I had been hearing about this movie named ‘Aligarh’ since long. Many people on the AMU campus seemed excited, though this was not the first time that our university got mentioned in an Indian theatrical release. In 1963, Mere Mehboob starring Rajendra Kumar and Sadhana brought to screen the many typical cultural paradigms of our premises. The address “mian” as the protagonist was called, “Anwar mian” in the movie, the Aligarh station with its doomed arches, the university campus with its minaret, men in sherwanis and women of the 1960s in sarees and burkha, with styled surma and kohl in their eyes, the typical love for Urdu poetry, and everything so lovely about the university known for its tradition and culture. The movie gained the reputation of being the first of its kind to portray on screen the beautiful love story of a Muslim couple, the infatuation and curiosity that the surma-smeared eyes and the abayah-clad face aroused in the male protagonist is beyond explanation. The movie was a blockbuster, with everything perfectly contributing to its success. But the movie was not tilted Aligarh, though it explained everything about the University true to its presence. Aligarh Muslim University has provided backdrop for a range of movies, Nai Umar ki Nai Fasal (1966), it has been referred to in many other films such as Mohabbatein (2000), Pyar, Ishq aur Muhabbat (2001), Ranjhana (2013) and Haider (2015). In Ranjhana, Sonam Kapoor speaks of Aligarh Muslim University as a place that curbed her independence and diminished her identity; it compressed her sphere and threatened her exposure to the wider world. We heard her comparing AMU with JNU in terms of freedom and exposure, we felt bad, but no one spoke against the movie. The university was credited for tutoring its students with morality, responsibility and understanding. It brought to surface that the university imbibes intellect and culture in its students.
And then in 2016, we have the movie named “Aligarh”. Aligarh is not merely a name. Geographically, it is a small city in Uttar Pradesh, but Aligarh is its people, its students, its university. Aligarh is Aligarh Muslim University. Hansal Mehta-directed and Manoj Bajpayee-starrer Aligarh is the story of Dr. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, a professor of Marathi, who used to teach in the department of Modern Languages and was the head of the department in 2010. Any student, in any faculty or department at present is not aware of what happened with Dr. Siras in 2010. We Googled his Wikipedia profile and read reports from 2010 only to find titles like, “AMU killed the Gay professor”. Manoj Bajpayee brings out the extreme loneliness of this middle-aged, grey-haired professor, who was traumatized and accused for being homosexual and was found dead in his apartment on April, 7th 2010. In the movie we see what we did not get to read, we see his character, his operative psyche, his detached existence, his solitude, his interests, his love for Lata Mangeshkar’s songs, his humour, his unrevealed survival in an Urdu-speaking, Islamic and North Indian university.
Prof. Siras’s identity is not worth compressing to the three lettered word ‘gay’ and the movie succeeds in capturing everything, the movie is a socio-cultural critique and a realist documentation. The main concern of the movie is to disintegrate the professional and personal sphere, to fight for the rights of LGBT community which have been looked down since ages despite being legalized in some parts of the world. But the movie was unofficially banned on the very first day of its release in Aligarh, and the only theatre GVM, where it was screened, removed it. Our classmates went to Delhi to see the movie, few of us planned to watch it together on YouTube. The most important development succeeding the protests was the huge campaign led by the students of the university. We started a signature campaign to allow the screening of the movie in the campus. But when this proved to be ineffective, the students used various other means to show their support for the movie, and the campaign came to be known as ‘Aligarh in Aligarh’. For example, there was a stret play organized on 12th March by students. The most interesting turn of events was when many of the residents of Aligarh also spoke in favour of the movie and joined the signature campaign. In this way, we were able to bring the campaign to the streets of Aligarh and it was absolutely liberating to witness the enthusiasm of the faculty members, students and common citizens of Aligarh in supporting not only the movie, but also the larger cause that it potentially will serve in the reform of our society.
The protest against the movie came from two quarters, one was the BJP mayor of the city, Ms. Shakuntala Devi who found the movie against her city’s culture and feared that it could bring a bad name to the city. The other section protesting was Millat Bedari Committee, who forced the cinema halls in Aligarh to remove the movie. The reasons they gave were twofold: one, was that the title of the movie should be changed while the other was that the movie might send the message across the world that homosexuality is a common practice in Aligarh. The university had nothing to do regarding this imposed ban. Our Vice-chancellor says, “…banning anything excites curiosity and does not achieve the purpose for which it was banned…” Almost every student has watched the movie somehow or the other, every faculty member is aware of the movie too. This movie obviously does not reflect the character of the university as a whole.
Homosexuality has always received and continues to receive biased opinions everywhere; Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old American student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, jumped to death from the Washington Bridge in 2010 after an unknown video trapped him kissing another man in a hostel dorm-room, but this one incident cannot define New Jersey, or the Rutgers University and similarly, the tragic end of Dr. Siras, the merciless invasion into his private life and his killing cannot define my university. The movie is a harking back into the pages of history, a tribute to Dr. Siras and a call for justice. Aligarh is any small city for that matter, any diversely populated epitome of India, Aligarh is not the university alone, we need to watch the movie and understand the core concern, for you cannot judge a book by its cover. Dr. Siras loved his university and it is in that shade that the movie defines the university.
(Image Courtesy: Flickr)