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Aligarh (Hansal Mehta, 2016)

Director Hansal Mehta seems to have found a new calling of Hollywood-esque social message cinema after starting out directing a broad pallete of commercial attempts from the by-the-book romantic music comedy Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar! to a by-the-book thriller Woodstock Villa. It’s a career filled with safety-net cinema similar to what Tigmanshu Dhulia was doing before he broke out with Paan Singh Tomar. Hansal Mehta’s newfound invigoration with social issues in India was no doubt ignited through his short hiatus from filmmaking, in which he declared he would travel, explore his other passion in life of being a foodie, and start working on things which truly mattered to him.

This culminated in his befriending of Rajkumar Rao, a relatively newer actor who gained some acting praise for his sidekick role in Abhishek Kapoor’s Kai Po Che. Mehta and Rao’s collaboration for Shahid struck a sort of mini-Gowarikar-Aamir Khan spark, where a film’s critical and international success lead its director and actor a path of cinema much higher than what they were previously doing.

So now, we arrive at the third film in what I’d call Mehta’s career rebirth, Aligarh. Many people consider Shahid to be the film in which Mehta really came into his own, but I think Aligarh speaks much more to his handling of social issues and his confidence in his direction. Shahid, while accessible, played out in a familiar fashion to most routine biographical films, a series of tick marks on a timeline that make for an easy scene-by-scene structuring of a film. It undermines the narrative creativity which can put a biopic over the top and instead reduces it to a History Channel Sunday Night Special. While Mehta was tackling more important issues in Shahid than in his previous films, his manifestation as a by-the-books safety net director still hung with him. He found something more meaningful but was stuck in the routine trappings of his early-career unimaginative commercialism.

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Aligarh on the other hand, is his real breakthrough. The casting of Manoj Bhajpai (solidly reliable performance) in the lead role was an inspired first step to success, and the film’s aim to place S.R. Siras’s own beliefs, interests, and his moral character at the center of the film is commendable. Many directors would be too eager to use a media entity like Rajkumar Rao’s character Deepu as the noble cipher of the film, investigating and exposing further details of the case. Instead, Mehta is equally critical here of the overzealous liberal media as he is of the overzealous conservative religious. Siras is stuck in the middle only left to continuously recall the awful moments of the night where is homosexual relations were ripped from their innocent privacy into a world of contempt and unrelenting shaming. The actual issue surrounding Aligarh may end up being less about gay rights, and more about how clashes of media and social politics hardly ever end with the outcome of a winning side. It’s a testament to the volatile global culture of “us vs. them” which is a sensation created by people who feel strongly without much perspective. The use of the word “gay” is consistently put down by Siras himself:

“How can you reduce how I feel to just three letters”? The media sensationalism and talking points are also equally frustrating to him:

“I hate that word, lover. Do you even understand love? Love is such a beautiful thing. You people make it sound like a dirty thing.”

A seminal moment in the film, when Siras’s lawyer makes a compelling argument which ultimately wins the case, he turns back and Siras has his head leaned against the wall, snoring away. For him, his rights and his life are so deeply felt, so personally experienced, he cannot fathom such political diatribes, media talking points, liberal and conservative scuffles and monotonous proceedings of the Supreme Court being needed to justify himself as an equal person with equal beliefs.

The film isn’t quite as harsh or unforgiving as Tapan Sinha’s Ek Doctor Ki Maut, and Mehta certainly falls a few times into the over-explanation trap, where visuals of the violent invasion of privacy cannot be left to our own sick minds and must be shown exactly how they happened, something I felt completely chopped down the brilliance of the opening sequence, like a demented Rear Window sequence, with us in Jimmy Stewart’s shoes. But it is a testament to Mehta’s confidence as a filmmaker. He may never fully let go of his commercial roots, his safety net which even the best filmmakers sometimes cling to in momentary lapses, but he is certainly forging ahead on his journey he carved for himself, and Aligarh is a milestone which he may look back to as the moment he made a film which really mattered to him.

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