Tag Archives: homosexuality

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.



My Top Five at Mumbai Film Festival 2013

MFF 2013 LogoThe 15th Mumbai Film Festival (MFF) organised by Mumbai Academy of Moving Images (MAMI) was a result of some wonderful programming. Movies that I had been only reading about from links shared by film enthusiasts and critics worldwide came home to a big group of people with a huge appetite for the classics and the new. Obviously, there was always the question, “Did you like it?” as soon as one got out of the theatre after a screening, but it is always too soon to answer that question. I would rather live with the experience for a while, maybe read a little about the film and what inspired the director to make it, and then decide how it made me feel. Just like in relationships, a little background always helps understand a film better.

I missed a lot of films I hear were good. That is the hazard of living far from the festival venue as well as having other personal and professional items on the agenda. Among the ones that I hope to catch in the near future are Act of Killing, The Great Beauty, 3X3D, Closed Curtains, A Touch of Sin, among others. I also have the entire filmography of Costa Gavras added to my never-ending list of films to watch.

Roughly a month and a half after the close of the MFF, in no particular order of preference, here are my top five films from the fest. Individual posts on these films may follow after a second viewing. I may add another five to the list if I find time in the near future:

Ilo Ilo Movie Poster1. Ilo Ilo – This is a soft, sweet story about a Filipino maid coming to Singapore to work for a middle-class family, while it is trying to work its way around the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. The naughty-boy-protagonist’s slowly deepening friendship with the maid, while a very pregnant mother experiences pangs of jealousy, is what forms the plot. The residences remind you vaguely of how people live in Mumbai, where there is always a space crunch. The boy and his mischief is superbly entertaining and the flashes of everyday humour coming from the parents make you smile. It could be the story of anyone who grew up middle-class style in the 1980s/90s in India. I could see a lot of my family in the film. Maybe that’s why it became one of my instant favourites.

While the hype around this movie led a lot of expectations to be shattered, director Anthony Chen and the entire cast can still stake claim to wonderful storytelling and great performances. 

Inside Llewyn Davis Movie Poster2. Inside Llewyn Davis – Terribly distracted by the AC on full blast while watching this Coen Brothers film, I couldn’t enjoy the film in its full glory. Later, I sat thinking about it and how beautifully it portrays an artist’s will to stay true to his art despite wave after wave of hurt and failure marking his path. From what sounds like some lovely New York  country music of the 1960s, we see the man face rejections, one after the other – his friends, the woman he recently slept with, his now-incapacitated father and the entire music community. It is painful, but as is always with Coen Brothers’ films, the quirky characters and situations make the whole deal look oddly funny. Watch it for some fantastic performances, great songs and a little bit of heartbreak. (Plus, I was pointed out to a fellow in the end who looked and sounded oddly similar to the legendary Bob Dylan. I am not claiming it is a real footage, but if you love the master’s songs, you have got to listen to the ones in this movie).

Qissa Movie Poster3. Qissa – The Tale of a Lonely Ghost – This one is dark. Set in the time of the India-Pakistan partition, it tracks the story of Umber Singh, who, ailing from the pain of being uprooted from his village, is so desperate for a son to carry forward his lineage, decides to raise his fourth-born daughter as a son. It is part-sympathetic and part-horrific to watch him try to cling on to something he doesn’t have, and in the process, messing up several lives, including of the low-caste gypsy girl he gets his “son” married to. Dealing with questions of identity, honour and roots, Anup Singh‘s film leaves an impact on you. It helps that all the actors are more than convincing in their roles. Saying any more would mean giving out the story. Best to just watch it.

Blue is The Warmest Colour Movie POster4. Blue is the Warmest Colour – Undeniably the most anticipated film at MFF because of the rave reviews it received at Cannes, and the graphic lovemaking scenes between the two leading women, Blue, for me, fulfilled, if not surpassed, my expectations. Abdellatif Kechiche has adapted this heartbreaking love story from a graphic novel called Blue Angel, and changed the focus from how the French society views lesbians to just how “normally” their story too follows the love-curve. The attraction, the flirtation, the intensity of new found love and the excitement of sex, the settling into routine, the ennui, the straying, the bitter confrontation, the making amends. Worthy of mention are the actresses Adele Exarchopolous and Lea Seydoux, who are natural and make the characters seem so real and life-like – like people we know and meet almost everyday.

There has been lots of talk about the “male gaze” in the cinematography of the movie, if there is any story, or why the story is special at all and from whose point of view a women’s story of their relationship is being told – the male director, or one of the women themselves? Fundamentally, the story makes sense to me as it says that there is nothing special about a homosexual relationship. What it does is raise questions about fidelity and the forms of it – psychological, emotional, physical, and who can be said to be the first “drifter” – the one flirting with a third person at a party while still in a relationship, or the one who feels so lonely and unwanted that she seeks comfort in another person’s arms. It is this “seeking of love” that happens to each of us that makes the movie seem so normal. The pain of the protagonist, who is essentially a lonely being trying to find a natural connection with others, that lingers.

Matterhorn Movie Poster5. Matterhorn – This was a Dutch film by Diederik Ebbinge that anyone was hardly talking about, and I went to watch it, because the other show that I wanted to catch in the same time slot was running full-house. I am so glad for this serendipity. Matterhorn is a lovely discovery. It is about a lonely man, living his life by the second hand of the clock and religiously attending Church with his neighbourhood full of the elderly and the staunch. Till another man, an accident survivor with very limited social abilities  makes an appearance in his life. A seemingly frozen heart gives way to regretfully supressed emotion through the plot, after the men bond, form a friendship, and find it in them to defy religious convention to discover big joys in life.

Again, the acting, the cinematography and the direction are splendid beyond words. The transition in the protagonist still feels fresh as the ends of the movie draws near. There is a welcome quality of unpredictability in the story because of the way it is told – linear, but with individuals threads joining into the weave of the plot to create a lovely tapestry in the end. Matterhorn is the story of victory over one’s own demons to move on and achieve all that we have been denying ourselves for the fear of being looked down by the guardians of society – subtly, but clearly told.

Bombay Talkies – a fine anthology of shorts


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.