Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh to open Mumbai Film Festival
The story of Dr Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, the gay Aligarh Muslim University professor found dead under mysterious circumstances within months of being videographed having consensual sex with a male, is set to open the coming Mumbai Film Festival (MFF). Director Hansal Mehta, who earlier made National Award-winning Shahid, says the case compels one to question if an individual’s sexuality is more important than who they are and what they do.
“Siras was an established linguist and Marathi author. But what he did in the privacy of his bedroom took his life,” says Mehta. In the film, Siras is essayed by actor Manoj Bajpayee while Rajkummar Rao portrays a character based on Deepu Sebastian Edmond, The Indian Express reporter who followed the case closely, from the time Siras’s hounding began, through his fight in court to get his suspension from AMU over “gross misconduct” revoked, till his death.
In an interview to Edmond two days before he was found dead, Siras had said he planned to leave the campus. “I cannot be in that atmosphere… America is the only place where I will be free to be gay.” In the film, a large part of Siras’s character is unveiled through the point of view of Edmond’s. A 2015 Asia Journalism Fellow, Edmond has been based in Ranchi since 2012 as the newspaper’s Jharkhand correspondent. Titled Aligarh, the film will be screened on October 29, the first day of the 17th edition of the prestigious MFF. It premiered earlier this month at the Busan International Film Festival and was also showed at the BFI London Film Festival.
Mehta says he couldn’t have found a better cast for this film. “For Siras, we needed an actor who could essay the character with a quiet maturity. Also, our research revealed that he was a man of few words,” says Mehta, about casting Bajpayee. As for Rao, Mehta says, “After speaking with Deepu, we realised the two shared a kind of friendship that Siras didn’t have with anyone.” According to the director, “non-conformist views” is perhaps what Siras and Edmond had in common. What attracted Rao to the character was the “enthusiasm” with which Edmond set about unravelling the case. “
Those were the early years of his career and the energy he put into work resonated with me as I am perhaps at a similar stage in life,” says the actor, adding that his own admiration for Bajpayee also helped him portray the character better. Mehta admits the film is a fictionalised portrayal of real-life incidents, and calls it his most “romantic” film so far. “It’s a romantic study of a character and how homophobia condemned Siras, a lover of poetry, to a life of loneliness and longing.”
To the film’s writer, Apurva Asrani, the film looks beyond Siras to talk about an aspect of the debate on homosexuality that has long upset him: labelling. He talks about a 2010 incident when he had received a call from a television channel to participate in a debate pegged on Siras’s mysterious death. On the panel, Asrani was introduced as “a gay film writer”.
While both the label and the factual error — he was only a film editor then — enraged him, that moment became a crucial one in Asrani’s life. “I was caught off-guard at being outed on national television. What upset me more was the act of labelling an individual based on their sexuality,” recounts Asrani. Today he wonders if that moment somehow foretold the future. Asrani marks his debut as an independent screenwriter with Aligarh.