In the very first scene of Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh, there is a long take where a rickshaw comes to a halt in front of a house. The passenger climbs down and takes the stairs to the first floor apartment and the rickshaw puller follows carrying some bags. They both enter the apartment as the light comes on. The camera doesn’t. It comes down to the eye level on the street and waits till a couple of men emerge out of the dark and takes the same route and enters the same apartment. A commotion is heard while the camera patiently waits outside.
This single shot achieves a number of things for the film and creates a suitable groundwork for the rest of the film to build upon. To begin with, it sets a certain mood and style, which will eventually be a reflection of the protagonist’s old-world thoughts and ideals throughout the film, gentle and unhurried. More significantly, the camera seems to respect the privacy of a character and his home and restrains from intruding unlike the pair of men who do so. Whatever happened in the apartment is only revealed to the audience after the introduction with the protagonist, Dr. Siras is complete. Consequently, it does not come across as a sensationalized piece of news, but rather as an experience of pain and humiliation resulting from an intrusion of privacy. It also allows the film to take a defined position to engage with the privacy debate, a question that gets raised within the film.
Dealing with the much publicized case of suspension of Dr. Siras from his teaching post in Aligarh Muslim University on the grounds of his sexuality, the film is sensitive in its approach and yet free of any burden which often characterizes films, especially within the mainstream framework, that deal with contemporary and relevant issues. Aligarh doesn’t seem to have an agenda to preach to its audience. But it certainly comes across as aware of the complexities of such debates especially in a subaltern context. The writer and the director drive the narrative in a leisurely manner, unfolding one layer after another, and thus succeeds in positing the film in the larger history where the issues of intolerance, persecution and the self/other conflict exist beyond the world of the plot and characters of the film. Thus unlike Bollywood films, Aligarh is not at all invested in providing solutions. Even when the film ends, there is no closure as such. It is more like an understanding of the enormity and complexity of the problem.
Given such content par excellence, especially in Bollywood milieu, it is something of a let-down to see the film functioning within very familiar and predictable cinematic paradigm. By cinematic, one is talking about the craft, technique and cinematic expression. In these terms, the film, Aligarh, is safe and sanitized and having established a defined style, the film somewhat gets stuck within that be it the framing devices, sound design or cutting pattern. The film reveals a lack of originality in these departments and mostly resort to merely following the stylistics established in the Indian Parallel Cinema of 70s and 80s. While the film does a marvellous job of painstakingly creating a detailed portrayal, of both characters and incidents, but the cinematic engagement or intervention does not fulfill its expectations.
Another thing that can be perhaps held against Aligarh is the fact that it drags slightly in the second half. A few sub-plots especially the one about Deepu’s office romance could’ve been handled in a different way. It is not that these scenes are unnecessary or poorly crafted, it’s just that the film by then has established an economic style of its own and in that regard these scenes seem somewhat counter-intuitive. In fact, at certain points, the long and silent takes seemed to be an unnecessary imitation of what can be called a certain kind of International Festival/World Cinema aesthetics. However, the actors deliver such heartfelt performances, which alone makes the entire film a very redeeming experience. It made a nice change to see Ashish Vidyarthi in a small but well defined role and he rises up to the challenge by not hamming it up. But special mention must be made of Rajkumar Rao in the role of Deepu Sebastian whose naïve and resolute idealism guides the moral universe in the film. His urban outlook gives the film the necessary perspective into a debate which is largely subaltern. His everyday battles place the film in our reality. Rao’s Deepu is the window into the world of Siras.
And finally no discussion about Aligarh will be complete without talking about the character of Dr. Siras portrayed by Manoj Bajpayee. It comes across as both the boon and bane of the film since at times, his performance seems to transcend the film while cinematic aspects take a back seat. An actor of great power, versatility and range, his performance in this film is a world apart from Satya, Shool, Road and Gangs of Wasseypur and arguably his best. In fact, the film largely derives its strength from Bajpayee’s portrayal as Dr. Siras. And it is an old world which Manoj Bajpayee brings out in an extremely nuanced manner. He experiences his time not in minutes and seconds but the multitude of emotions covered within the duration of a song. To see him hold the camera for almost the entirety of “Aap Ki Nazron Ne Samjha” was again breathtaking and reminiscent of a stardom from a bygone era. Spencer Tracy used to do that. Dilip Kumar used to do that. They don’t do it anymore. The world has moved on. And in the privacy of his own room, Dr. Siras had preserved a carefully carved slice of that world; music, poetry and ideas of nameless relations. So when his privacy is invaded, the violence is not just social but also historical. And throughout the film Manoj Bajpayee carries the wound; in his gait, in his voice and in those haunting and telling silences.
Arup Ratan Samajdar
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