The flawed and compassionate reality of being gay in Aligarh

No one’s perfect in Aligarh, not even the gay hero of the film. And that’s how it should be.

ByVikram Johri
The flawed and compassionate reality of being gay in Aligarh
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News that a woman has been arrested in Delhi for stabbing her lover, another woman, was reported in Mail Today on Thursday. Reading the grim details of the case, with the accused wanting a relationship with the victim who in turn wanted no truck with her after the former’s marriage, I was reminded me of a recent review of Aligarh published in DailyO.

Kalyani Prasher found the film wanting, and for this precise reason: “…in the only lovemaking scene between Dr Siras and Irfan, Irfan is so awkward and stiff, it seems like the professor is manipulating the young man instead of them being in an eight-month long mutual affair as the professor claims. ‘Ek teevr ichcha’ suddenly doesn’t sound so pretty. The intellectual audience can work it out for themselves – could be one of many things from them being awkward and shy to the mood of the day – but to an audience that is not sensitised to gay love, by which I mean almost everyone in India, it may look like, as someone I know put it, a creepy old uncle trying to force a young guy. Possibly using money.”

Kalyani’s larger point is well-taken, that a movie about homosexuals who have been poorly represented in Bollywood for so long should make the effort to edit out even the grey. But there remains a difference between a discomfort with what has so far been shown and the problem with what Kalyani, in good faith, is advocating.

I have written several times (here, most recently) about how gays have been reduced to caricature in our films, and that this has done grievous damage to not just how they are perceived by the straights but also to their self-image. With few role models to look up to and with Bollywood’s tremendous influence, gays have been given a raw deal by the film industry.

But is whitewashing the way ahead? Is a film like Aligarh — which explores sensitive and perhaps even offensive themes around class and lust — not a “good” film? And by “good” I mean not cinematically, but as an avenue to further the cause of gay rights. Aligarh may not, and has not, become a mass-market hit but artistically, is it a good idea for writers and directors to go the other extreme from what they have been doing so far and show gays only in positive light?

That would be problematic too, and not just for reasons of authenticity. Gays are no different from the straights in their personality, biases and prejudices. We are as good and as bad as the rest of you. To then either caricaturise us or to only show us as do-gooders is to take narrative control over our lives which is not only creatively limiting but also, if I may, smacks of condescension.

The greater point is that by showing only the good elements, we are at risk of overlooking the grievous psychological toll that alternative sexuality extracts in a society like ours. If anything, it is entirely natural to expect some level of awkwardness between Irfan and Dr Siras in their lovemaking scene in Aligarh. And I use ‘lovemaking’ merely as a moniker to soften the blow of the clear and present roughness of their sex. Irfan is new to all this while Dr Siras is a renaissance man who, from the look of it, carries the burden of his sexuality lightly. But, in fact, he is all fire and rage inside. His eyes burn with both the anger of his difference and his intense desire to sate it. No wonder he and Irfan don’t consummate their love smoothly. They would have to be emotionally stunted for that.

I am often asked why gay men are promiscuous. Well, for someone who has not undergone the natural phases of infatuation and flirtation in his younger days and only starts exploring his sexuality in his late 20s or early 30s, the force of his unspent youth and the exacting visions he has built for himself are unleashed in a torrent when he finally gathers the will and courage to tell himself he is ready. It is like passing through hoops of fire simply to be able to tell oneself that it is all right to love someone of the same sex, after one has learnt how dangerous it can be to confess that fact to the object of one’s affection or friends and family. The moment that crack in the consciousness is opened, the gay man will look everywhere to feel human, to be drowned in acts of intimacy that tell him that his desire is not crooked. If he were not promiscuous, we would have to wonder if he were even human.

That, in short, is the reality of gay men and women, and the reality that Aligarh captures. A married woman stabs her lover when the latter refuses her advances. It is easy to see this as a case of blithe criminality, of torrid desire gone wrong, but it would be far more educational to see this as an outcome of a society where a woman cannot love a woman, a man not a man, and they must either settle for straight institutions or spend lives of searing loneliness. If they, then, in real life take an extreme step, or in fiction, desire another ravenously, perhaps we ought to look at their crimes with a tiny sliver of compassion.

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