Aligarh may not have been made, if Hansal Mehta did not check his junk mail

Mohini Chaudhuri | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on February 19, 2016

Reconstructing a life Hansal Mehta (left), the director of Aligarh, along with Apurva Asrani, the film’s editor. The story is based on the life of the late Aligarh Muslim University professor Dr Shrinivas Siras Photo: Paul Noronha

A long-neglected email about the suicide of a gay professor led Hansal Mehta to make Aligarh, his latest film

The junk folder of filmmaker Hansal Mehta’s email inbox is a treasure trove. At the time of editing his last film City Lights, he was poking around it when he found an unopened email that said ‘idea for a film’. Lying inside was a news article on the death of Dr Shrinivas Siras, a professor at the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), who was secretly filmed having sex with a rickshaw puller at his home. A year later, Mehta had fleshed out the tip-off into a feature film titled Aligarh, with actor Manoj Bajpai bringing to life Siras’s last days. Not surprisingly, he has been keeping a close watch on his junk folder ever since. “Even recently a senior journalist who had interviewed me many years ago sent me a very interesting idea. And can you believe it, it again landed in my junk box,” he says, with a laugh.

The timing of the email was rather serendipitous. While discussing it with his editor Apurva Asrani over a muffin, Mehta was surprised that he already knew a fair amount about Siras. “The day he died in 2010, I was on a TV channel for a debate. I quickly did some research on him before we went live. The first thing the newscaster said was, ‘This is Apurva Asrani who is a writer — which I wasn’t — and is gay’,” he says, rolling his eyes in disbelief. “Anyway, I followed the story after that but it just disappeared from the headlines in three days.” Being an editor for nearly two decades in the industry had made Asrani weary of being just a “cutter and joiner”. Siras’s story is one he wanted to write himself.

Siras was found dead a few hours after his suspected suicide in 2010. At 64, he was at the cusp of retirement, and living alone in a flat in Aligarh. After the video of the sting operation got out, he was humiliated and ousted from the university he had served for 20 years. Five years ago, sex between homosexuals wasn’t illegal, so Siras won the case he reluctantly fought against the university. But it was too little, too late. There isn’t a lot known about him. In fact, much of his ordeal was pieced together with the help of a few interviews he gave journalist Deepu Sebastian (played by Rajkummar Rao). But it was evident that Siras was an outlier — he was a Marathi professor in an Urdu-speaking city; and a single, gay man. “He was painted by his peers and students as someone who was a dirty, filthy person,” says Asrani. During his research with Ishani Banerjee, a PR executive whose email to Mehta set the ball rolling, they spoke to a few students at AMU. “Some were forthcoming, many were hostile. Some agreed to help initially and then backed out,” says Asrani, adding that he tried getting in touch with Siras’s family too, but they too wanted no part of it.

“The more we got into it, we realised one could have never got into the confines of his bedroom to know what his private life was like. There one would have to speculate. So I began to draw experiences from my own life,” says Asrani, who has been vocal about his sexual orientation. “An issue that gets my goat is that to rent a place in Mumbai you have to be a ‘family man’. One has to go through these society members who will judge you and put you in a box. My partner and I were living together in Andheri and they actually got my help to check up on the kind of relationship we had. One day I came back from work and the watchman said I wasn’t allowed inside. I begged my landlord to let me enter and he gave me two hours to clear my things out,” he adds. In the film, Siras goes through as much.

Both Mehta and Asrani, however, state that the film is not about homosexuality or a pitch for gay rights. When asked if he was gay, the Siras in the film says he can’t be described in just three letters. “I never saw him (Siras) as a homosexual. I saw him as a professor who was very lovable. He was a poet who loved Lata Mangeshkar songs and his glass of whiskey,” says Mehta, calling it his most romantic film. “For me the central idea was the violation of a man’s private space. If he had forcibly brought a man to his house and raped him, there are laws to punish him. But we nipped a beautiful life in the bud because we chose to invade a space that has nothing to do with us. We kill men like him every day because we are voyeuristic,” adds Asrani.

Yet, the release of this film at the time when a curative petition against Section 377 is being reviewed by the Supreme Court, makes it important. “The film is always going to be relevant because the law might change but it is society’s attitude that still needs to change. And the film is going to be significant in doing that. This law is just a beginning,” says Mehta.

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Published on February 19, 2016
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