Deepu: are you gay, sir? [very long pause]
Professor Siras : how can someone describe my feelings in three letters?
This question comes from Deepu (Rajkumar Rao], a rookie journalist to professor Siras[Manoj Bajpai ] in Hansal Mehta’s 2016 brilliant film, Aligarh.
Siras does not like the word ‘gay” and does not like how the young describe things so very carelessly. He does not answer Deepu immediately, and in fact never answers any question in the film without first a deep, long reflection. What a cinematic treat for cinephiles! And there are many such treats/pauses in the film, so needed for the quick-to-judge, but it is this same dimension that also gives the movie its deep connection to the character that Bajpai portrays in his best role yet. The Siras character has many other layers including the fact that he is a Brahmin who calls the rickshaw puller a friend – someone he should not associate with, for rickshaw-wallahs are lowly. Thus, for both reality and film, caste-ism and exclusion, high caste and low caste are explored in the poetry, long pauses and human relations.
Professor Siras is a man of words. Yet, one word – gay – would condemn him to a life of isolation. His words and poems did not matter in the end; only his orientation that he kept hidden, in the privacy of his room. He published short stories and a poetry book in Marathi: “Paya Khalchi Hirawal” [Grass under my feet]:
“Oh dear moon,
Fear not the dawn that separates us,
For we must meet again,
When the world sleeps.”
He wrote beautiful words in the depressing room he lived, in a depressing university surrounded by depressing judgments and court procedures. Yet, he saw beauty in everything and everyone. He describes what he feels like poetry, in between words. In the silences. In the Pauses. You fall in love with this professor because he is so real and it is so easy to deeply feel the person Bajpai essays so extraordinarily seamlessly. You feel the loneliness and anguish in the long pauses of his eyes which the two songs [by Lata Mangeshkar] encapsulate so lyrically: “Aap ki nazaron ne samjha pyaar ke kabil mujhe” and “Betaab dil ki tamanna yahi hai” .
Siras’ words change us – the viewers – by their sheer force, but not his milieu. The more we invest in his experience the more we change our own, the way dr Louise banks changes in Arrival. She, too, is a linguist like Professor Siras, but she has to learn to communicate with aliens, not humans like Dr Siras. She decodes the ET language and begins to question her own reality, while Siras must appeal to the unpoetic, close-minded academia at AMU [Aligarh Muslim University] who condemns him for violating moral code.
Aligarh is a small movie based on an actual incident that is very difficult to watch precisely because it is not ‘just’ fiction. The central character – Dr Shrinivas Ramachandra Siras – was an esteemed professor of Marathi & head of the Classical Modern Indian Languages Faculty at AMU – Aligarh Muslim University. He was condemned to death for engaging in a homosexual act that is haram to Islam, even if it is in a country [India] where love and passion of the Kamasutra were born. In 2010 , he was set up, condemned, then expelled for “indulging in obscenity” and found dead days after a secret video of his liaison with a rickshaw driver was recorded then circulated.
In the current wake of the repeal of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, Bajpai laments:
“When I played the homosexual professor Ramchandra Siras in Aligarh, I realized what true loneliness is. The man’s isolation was more of an issue to me than his sexual orientation. I feel the Supreme Court verdict is a triumph for all discriminated and persecuted people of our country; whether it is segregation on the basis of sexual orientation, or gender, or caste or economical condition… we all need the law and the Government to support the weaker sections. If the Professor in Aligarh were alive today, he wouldn’t have to die.”
This, like professor Siras’ revoked sentence, which came a day after his death, comes eight years after this gentle beautiful soul that could have lived to create more words, tolerance and acceptance. He had given decades of his life to AMU teaching languages and opening minds, and had only six months left to retirement. No one knows or wishes to know whether his death was a suicide or not, because he was gay. India – Hindu or Muslim – has consistently opposed gay sex despite having already had a bid to repeal this in 2001 and having decriminalized it in 20029, one year before Siras’s death, which should have saved him. Laws almost always play an important role in changing mindsets, but the public is slow tp catch up because of their inherent biases. a court must recognize people’s rights to love, whether it is a love between an untouchable or Brahmin, and must uphold the dignity denied to the Sirases of India.
Siras moved outside the narrow confines of gayness [as a white male construct based on sex]. His gayness was vast, poetic, ‘gay’ as a lark singing poetry. Siras’ world brought gayness and homosexuality down to sex but for Siras it had nothing to do with sex. Sex was not the central issue, and the spaces that ‘gay’ define couldn’t hold, confine or define professor Siras.
History owes Siras an apology for ostracizing and sending him to his death, and sadly no amount of throwing the British out of their country again can bring back Siras.