Aligarh city is homophobic, but was director Hansal Mehta insensitive too?

The film ‘Aligarh’ revealed the real identity of Siras Ramachandra’s partner, following which the man has been traumatized and ostracized
Aligarh city is homophobic, but was director Hansal Mehta insensitive too?
Aligarh city is homophobic, but was director Hansal Mehta insensitive too?
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By Makepeace Sitlhou

While addressing JNU students at a screening of ‘Aligarh’ in the campus, filmmaker Hansal Mehta said, “Your azadi is important but it comes with responsibility. I hope whatever you do, it will be done with that responsibility”. But has the filmmaker followed his own advice in the making of his latest masterpiece?

Aligarh is based on the 2010 incident involving the late Professor Siras Shrinivas Ramachandra, who was suspended by the Aligarh Muslim University after a media crew barged into his house one evening and filmed him in a compromising position with a younger man. While the film has fictionalized many parts of the narrative, crucially it revealed the real identity of Siras’s partner.

Siras’s partner, a 35-year old Muslim man, has moved out of his residential neighbourhood in Aligarh with his wife and 5 daughters after the release of the movie, which stated his real name and where he lived. “My family and I are in a very bad state right now. I haven’t been able to go out for work since the movie came out. None of my relatives or family is speaking to me except for my sister, who has given me a place to stay. The other day, my wife went out to the market to buy vegetables and some people identified her and said, ‘Your husband has become famous now with Aligarh’, he said. 

Sarfaraz confirmed that a woman had called him about a movie they were making on Siras, with whom he had shared his side of the story. However, he was never informed that his real name and place of residence would be used. “If I commit suicide or something happens to me, Hansal Mehta should be held responsible”, he said sounding disturbed over the phone.

Mohammad Ali, the journalist who first reported on this for The Hindu, said that Sarfaraz (the alias he used for Siras’ partner) had been mentally traumatized and socially ostracized because of the whole incident. “He told me that no one from the production team had met him to obtain his consent to use his actual name. He said some woman contacted him saying she would come and meet him but nothing happened after that. To use a poor man’s real name was not right on the filmmakers’ part”.

Ali had also spoken to Mehta who told him, “A production team member had reached out to Sarfaraz. If he wants, he can reach out to us”. When this news report was raised in the JNU discussion, the film’s writer, Apurva Asrani, said, “The person in question has revealed his identity and done 16 interviews in 2013. He spoke to us too. What has transpired between then and now is just politics, which I’m not aware of. All I can say is that we have done our research and taken information from the public domain”. Over the years, Sarfaraz has often changed his testimony about his association with Siras as someone who was Siras’ partner to a rickshaw puller who was coerced by the professor, the version he gave to this journalist.

A local journalist in Aligarh, who did not wish to be named, said she met Sarfaraz around the time of the movie’s release. “People had already been talking about him as the gay professor’s lover. Why did they have to use his real name when they changed the names of other characters like Tariq Islam and Dr. Rahat (the then Public Relations Officer in AMU)? They even changed the name of the university to Aligarh University”, she said.

Deepu Sebastian, the journalist (played by Rajkumar Rao) in the film whose full name was used, said, “I think using his real name could have been avoided. While they got a verbal consent from me but even I did not anticipate the scale of popularity this movie would receive…that journalists would be talking to me about it. I can only imagine what his partner must be going through given that he’s in the most vulnerable position”.

There’s a category of men who have sex with men (MSM) in India, who do not necessarily self-identify (publically or privately) as ‘gay’. MSM are, often, also in heterosexual relationships (and marriages) and may not even consider same sex behavior (penetrative anal intercourse) as ‘sex’ but just masti or fun. A 2004 study conducted by Verma RK among rural Indian men found that 10 percent of single men and 3 percent of married men had engaged in same sex behavior.

Sarfaraz might have enjoyed more anonymity when the controversy first broke, since the media attention was mostly on the systemic persecution of an old professor who taught Marathi in a city where Urdu was celebrated. Neither of them wanted to label their relationship or be labeled ‘gay’. But Siras was well educated, had the support of activists and national media as well as access to a legal team, which led him to win his case against the university’s expulsion from the department and his quarters.

Anjali Gopalan of Naz Foundation was the activist who worked on Siras’ case, whose character in the movie was portrayed using a different name. “The only thing I can say is that they have only used his first name and there are several others in Aligarh with that name. On the legality of it, you’ll have to speak to a lawyer”, she said when asked whether it was okay for the filmmakers to use his real name given the stigma on homosexual relations.

When I contacted Anand Grover, Siras’ lawyer whose name was also changed in the movie, for a comment, he said he wasn’t aware of the facts of the case nor had he seen the movie.  

Beyond the legality of disclosing a person’s identity and location in a sensitive subject such as this, was there an ethical boundary that was crossed here even though parts of the movie were fictionalized? 

Rakesh Sharma, a filmmaker who made a documentary Final Solution on the 2002 Gujarat riots, seems to think so. He said, “When you’re making a movie based on a real person, you would look for details like how he looks, his mannerisms etc. Stings aired on a local channel may or may not have been seen and newspaper reports do not evoke the kind of sentimentality that movies do. And here we are talking about someone’s sexual orientation”.

In 2010, it was the legal and constitutional validity of the Naz judgment that led to Siras’ victory in court, albeit too late. Today, Sarfaraz has neither the law nor the ‘homophobic’ society of Aligarh on his side. If Sarfaraz was as well disposed as this gay man in Mumbai who took his blackmailer to court, he could sue the filmmaker for not obtaining prior informed consent.

Sarfaraz urged me to come and visit him in Aligarh to see the conditions he’s living in. Meanwhile, he says that DVD copies of the movie have been selling like hot cakes, even though the movie was only officially screened once in a mall. He feels entitled to reparations from the filmmakers for the discrimination he’s had to face because of the movie. 

The controversy has put Sebastian, a central character in the story, at unease with the movie. “It goes to show that things done with the best of intentions can have the most adverse effect”, he said. All attempts to reach Hansal Mehta for a comment were met with no response.

Makepeace Sitlhou is a freelance journalist and writer based in Bangalore. She tweets at @makesyoucakes

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.

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