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Aligarh: Queer Narrative in Indian Society

The Indian film industry, one of the largest in the world, has often been the subject of criticism for its often stereotypical, offensive and even derogatory portrayal of queer individuals. However, the 2015 film 'Aligarh' directed by Hansal Mehta challenges this narrative. This paper intends to provide a critical examination of 'Aligarh', focusing on its nuanced depiction of the struggles faced by a gay person in the conservative Indian society.

The movie is based on the real-life narrative of Srinivas Ramachnadra Siras, a professor of the Marathi language at Aligarh Muslim University and brings out the tale of agony and the ordeals he goes through after his private life goes public because of a sting operation done by a local TV channel when he was with his male partner. He was, then, suspended from his position on the grounds of gross misconduct in accordance with the principles of morality set by the University, simply because he was gay.

The movie is a mirror to Indian Society displaying the mindset of people in the society be it the highly-educated ones. The movie exhibited how the society emphasizes its heteronormative structure while objecting to other sexual orientation. The movie also conveys a subtle commentary on the apparent identity and class-divide in the society, reflected over the course of Siras's seeking of justice against the atrocities meted upon him. The performance beautifully portrayed victimization and acceptance by Siras of his identity. Throughout his journey of self-discovery, he refuses to label himself as gay. He displays courage by not adhering to the binary subsets and towards any other category.

Being an introvert, he wishes to keep his identity hidden. He views any invasion of his privacy as an affront to his honor and self-respect. He contends that a simple three-letter label lacks the power to define his inner emotions, and for him, love as a sentiment carries a far greater significance.

Another brilliant aspect of the movie is Deepu Sebastian, a journalist by profession, who comes in Siras's contact and respects and accepts him with his true identity. Deepu's character is portrayed as wild and carefree, yet at the same time having a sensitive and empathetic approach towards life. Deepu's character acts as an intersectional allyship representing a fresh mindset that is accepting of a person without associating a gender label to it.

The various courtroom scenes across the movie stand as the edifices for this cinematic masterpiece. Through the depiction of foundational questions of constitutionality, morality, and legality, the director successfully presents to us the intersection between legal justice and backward societal thinking.

Similar to the case of 'Navtej Singh Johar v. Union of India' filed by Navtej Singh, a dancer from the LGBT+ community, which was a landmark judgment by the Supreme Court of India. The Court decriminalized homosexuality and recognized the rights of the LGBT+ community. The main issue was the constitutionality of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 which criminalized consensual sexual intercourse between adults of same sex. The arguments advanced based heavily on the grounds of right to sexuality, sexual autonomy, and choice of sexual partner which are part of Article 21 of the Constitution.

They also contended that the LGBT community faced humiliation because of their lifestyle or choices, which violated their right to privacy as can be clearly seen in the movie where the identity of Siras was exposed against his choices as media barged into his house. The forced revelation of a person's sexuality and the harsh repercussions inflicted by society can be so extreme that they damage the individual's mental health and disrupt their lives.

However, a thought-provoking question raised by Siras's lawyer grabs the audience's attention when he asks "Is the interpretation of morality meant to be identical for everyone?" The director prompts you to reflect on whether your moral standards are your own interpretation of the term "moral", or if they are influenced by societal norms, much like how gender roles are ingrained in us.

There are several legal precedents that have advanced LGBT+ protections. These include the National Legal Services Authority v Union of India, which affirmed the constitutional rights of transgender individuals, including the right to self-identify their gender and led to the recognition of a third gender in India. The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act, 2019; the Domestic Violence Act, 2005, which also covers transgender women; and the landmark Puttaswamy Case, which guarantees queer individuals the right to engage in intimate relationships of their choice, as well as the right to sexual orientation and gender identity.

Furthermore, if the nation's Constitution provides a citizen with a particular fundamental right, is a third party, University in the movie, allowed to create a hindrance to that right? Is it justified that these hindrances take place at the expense of the professor's privacy and reputation at the University and his choice to tell the public at large about his sexual orientation.

Regrettably, the movie doesn't explicitly address the plight of the rickshaw puller and the infringement of his rights. The cursory portrayal of his character reveals the extent of discrimination and prejudice against queer individuals in a heteronormative society, simply because he is a poor Muslim youth.

It's as if his lower socio-economic status deprives him of his fundamental rights, even by the very judicial system that is supposed to ensure justice. The film subtly suggests that justice is only for the wealthy, prompting you to question when you might become part of a class that lacks access to justice, or if you are already part of that class.

Despite this, the foresight behind this film was progressive, as it imprinted powerful concepts that remain relevant today. Ultimately, the audience is left grappling with a variety of questions on subjects such as personal sexuality, ethics, privacy, and power dynamics.

As Siras bravely withstands the onslaught of criticism and censure in the aftermath, his ordeal also acts as a spark for transformation, igniting a societal revolution. However, his premature and enigmatic demise casts a shadow over the advancements in LGBTQ+ rights, demonstrating that we, as a nation, have a long journey ahead before a comprehensive shift towards liberal thought is integrated into the societal fabric of our judgmental society.

Aligarh's co-writer and editor, Apurva Asrani, uses the well-known facts of the Siras's incident to present an intimate portrait of an individual's struggle against rejection and loneliness. In a poignant scene, Deepu takes a selfie with Siras. Upon seeing the photo, Siras expresses his dislike for his own image, illustrating the extent to which societal prejudice has impacted his self-esteem.

The moment becomes even more emotional when Deepu compliments Siras, causing him to blush slightly. The actors' tearful expressions add to the scene's intensity. It raises the question: Is it truly immoral to love someone or to be someone who doesn't conform to societal labels?

Indeed, the paper would be incomplete without mentioning a dialogue by Siras, where he expresses a desire to relocate to America, believing there would be no backlash there regarding his sexual orientation. He wouldn't need to defend his identity, preferences, or even who he loves. People there wouldn't concern themselves with these private matters.

This poignant scene and dialogue highlight the harsh reality of Indian society, where people readily call each other brothers and sisters but refuse to accept someone simply because they are different. But can we truly label it as a difference? Sexual orientation isn't a choice; it's something you're born with. It's not as if one day you woke up and decided to be straight. It's an inherent part of us.

The societal outrage and rejection faced by Siras due to his sexuality prompts us to question whether the heteronormative Indian society will ever embrace someone who doesn't conform to its established norms and regulations. There's a need to disrupt these performances, but such actions are met with punishment. Can a society that ostracizes, belittles, and humiliates individuals for their authentic selves ever move past its traditional mindset?

The future appears uncertain. The recent 2023 Same-Sex Marriage Judgment demonstrates the extent to which Indian society is willing to alienate anyone who dares to deviate slightly from their ingrained standards. People should not have the authority to interfere in someone else's personal affairs, but unfortunately, there's still a long road ahead.

It's not all disheartening. There are many individuals who warmly accept and acknowledge the existence of queer people. In conclusion, the journey towards acceptance and understanding of all sexual orientations is a continuous process. It's heartening to see the progress made so far, with increasing recognition of LGBTQ+ rights and growing societal acceptance.

However, there's still a long way to go. It's crucial that we continue to foster an environment of respect, empathy, and inclusivity, where everyone is celebrated for who they are. The future holds promise, and with collective effort, we can hope for a world where love transcends labels, and diversity is not just accepted, but embraced.

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