Last week, the Censor Board of India gave the trailer of director Hansal Mehta’s critically-acclaimed film Aligarh, an adult (A) rating. An adult rating means the trailer cannot be promoted alongside 90 percent of the films being screened in theatres. Or shown on television before 10 pm. The director told the Indian Express that the Censor Board had issues with the film’s subject: homosexuality. “At a time when there’s a need for discussion on the subject, we are being muted,” remarked the film’s script writer, Apurva Asrani. One can only agree.
Aligarh‘s cinematographer, Satya, told Silverscreen.in, “I
Aligarh is a retelling of real life incidents which led to the suicide of Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, a professor of Marathi at the Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh. Siras was hounded by University authorities and local residents, after he was discovered having sex with a man in his room. Actor Manoj Bajpai plays Siras, while Rajkumar Rao plays the reporter who covered this incident for Indian Express.
India is one of more than 70 countries which effectively criminalises homosexuality. LGBT activists have argued that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code has often been used by the police and other institutions to harass homosexuals, transpersons, and sex workers. In the past 15 years, there has been a growing coalition of activists who have rallied against this 155-year old law. On February 2, 2016, the Supreme Court of India decided to take another look at a controversial decision that upheld Section 377, calling it a “matter of constitutional importance”.
The trailer shows Bajpai and Rao talking about life and love. An excited Rao approaches his editor, and says he has an important story idea. It ends with a shot of a nervous Bajpai hiding behind a window. Hiding inside his house from society. “How can someone sum up my feeling in three letters?” asks Bajpai, when Rao asks him if the conspiracy against him began because he was gay.
There are no innuendo-filled dialogues. No explicit sex scenes. No preaching of hatred against any community.
The makers and supporters of Aligarh have started a hashtag #ComeOut on Twitter to register their protest against the censor board’s act.
— Hansal Mehta (@mehtahansal) February 4, 2016
In an interview with the Hindustan Times, Pahlaj Nihalani, the chairperson of the censor board, justified the adult rating for the film thus, “The certification we have given to the trailer is according to the content. If the makers feel it is not justified then let them take a public opinion on this. Tell me, is the subject of homosexuality for kids? For teenagers?” According to psychiatrists and activists, it is. While world statistics have identified LGBT children and teenagers as being in a high-risk category for suicide, in India, mental health experts say that, “counsellors dealt with at least one [LGBT young] person who had attempted or talked about suicide each month.” In late 2015, a Chennai-based LGBT group confirmed that 16 members had committed suicide in the past 18 months. In this video, children in the United States respond to the positive ruling on same-sex marriage in their country, demonstrating a high capacity for empathy and acceptance. Ironically, during his acting career, Pahlaj Nihalani had no difficulties making raunchy films for a public audience. ***** Nihalani went on to accuse Hansal Mehta of staging a ‘cheap publicity stunt’, “We have already cleared the film and now they are creating a controversy”. Hansal Mehta’s reaction to Nihalani’s comment was that he would rather “sell underwear on street than use Nihalani for publicity”. “Sexuality is something that young people grapple [with] in today’s times,” he told the Indian Express. When the Examining Committee gave the trailer an A certificate, he reportedly tried to explain to the committee that an U/A certificate for the film was very important, because then youngsters could gain an understanding of their own sexuality, and not have to deal with the effects of a repressed mindset as adults. Referring to the recent suicide of Rohit Vemula, a Dalit activist-scholar at Hyderabad Central University, Mehta told the paper, “These people find a very simplistic justification for any wrong that they commit.
When they invade institutions like the Hyderabad University where a student has ended his life, instead of addressing the students’ frustration, they are busy trying to prove that the he was not a Dalit.
