Last week, India’s censor board gave an upcoming Bollywood film about a gay professor an adult rating. Even the little-over-three-minute trailer of the movie, Aligarh, was deemed out of bounds for those below 18.
This enraged those behind the film—and several liberal Indians— who took to the social media to express their support with the hashtag, #ComeOut.
“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?” Pahlaj Nihalani, head of India’s censor board, said. Moreover, Nihalani brushed off the controversy as a cheap publicity stunt.
Aligarh is a biopic on Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, a homosexual professor of Marathi at the Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, who was hounded out of the campus for having sex with another man in a university room. The film has been directed by Hansal Mehta, written by Apurva Asrani, and stars Manoj Bajpayee as the protagonist, along with Rajkummar Rao.
In India, a colonial-era law deems homosexuality illegal. However, today (Feb. 2), India’s supreme court will decide whether it wants to reconsider keeping Section 377 in the statute books.
In a freewheeling interview in New Delhi, director Mehta spoke to Quartz about why censorship must go, the need for more films about India’s marginalised sections, and whether or not Bollywood can handle homosexuality. Mehta’s last film Shahid was based on the life of a Muslim lawyer who dies defending human rights, particularly for India’s Muslim minority.
Why is the story of professor Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras important to you?
I think the story of every marginalised person in our country is important. It is an important part of the modern-day narrative. It is as important as Rohith Vemula’s story. We ignore these people. We do not try to look at the reason for their frustration or their disillusionment with the world that is looking at them differently. We don’t look at them as human beings. Even now, they are disputing whether Rohith was a Dalit, rather than looking at the human side, rather than reading his letter, the pain, the lament, his frustration. This is my way of looking at life because the people who are supposed to look into these things are not interested… what we call the authorities, the government, the university, the institutional managers that have been appointed to govern our daily lives.
But when you tell such a story, you again come face-to-face with authority. In your case, the censor board…
If it is justified, I have no issues with the adult certificate per se. It means the film is not suitable for viewing by a certain set of audience based on the guidelines laid down vis-a-vis the Indian Cinematograph Act, 1952. I am against censorship; I am not against certification. You ask me for cuts, I am against that. My issue is with their censoring, and giving an arbitrary adult certificate to my trailer… The trailer is only a means of disseminating information about the film; about getting an audience interested in my film; the trailer is a benign piece of material. That getting an adult rating really got my goat.
I have launched it four weeks before the film’s release. An adult certificate means the trailer would have restricted viewing. It cannot be attached with any of the U certified films. It cannot be shown on prime time TV. So you’re restricting the audience that gets aware of the film. If the trailer had any level of vulgarity, titillation, violence, anything… it’s a soft, almost romantic trailer, why should it be certified A? You’re hampering the promotion of my film.
And I have issues with the cuts they asked me to make. Those cuts don’t make sense to me. I tried desperately to argue with the examining committee. And the examining committee obviously did not see reason. The tribunal would look into it hopefully, and I would get justice.
And it is sort of the same thing. How they look at my problem… instead of offering solutions, instead of looking into the reason for my dejection, Mr. Nihalani says this is a cheap publicity stunt. I feel like Rohith. You don’t want to address my frustration. You don’t want to address why I am dejected. You immediately dismiss it as a cheap publicity stunt. It is insulting to be told so. I have not resorted to this for 22 years of my career, and I never will.
This is a violation of my fundamental rights. This is a violation of my intelligence. He’s violating my intelligence, and in the process, displaying his own.
The certification is a very subjective matter. The guidelines are vague. So I am willing to have a healthy argument on that. Those cuts do not even fall under the purview of the Cinematograph Act, like what cannot be shown in the film.
For instance, haven’t you been asked to hack a scene in which Manoj Bajpayee is shown dozing off in a courtroom?
They have asked for it. I have not accepted the cuts. I had a similar problem when I showed Shahid to the examining committee. Sometimes the people on the examining committee interpret the censorship guidelines without any intellect. I don’t blame them. It’s like appearing for SSC board versus the CBSE board.
In the last one year, censorship has been in the news more than before. Censoring of films is arbitrary, and it lacks any coherent vision. What’s the way out?
Abolish the damn Central Board of Film Certification (the censor board) completely. It needs to be disbanded. We don’t need guidelines. What we need is certification. Have guidelines to certify films. Don’t cut films. Period. Just certify them. And I think the bigger solution is ideally the industry should be creating its own body that certifies films, that lays down guidelines, that lays down certification rules. It has to be from within the industry. Here the lines are even more muddled because there’s government interference in art. It is being controlled and censored by the state. That principally is an issue.
How do you deal with a subject like homosexuality in a country where it is banned?
I don’t deal with homosexuality; I deal with the human being. The story attracted me, because it was a personal story. I saw the possibility of telling a personal tale. A personal journey is what draws you in. Films are about people, and not about issues. The issues are part of the personal journey. It impacts the personal journey, it creates the atmosphere for that journey. It creates the path and the obstacles for the journey. Films are about people, and not about issues. For me, it was the character: A Marathi professor in Aligarh, hounded by a conservative system for his sexual orientation, within a homophobic society. So it’s about the person, his longing, his love. It’s just that. In that, homosexuality is his private choice. It’s his sexuality, what he does in his bedroom, with another consulting adult, it’s his business. And the film is about that, that somebody decided to meddle in his own personal business. And ruined his life.
Is Bollywood ready for homosexuality?
I think so. In general, Bollywood has its own population of gay men and women. It’s their choice whether they come out or not. They exist, they work, they are successful within the system, and they are respected people. In that sense, Bollywood has embraced homosexuality. In its films, the theme could be dealt with in a mature manner in times to come. Very few like My Brother Nikhil have handled it well. Margarita With a Straw dealt with homosexuality to an extent, but then it had too many themes, including disability. I think we are opening up. We are also coming out.
The story and screenplay are by Apurva Asrani, who is a homosexual. Did it help to have him write about a homosexual character?
That has never mattered. What happens is the story finds you. Apurva and I were working on City Lights at that time. And one fine morning I get this email from a Delhi girl called Ishani Banerjee with this story idea. And I found the idea interesting. I saw it in my junk box. I read it and I said let me think about it.
I told Apurva about this email, and said it would be the correct writing debut for him. He asked me, “Is it because I am gay?” That question was definitely there, though he didn’t ask me in those many words. The truth is that he is a gifted writer. And he wrote it not because he is gay. If the film is being appreciated, if it’s being liked, we owe that to him. He has poured his personal pain and angst.
What will a homophobic person take away from the film?
We have many kinds of margino-phobia, like Islamophobia and homophobia, or anyone on the margins or minority. During Shahid, the film was screened for the actors. And one of them came up to me and told me that “I was a kar sevak during the Babri Masjid demolition. And I am an RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) man, and I hate Muslims. And now I am looking at them differently. They are similar to us. They have a mother, they have a brother…The issues they deal with are the same…need to get married, earn money… I promise to look at it.”
So, Shahid provoked him to think about his own prejudices. I would just think if I make someone who’s a homophobic question his own prejudices, the film would have done his job. Let him debate within himself, stir an internal debate among members of society.