Shahid, Citylights and now Aligarh — director Hansal Mehta has no qualms about selecting risky subjects and holding a mirror up to society. His latest film, Aligarh, stars Manoj Bajpayee as Professor Siras who became the victim of deep prejudice and injustice when a sting operation was conducted in his private apartment. Siras was filmed in an intimate situation with a rickshaw puller. Rajkummar Rao plays a rookie journalist who sniffs a good story and befriends Siras, even as he exposes the unfairness in Siras’ suspension from the university. The director opens up about the film and taking on tough themes.
How would you describe Aligarh?
It’s a film about a beautiful life, a beautiful man and a beautiful relationship. It is a comment on the times we live in to, told in a very poetic way. Aligarh is also a mainstream film with two Lata Mangeshkar songs, an emotional core and a lightness of touch.
While people are praising Bajpayee’s work, Rao’s portrayal of the journalist is the glue that binds the film.
Manoj and Rajkummar are two of the country’s finest actors. Only a very mature and evolved actor like Raj could have taken on this character. If only our actors opened themselves up to a larger variety of roles. In Aligarh, Rajkummar’s Deepu and Manoj’s Siras feed off each other.
Do you think that Indian audiences have evolved?
I think they are far more evolved than we think they are. It is because we do not respect their intelligence that we make dumbed down films. Our audiences have always connected to the emotion in a film and Aligarh is a very emotional film.
Aligarh screened at the Busan, London and Mumbai film festivals. Does international recognition help market a film in India?
Not only does it help, but it encouraged us to go all out and show our film in previews four weeks before its release. Film festivals are evangelists for a film like ours. The Censor Board put a spoke in the wheel by giving our trailer an A certificate, thereby limiting its exhibition. We are largely restricted to digital media, but fortunately the number of evangelists supporting us is increasing, including Karan Johar and Shashi Tharoor. It’s also a coincidence, but a happy one, that our film screened in Delhi on the same day as the curative petition against the draconian Section 377 came up in the Supreme Court.
You seem to enjoy working on uncomfortable themes.
I wish I could ‘enjoy’ it. But it is uncomfortable to even make such films, which deal with these lives, their issues and their survival on a day-to-day basis. It takes an emotional and physical toll on me. As a filmmaker, I too am considered the other — a fringe filmmaker.
Aligarh releases on February 26.
— Udita Jhunjhunwala