Tag Archives: gay

Tuesday Blog | Aligarh: a review

Aligarh 1

The frame opens and stays where it is in possibly one of the longest opening shots in Hindi cinema in recent times. Watching from where you are, you become a voyeur, peeking into the windows of a house in a colony barely lit by street lamps in the fog that is characteristic of north Indian winters. For a long time nothing happens on screen, but your mind is already abuzz and sensing what is to come. And then the movie begins.

Aligarh, directed by Hansal Mehta is  the true story of Prof. S. R. Siras (Manoj Bajpai), who was the Head of Department at the Department of Modern Indian Languages in Aligarh Muslim University. Not one to shy away from telling the truth, Mehta has not changed much about this man and his identity. Which is why the film has unofficially been banned in Aligarh, which is so telling of the times we live in – commit atrocities on those who do not conform, and disguise your inability to adapt as defense. When it is you who attacks someone not from your tribe because you cannot empathise, the excuse then is generally, “but his immoral ways are ruining our culture.” Suddenly, you gain the higher moral ground and become the victim as well – such a delicious combination for those seeking sympathy. This line of thought is exactly what Mehta is challenging: Who is the oppressor and  who is the oppressed?

aligarh2Siras is an outsider, no matter how you look at him. He is a Marathi man in a Hindi and Urdu-speaking city. He lives alone, surrounded by families in the quarters identical to his own. He plays Madan Mohan’s compositions and sings along with the nightingale-like Lata Mangeshkar in his own soulful, but broken and tuneless notes. He probably gets himself drunk every night so that he can sleep. He occasionally gets a consenting rickshaw wala home to quell his loneliness. But don’t call him ‘gay’, for he cannot understand how three letters can convey the vast range of emotions, urges, and baggage (in a society like ours) that make him the man he is. That word reduces his identity to make it uni-dimensional, and he dislikes that.

aligarh3Aligarh is also the story of the young reporter Deepu Sebastian (Rajkumar Rao), who befriends this man he set out to write stories about in his newspaper. He understands Siras, his loneliness and his pain. He finds Siras’ quirks endearing: the peg he needs to have every evening after he comes back home, the autograph he needs to sign with his own pen, his poems in Marathi that he translates into English while his case is being heard in the court (he doesn’t care to be an activist and doesn’t understand legalese), the way a blush creeps up his face when he is told he is good looking, his mild manner even when he is affronted, and many more such small things that make the man someone you’d love to know.

Their personal stories also move parallel to each others’. Both try to ward of intrusions into their privacy, and both are outsiders (Deepu is a Malayali living in Delhi). However, while Siras is the quiet timid man satisfied to be able to stand against the tide, Deepu is full of energy, fighting his daily battles with gusto. But while in a flashback, we see Siras gently kissing the face of his partner in a closed bedroom; we are told they has been doing this for eight months now. We also see Deepu kissing his coworker passionately on the roof of their workplace after office hours. As the movie progresses, you begin to take stock of whatever Deepu has said and done, and you wonder if he is in love with Siras. Is his  fling with his female coworker something he becomes part of to avoid being in the kind of situation his friend Siras is in?

aligarh4The backdrop against which the interactions of these two men is set is the painful realisation that despite the raging debate on the criminalisation of homosexuality in India, there is an utter lack of sensitivity. The judiciary can declare homosexuality legal, but the general public will continue to look at gay men and women with absolute disdain and refuse to accommodate them in whatever small manner possible. Even the champion of gay rights, the giant of a lawyer Anand Grover (Ashish Vidyarthi) gets offended when Siras thinks of him as gay too. He is possibly in this for the name, fame and a certain standing among his peers. The other lawyer (Balaji Gauri) is too steeped in age-old prejudices to be able to even want any kind of justice for Siras. She even wonders how a 64 year-old has the “strength” to have sex. She is most likely from that section of society that look at sex as something that a man and a woman have with each other after they are married. There is no more sex in such marriages after the desired number of children. Sex for such people is strictly procreational.