Similarly, here too, instead of trying to look at why I am upset and what I am trying to address, they are saying that I am resorting to cheap publicity.” Deepu Edmond Sebastian, the reporter Rajkumar Rao’s character is based on, told Silverscreen.in, “On this topic, one shouldn’t restrict people from watching it. Some other movie, I may have said you need to impose such restrictions.” The reporter, who now lives in Chennai, said that the film has done justice to the incident. “The one reason I trusted them with the material is that they were sensitive towards the issue. A man committed suicide and the film doesn’t restrict his identity merely to his sexual preference. Siras was much more than his sexuality. He was a teacher, he wanted to be a writer,” said Deepu. In an interview with Quartz, Mehta echoed Deepu’s words, “I don’t deal with homosexuality; I deal with the human being.” ***** Manoj Bajpai, who plays the central character in the film, told the Times of India, “The word ‘censor’ should be deleted from the Central Board of Film Certification. It negates the concept of democracy. How can seven people with different biases decide to give ‘Aligarh‘ an ‘A’ and pass trailers of sex comedies with a `U’ or `UA’? Diktats change with every film, it’s time to let go of censorship and move to certification.”
Journalist Barkha Dutt tweeted support for the film:
— barkha dutt (@BDUTT) February 2, 2016
Director Anurag Kashyap tweeted:
“Aligarh” trailer has been given the A certificate because the film is about what all the Pahlaj Nihalani’s of Aligarh did to one man.. — Anurag Kashyap (@anuragkashyap72) January 30, 2016
Actor Siddharth has also supported the film:
— Siddharth (@Actor_Siddharth) January 31, 2016
Editor TS Suresh tweeted:
Neelima Kulkarni also threw in her support:
— Neelima Kulkarni (@starneelima) February 2, 2016
*****In 2015, the Censor Board had banned Unfreedom (2014), a film which explores issues of fundamentalism and freedom, and includes a romantic relationship between two women. According to the censor board, “the film will ignite unnatural passion” (sic). Legal researcher Lawrence Liang critiqued the reasoning of the censor board which “condemns citizens into a state of perpetual infancy.” He argued instead that “we have lived with this medium for over a hundred years” and cited a 1983 decision directed at the Censor Board, which said, “Our standards must be so framed that we are not reduced to a level where the protection of the least capable and the most depraved amongst us determines what the morally healthy cannot view or read.”
A 2013 Gujarati independent film, Meghdhanushya: The Color of Life, failed to clear the state’s censor and tax hurdles on the grounds that homosexuality was unacceptable for the Indian society, and the film could disturb law and order. When Kiran Kumar Devmani took the issue to the Supreme Court, he was told by the apex court that since some Indians regarded homosexuality as a “social evil,” the court needed more time to study the matter. The court delayed ruling on whether the film should be granted the tax break and the film has since been lying in the cans.
In a recent interview with the Los Angeles Times, Devmani said, “In big Bollywood films there have been plenty of gay characters, but people poke fun at these characters and then forget them.” Many mainstream films like Kal Ho Na Ho, Student Of The Year and the recent Katti Batti, have featured homosexual characters as abnormal one-dimensional figures who only appear to lust after people. While these films have run into no censorship issues on this ground, every serious film on homosexuality (Fire, I am, My Brother Nikhil) has had to go through tough censorship hurdles in India.Interestingly, in January 2016, the censor board had cleared the trailers of sex-comedies Mastizaade and Kya Kool Hein Hum 3 without a single cut.
At the recent Bengaluru International Film Festival (BIFFES) 2016, Mani Ratnam had said that “censorship is often misused by the party in power”. He might as well have added, by the ignorance in power. In a recent TOI poll, 49% of those voting said that Section 377 should not be repealed. When asked why, many said, “because repeal of 377 will make people gay”. Nihalani’s understanding of the issue seems pitched around there.
It might be another twenty years before a film like Aligarh gets a tax-cut for bringing awareness and humanity to a largely misunderstood issue, instead of an ‘A’ rating from the censor board. And another thirty, before the eye of the censor board turns on sex comedies which denigrate certain sections of society. We can hope.