tendering an 'apology' would help carry on with his life, the 64-year-old professor eventually found himself having to fight for his job and his dignity in court. He won the case, but died mysteriously and tragically one day before his reinstatement.
Hansal Mehta's film, at one level, is a straightforward, near-factual recreation of these events. But Apurva Asrani's script (based on an original idea by Ishani Banerjee) brings us much closer to Siras than the newspapers ever did - and it does so, ironically, by using the figure of a reporter. We see the professor almost entirely through the eyes of Deepu Sebastian (played by the excellent Rajkummar Rao).
Modelled on a real-life reporter who came to have a rapport with the stigmatized professor, Deepu's character works as a bridge between Siras and us. It is Deepu's gradual shift, from seeing Siras as a 'story' to seeing him as a human being, that encourages the film's viewers—including those who may not be comfortable with homosexuality in the abstract—to make space for this person, in the particular. Deepu channels our better selves.
Aligarh was completed several months ago, yet it speaks powerfully to the India being so cynically crafted in February 2016. What Aligarh defends is not just the right to privacy and freedom of sexuality; it is the freedom of the individual against the condemnation of the mob, and the role the media can play in mediating between the two.
We live in times in which sections of the media have turned into megaphones for pre-existing political positions, giving up even the pretense of neutrality as they openly manufacture 'news'. These sections of the media speak less and less for the individual, more and more in the voice of the mob - a mob they are simultaneously helping to create.
The tenor of television in India seems increasingly meant to whip up mass sentiment, rather than encourage a considered appraisal of differing viewpoints. This is not a media that questions its viewers; and even more rarely does it question itself.
Aligarh offers an acute example of how the media's actions, no matter how damaging they might be to the individuals they drag towards televised mob justice, have come to be accepted as legitimate. When Deepu Sebastian (Rao) asks the AMU committee about the illegitimacy of filming a man's most private moments, the answer he gets is frightening. The issue here is not the camera, he is told -- only what is captured by it.
In the ongoing cases of students being charged as antinationals, too, we are witness to the chilling process of a trial by media, in which the due process of law, or even the due process of newsgathering, counts for nothing. And if our media has long been unquestioningly parroting the police, we have now reached a stage where the police parrots the media. The self-legitimising circle of mendaciousness is complete.
But Aligarh reminds us that Deepu, too, is the media. The journalist who resists his colleague's ham-handed intrusiveness, while being dogged in his pursuit of the truth; who asks permission of his interviewees and questions of his own profession; who is able to separate the grain of individual truth from the chaff of rabble-rousing hearsay—this is the media as it should be, the media we desperately need.
Manoj Bajpayee's affecting portrait of Siras is a portrait of isolation, of the stifling 'morality' of those that would shut the doors of their institutions, their colonies and mohallas against anyone not like themselves. But difference is the lifeblood of democracy. We need our televisions to be windows to the outside - not a chamber of mirrors that closes us in upon ourselves.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 28 February 2016.