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London Film Festival 2015: ‘Aligarh’ – Old India vs New India…

London Film Festival 2015: ‘Aligarh’ – Old India vs New India…

October 15 2015

Based on a true story, this film got one of its first ever screenings at the London Film Festival…

IT’S BOLD, it’s different and in an Indian context, it’s quite controversial.

Those of you familiar with indie filmmaking scene in India will probably have heard of Hansal Mehta, whose latest film, “Aligarh” had its last screening on Tuesday (October 13) in the London Film Festival (LFF).

Both screenings at this country’s largest film festival were sold out and director Mehta and screenwriter Apurva Asrani were delighted with the reaction at Cine Lumiere, Kensington. They even tweeted about the quality of the Q&A post screening. The film was screened as part of the ‘Debate’ section, bringing together films, which ‘amplify, scrutinise, argue and surprise’. Yes, “Aligarh” does all this.

Firstly, forget all the politics and just sit down and judge it just as a film, like any other.

It’s a well-crafted production with a lovely understated central performance by Manoj Bajpayee and a great turn also from the younger Rajkummar Rao as a puppyish young reporter looking to earn his spurs.

Rajkummar Rao as investigative journalist Deepu Sebastian with Manoj Bajpayee as Professor Siras

‘Aligarh’ is ostensibly about a college lecturer who is caught on video in his own bedroom kissing another man.

As a result – and somewhat supported by a very distinct change in Indian law more recently – the college lecturer (known as ‘Professor Siras’ in the film) is deemed to have broken the law, brought the college into disrepute and is summarily dismissed by his employers, the much venerated Aligarh Muslim University.

The is no religious dimension to this when you consider most of Indian society is innately conservative anyway and all religious groups in India are opposed to any form of sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman.

To many in the West and obviously to liberal-minded Indians, the actions of the university appear shockingly repressive and downright idiotic in the 21st century.

What the film does extremely well is to pose the absurdity of the college’s position and turn the spotlight on the motivations of those who took the offending shots and principally the camera operators’ paymasters…

To delve any further into that aspect would be to tell you a bit too much about the film and its central conceit – suffice to say, it’s even based on a real life incident.

Mehta, whom met at the LFF director tea at the Hotel Washington in Mayfair on Monday (October 12) told us how “Aligarh” came about.

“It was through an email from a stranger,” Mehta explained. “I passed it onto Apurva – he was aware of the real incident, I wasn’t.”

The film was made in and around Bareilly, a fairly non-descript town in Uttar Pradesh, over 150 miles west from the capital, Delhi.

They couldn’t shoot in Aligarh because of the sensitivities of the real incident and some of the political issues the film touches on.

It has been produced by Eros International, the large Bollywood studio, which is beginning to take on films with more of a social edge alongside their usual star-driven Bollywood blockbuster content.

Professor Siras (Manoj Bajpayee) awaits an uncertain fate just before retirement, as some friends rally, while others shun him

“I’ve been urging Apurva to write, he’s edited some of my films,” said Mehta returning to Aligarh’s genesis. “Aligarh” is Mehta’s 11th film.

He doesn’t expect there to be trouble with India’s censor board – since the more socially Conservative BJP came into power under leader Narenda Modi, there have been worries about what sort of films will get approved for release in India.

The film does not depict any real physical intimacy between men – and merely implies it – but does contain a very fleeting, gentle kiss.

Conservative forces in India appear to be in the ascendancy and the return of section 377 to the Indian penal code, forbidding homosexual relations, has only further bolstered opposition to more liberal tendencies among Indian society (which led to section 377’s initial repeal).

“There’s a certain honesty in the way that the story has been told that normally resonates with an audience and it does not really lead to a backlash – it’s only when you are trying to be manipulative or sensational for the sake of being sensational, there’s trouble,” declared Mehta.

He said Bajpayee, who is one of India’s best known independent film actors and whom Mehta has known since his first film, had been urging the director to make a film for him.

“He’s been my buddy,” said Mehta. “I didn’t need to convince him – as an actor he will do anything for the character and we did the kiss scene on the first day of shooting.”

What is probably most impressive about the film, especially in an Indian filmmaking context, is its subtely. It lets you make up your own mind, and does not seek to preach or lecture and the central characters are rounded and flawed.

Equally, the character Bajpayee plays is complex, cultured and always carries a sense of dignity and poise, despite the indignities inflicted upon him.

A Marathi poet, romantic and socially conservative (at one point he talks about Brahmin rules when eating), he is essentially a quiet and private man, and no bother to anyone – except what he does in his own home behind closed doors becomes a matter of intense public and legal scrutiny.

The film in some senses will sensationally open the influential Mumbai Film Festival on October 30.

'Aligarh' is Hansal Mehta's 11th film and he won the award for best direction at India National Film Awards in 2013

It will be the first time since the festival started in 1997 that it will open with a film in Hindi.

Known officially as the 17th Jio Mami Mumbai Film Festival, it is organised by distinguished filmmakers, many of whom have Bollywood connections, but the festival showcases the best of world cinema and Indian films with more of a political and social dimension.

Mehta’s best known film, “Shahid”, won a clutch of different awards both abroad and at home, including the best director accolade at India’s National Film Awards in 2013 and also was about another outsider.

Screened at that year’s London Indian Film Festival, it featured a Muslim man who flirts with terrorism but then becomes an advocate for human rights and the film revolves around a court battle.

“It gave me my individual voice,” Mehta told acv. “ It got me back – I did a lot of exploring of what I wanted to make and then I made ‘Shahid’.

It was a critical and commercial success.

Mehta began his career in television, making a hugely popular cookery show called “Khana Khazana“.

His debut feature “Jayate” (‘Victory’) in 1998 also featured court room scenes and revolved around medical malpractice. His second film, “Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar” found an audience and was listed by UK’s Sight and Sound film mag as an underrated work in world cinema.

In his acv chat, he did suggest he lost his way a bit, “flirting with Bollywood” – though “Chhai” a Mumbai gangster film infused with the style of a Hong Kong thriller did acquire a cult following but it was not until “Shahid” and the yet more recent “Citylights” a remake of a British indie film, “Metro Manila” for India’s Fox star Studios, that he began to feel his filmmaking mattered.

It does and ‘Aligarh’ is expected to get a UK release in early 2016. We will keep you posted…

  • The London Film Festival continues until Sunday, October 18 and of the Indian films still screening: ‘Guilty‘ tomorrow (Friday), 8.45pm, NFT1, Sunday at 11.30am Odeon Leicester Square; ‘Kothanodi‘ Saturday (October 17) 6pm, ICA; Sunday, 8.30pm, NFT2.
  • Cannes Palme d’Or winner ‘Dheepan‘ about Sri Lankan refugees settling in France, Friday, Picturehouse Central, 6.30pm; Saturday, Odeon Leicester Square, 2.15pm;
  • Sherpa‘ (about Nepal) Sunday, Cineworld Haymarket, 12.30pm
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Written by Asian Culture Vulture