Most faculty members in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences knew Ramchandra Siras, an associate professor of Marathi at Aligarh Muslim University, on whose life incidentAligarh is based. Those in other faculties had at least heard about him when he died a tragic death in 2010. The current students of the university, however, hardly knew him as usually a new set of students replaces the older set in 5-6 years’ period. Those who were familiar with Siras were impressed by Manoj Bajpayee’s look on the poster. The unshaven face resembled Siras’s. Bajpayee probably displayed the same withdrawn air, the same detached look bordering on indifference that defined Siras.
In Aligarh, the film was released in a multiplex at the Great Value Mall on February 26. This multiplex usually runs four movies at a time. It is located at Ramghat Road and is about 5-6 kilometres from the university campus. Most of the older localities of the city also have the same distance from this multiplex. Five kilometres may not mean much to the residents of big cities, but in a small city like Aligarh, this is not considered a short distance. It usually requires some effort and planning to see a film at the Great Value Mall. Students and faculty members of the university do not frequent this multiplex as they did some cinema halls which have now shut down. In recent years a number of cinema halls, some old and some new, including Grand Surjeet and Vadra Big Cinemas, have shut down, making it very difficult to see a film in Aligarh on the big screen. The real sufferers in this are the less-talked about films which come and go without inviting any attention, and the poor people who cannot afford tickets in the new multiplexes.
I reached the multiplex for the 7.15 pm show of Aligarh, little realizing that simply watching the film will turn out to be a political act of sorts (According to a Hindustan Times report; there was only one show of the film and that probably was it). To my surprise; I saw just 2-3 persons at the ticket window. The man at the ticket window told me that the show would not begin unless there were at least 10 viewers. The last time I was at this cinema hall was when I saw the Salman Khan starrer Bajrangi Bhaijaan and I was able to get tickets with great difficulty, even though the film was shown on all screens in the multiplex.
The show of Aligarh did start in a short while after there were about 10-12 persons, including a family with two small children. Because of the unusual situation, I was able to observe the audience a little bit, and I knew that half of them had come to see a film, any film, not necessarily Aligarh. I even tried to humour the small children in the belief that there was not much for them in the film.
The next day, 27th February, during the Convocation Ceremony of Aligarh Muslim University, I happened to discuss Aligarh with a few colleagues who showed curiosity in the film. In the evening I got a call from correspondents for both Times of India and the Indian Express, both inquiring about the screening of Aligarh in Aligarh. I learnt that “an unofficial ban” on the film had resulted in the film being removed from the theatre after the first day itself.
The protests against the film came from two quarters. The BJP Mayor of the city, Ms. Shakuntala Devi, has been quoted as saying: “This movie is against our culture. It is against the syncretic Ganga Jamuni culture of this city. It will bring bad name to our city.” Another city organization called Millat Bedari Committee had objections not against the contents of the film as such but against the title of the film. MBMC had written a letter to Mr. Arun Jaitley, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, objecting to the title of the film. “The title is not suitable and proper by any means. It will desist people to send their children toAligarh for studies”, one of the sentences in the letter read. It was not long before the issue was lapped up by TV channels.
Aligarh Muslim University had absolutely nothing to do with the removal of film from the theatre. The Vice-Chancellor of the university, Lt. Gen. Zameer Uddin Shah, is very much opposed to the idea of a ban, be it a book or a film. “It is my experience that banning anything excites curiosity and does not achieve the purpose for which the ban is imposed”, he said.
Many other teachers and students I spoke to wanted to see the film. It is certain that more students and faculty members would have watched the film if it had completed its full run at the theatre. This is likely to also be the case outside the campus in Aligarh city. Everyone does not watch a film on the first day itself.
What pressure worked on the theatre owners? The university was never in the picture. The district administration also made it clear that there was never any ban on the film. Millat Bedari Committee cannot possibly stop a film from being screened. Were the theatre owners scared because of the Mayor’s statement? Or, which is unlikely, they removed the film because of poor audience response and found those protests serves as a convenient ruse.
Is there some merit in the objections? How are Aligarh and Aligarh Muslim University represented in the film? Will the film really mark the city and the university permanently for homosexuality?
The choice of the title for a film is the prerogative of the filmmakers, not the audience, not the government, nor any other agency. Nobody owns a city whatever be the extent of his or her love for the city. The list of cities used in the titles of films is pretty long: Bombay, New Delhi, Simla, Lucknow, and many others. Aligarh has far too rich a culture and history to be affected by a film. Nobody will be gullible enough to believe that a trait or a certain orientation will be Aligarh-specific.
Does the film misrepresent Aligarh? A disclaimer at the beginning announces that the film is based on media reports. The film drops the word Muslim and refers to the university as simply Aligarh University. As a feature film Aligarh is not expected to be hundred percent true, just as Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani is not supposed to be hundred percent faithful to the personal and political history of the Peshwas. The crowd scenes in Aligarhshow Muslim boys, apparently the students of the University, in kurta-pyjama with skull caps. The students of Aligarh Muslim University are usually a very well-dressed lot; at any rate, they do not come out of their hostels and homes in kurta-pyjama. Siras talks about the actual campus of Aligarh Muslim University as “The best university campus in the country” though ironically, the campus shown in the film is hardly beautiful. In fact, the film was not shot at the Aligarh Muslim University campus. The Vice-Chancellor was of the view that “This is a very sensitive subject and that is why, to avoid controversy, we did not give permission for filming inside AMU premises.”
The university is certainly not painted in black and white terms in Aligarh. Despite being treated harshly, Siras never nurses any hostility towards the university. “I love Aligarh”, he tells Dipu, the reporter played by Rajkummar Rao. The university is presented as the third-best in the country. It is also praised for its historic character.
Aligarh Muslim University has never been a monolithic group. Rather one hears different points of view and conflicting discourses in the university on any issue. Aligarh introduces this contrarian discourse through the character of Tahir Islam, an Oxford-educated professor of philosophy at the university. He understands that the real issue in Siras’s case is not the homosexual orientation of Siras but the violation of his right to privacy. In fact, Hansal Mehta’s film is more about the violation of this right by the photo journalists than about homosexual relationships. However, Adil Murtuza, the journalist in question, considers “The story far from truth”, as it does not tell the truth of the rickshaw-puller, Irfan.
Hopefully the people of Aligarh get to see Aligarh soon and judge for themselves the representation or misrepresentation of Aligarh and its people.
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