Here, the case around Siras’ dismissal from the University takes the shape of a man engaging in consensual sex with another adult of the same gender versus the breach of his privacy, when TV reporters break into his house, beat him up and film him in a compromising manner. They are followed by Siras’ colleagues who had set this up to settle old scores with the man who had worked with them for over 20 years, and grown to become an HoD despite being a Maharashtrian. There are so many injustices against this man who has only kept his head down and done his work well, only because he is an “outsider” in every respect.

I feel Mehta must have interviewed everyone on the crew various questions pertaining to gay rights and sensitivity and only then upon being satisfied with their answers, taken them on the film. Writer and Editor Apurva Asrani and Cinematographer Satya Rai Nagpaul have collaborated with the director and the actors to create a masterpiece that will possibly go down in the history of Indian cinema as he most sensitive and nuanced portrayal of gay people in India. While those in the metros walk the Pride, there has barely been any small city/town/rural representation of homosexuality in any media. Aligarh is named so because it is about the city more than it is about Siras. Aligarh is the lead character in this film. Aligarh, the city is so claustrophobic for Siras. In contrast, his small apartment makes him feel freer. He can be himself when he is there. When that shred of liberty is also snatched from him, he becomes lonelier than ever, trying to find a space to call his own. Aligarh and its people drive Siras towards his eventual end. Aligarh still continues to be in character and refuses to have anything to do with this beauty of a film. And Aligarh is just one of many places in our country that looks at men like Siras with absolute contempt.

If Siras humming along to Aap ki nazron ne samjha pyar ke kaabil mujhe doesn’t break your heart, I don’t know what will.

 

 

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Bombay Talkies – a fine anthology of shorts

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When I first saw the trailer of Bombay Talkies, an anthology of four shorts to celebrate 100 years of Indian cinema (only Bollywood here, though), I was somewhat amused with Karan Johar‘s name next to the likes of Dibakar Banerjee, Anurag Kashyap and Zoya Akhtar. While Johar has stuck to mostly feel-good, candy floss entertainers (at least in his directorial work), the others have explored a grittier, more realistic side of life in their films. But what I saw in his short Ajeeb Dastaan Hai Yeh, was a pleasant departure from his stories of rich and happy families singing songs together. And while Bollywood stays just at the fringe in this story, it still is part of every scene – gossip in the tabloids, children singing songs and begging at the railway stations, how music lovers bond over their mutual love for old Bollywood music and trivia, how they use these very songs to woo someone they like, and most importantly, how cinema has acted as an agent in changing perceptions of its audience. [The lady next to me gasped audibly when two men kissed on screen, but I overheard her telling her husband during the interval, “Ab kya karein? Aisa hota hi hai. Maan lena hi theek hoga. (Now what do we do. These things happen. It’s best we accept it.)]

ajeebGayatri (Rani Mukherjee) and Dev (Randeep Hooda) are a married couple, who feel no more sizzle in their relationship. Enter a gay intern into Rani Mukherjee’s office — Avinash (Saqib Saleem) — who befriends her, and then comes the twist in her kahaani. How a young man, rejected by his family and, largely, by the society, becomes loud and somewhat playfully brash in his interactions while simultaneously seeking approval and challenging others to question his personal choices is nicely done. Also, there is a streak of jealousy and revenge-seeking, which is quite apt. There is a lot happening here to be stuffed into a 30-minute short, and the friendship between Gayatri and Avinash seems rushed, but Johar doesn’t fail to deliver the message. It is the evergreen love-triangle plot with a difference, one that suitably shows that Bollywood is thankfully still growing.

Star by Dibakar Banerjee is about a common man’s close encounter with filmdom; a man who sees himself as his daughter’s hero after a day’s events change his life. Purandar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a failed actor — and a failed “businessman” — lives life being the butt of jokes of the nosy and noisy ladies in his chawl. He smiles it all away, but in his eyes you see the pain of having lost a dream. His wife loves him but prods him to find other jobs to sustain the family. His bed-ridden daughter, who listened to his stories of ‘Hrithik’ and other stars with awe every night, is also beginning to find him boring.

nawazAfter failing to get yet another job, Purandar is loitering about on the streets when he comes across a film shoot which is filming a scene on ‘Ranbir Sir’. While trying to make innocent small talk with the other bystanders there, Purandar is asked to play a miniscule part in the shot, of bumping into the lead actor on the street. He goes to a quiet place to practice his dialogue and in yet another moment of disappointment is about to give up, when his father (Sadashiv Amrapurkar, you watch him here and you know what Bollywood has been missing in a while) makes an appearance to push him through till the end of the task he has been given. Enthused and energised, Puranadar infuses his own bits into the shot and delivers it brilliantly. Now, having accomplished something new, he rushes home to tell his daughter about his new adventure, about how he is a star himself. In what looks like an ode to Bollywood’s silent beginnings, Purandar’s wildly-gesticulated and vivid, but beautiful storytelling holds your attention. And while the rest of the world is still the same, that one room in the chawl is illuminated with its reborn Star.

This story is inspired by Satyajit Ray‘s short story Potol Babu Filmstar and has Banerjee’s characteristic touch. The director at the location of the shoot smartly stays behind the camera throughout, only heard and not seen. Then there is that annoying person in the local train who keeps reading your newspaper over your shoulder. The quirkiness is there too – a pet emu!

namanZoya Akhtar‘s Sheila Ki Jawaani hits home in a tender way. A lot of us don’t even have to imagine being in little Vicky’s (a very endearing Naman Jain) or his sister’s shoes. “Boys play football and girls play with dolls,” is so outdated an idea, but parents still push it on to us. Vicky hates football, loves to dance, his mother’s lipsticks and all the bling. And while I was lamenting that parents in India take kids to the movies watch crass humour like Tees Maar Khan, I figured it is quite central to the story. Vicky sees inspiration in Sheila’s gyrations and instanly knows what he wants to be when he grows up. While his mother and sister take in Vicky’s dressing up as a girl and dancing with harmless laughter and no prejudice, it rankles his father (Ranvir Shorey) greatly. He keeps asking, “Ye kya bane ho tum? Kya banna hai tumhe?” but doesn’t utter the taboo word at all, for fear that it may come true (as is the case in most conservative families). And thankfully so, the questions of sexuality, gender stereotypes and lifestyle choices are planted into our heads, but not preached about.

All of us have at some point, nurtured a secret dream, for fear of being made fun of or discouraged, sharing it only with those who we know will not judge us. The relationship between the siblings is so comforting here too. The sister is cool, almost disinterested, about her brother’s life in general, but covers up for him when she senses trouble. Their honest sharing of dreams in the glow of the night lamp is sweet – he wants to be Sheila the dancer when he grows up, but apropos his father’s reaction wonders, “ladkiyon mein kya buraai hoti hai (what is wrong with being a girl)?” He also understands when his sister says she wants to travel the world — not as part of her job, but as a “passenger”. And in their childlike innocence, they take on a challenge that sees them take off on their journeys together, with each other’s support.

vijayWe then come to Murabba. This is Anurag Kashyap‘s story of how we have deified our filmstars beyond logic. And even though we know something is not quite right about this worshipping of actors, we cannot help but become tongue-tied in their presence and look up to them with awe. Out to fulfill what looks like his father’s dying wish, Vijay (Vineet Kumar Singh) travels from Allahabad to Bombay and spends day after day waiting for his father’s idol, Amitabh Bachchan, to bite away half of an only murabba (whole fruit pickled in sugar syrup) left in a glass jar and leave the other half for his father to consume before he leaves for his heavenly abode. As the wait stretches, you begin to shift in your seat and feel the desperation. And when it ends, it is a gleeful barrage of this mega star’s dialogues that fill the theatre — quite a wonderful sense of relief. Then again, the story is so folksy in nature, there is a twist to it. Vijay chose not to take the easy way out initially, but having gone through the ordeal of his endless wait and with no solution in sight, he ends up having to take the easy way out. But you know what they say about wisdom coming with age and experience.

The anthology has its moments of greatness and is a fine way of introducing our cinema audiences to the idea of short films. It isn’t earth-shattering as a centennial tribute to Bollywood, but certainly one that deserves attention and credit.

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