The film writer and editor, who frequently collaborates with Hansal Mehta, is in the news these days with his next film, Aligarh, starring Manoj Bajpai and Rajkummar Rao. Given the heartwarming but controversial subject of the film, this is one of the bravest attempts anyone has made in a long time to use cinema to incite social change.
Apurva Asrani is the quintessential tall-smart-handsome man – when we walk into a posh city café, I notice quite a few women approvingly checking him out. When you meet him, you realise he looks more like an actor than someone behind the camera. Asrani is an award winning film editor and writer, having edited films like Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya at the age of 19. Yes, you should read that again. He has been a regular collaborator with Hansal Mehta, having co-written and edited the much-acclaimed Shahid, Citylights and now, Aligarh. Asrani has worked with the best of mainstream and independent cinema, and I wonder why he is not as well known as he should be.
Aligarh has been creating quite a buzz recently, having been applauded internationally and in the country. It’s based on the real life story of Dr. Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras, a professor of Marathi at Aligarh University, who was suspended for his sexual orientation and later died in suspicious circumstances. The film is a vocal demand for the right to privacy, and it discusses gay rights in the modern Indian context without becoming a preachy public service ad. “We have screened the film at the Busan Film Festival and British Film Festival, and most people were extremely moved by the film,” says Asrani. “But I think the film is to be experienced on a personal level by each individual, because it makes you question a lot of things that you believe in. We are still to show it to the Censor Board, but I am not afraid because as a team, when you make a film like Aligarh or Shahid, you desire a change within society. You want a debate to begin. I firmly believe that the film will find its audience, it talks about a subject we have been pussy-footing about and it does not make a mockery of the character and his sexuality, at the same time without actually being activistic on the face of it.”
But how does one sell a film like this to the regular Indian movie goer? “Yes, the film is about one’s right to sexuality, but more importantly the film stands against labelling and slotting. As a society we tend to do that. I think the human brain is far more evolved. I would hate to see an individual being held back because of his label. So we are trying to say that whether a man is gay or straight is nobody’s business. It is his prerogative to “out” himself or “in” himself. You and I can live my life a certain way, but we cannot demand other people live life our way too. And we need to respect their choices.”
India is not the happiest place for minorities of any kind, and to make a film like Aligarh, which protests against the very fact of calling out minorities and rebuking them and their choices, is not only commendable but also the need of the hour. The interesting bit is that the Indian LGBT community can be extremely critical and judgemental itself. While Asrani, thankfully, talks of allowing individuals to decide how “out” there they want to be, Indian gay activists put a stressful amount of importance on something like a pride parade and being visible. Also, there are a variety of sub-labels that gay men and women want to slot other gay people into – top, bottom, jock, otter, straight-acting and so forth, not to mention the continuous barrage of hate that bisexuals are at the receiving end of. What does Asrani make of the Indian gay community and its lifestyle? “See, the man who started Humsafar Trust and Bombay Dost, Ashok Row Kavi, has been a very important figure in my life. I have looked up to him from a very young age and he has been a part of my journey, and because of people like him, a lot of us are comfortable with our sexualities today. We need them and must applaud their efforts. But at the same time, you have no right to pull someone out of his closet. Ashok has the choice to wear whichever label he wants to wear. But if someone like Dr. Siras does not want to wear the same label, that should be respected. Also, I am not a part of the “gay scene” but when I observe it in India today, I don’t think it is original. It borrows terms and lifestyles from the west that were prevalent there thirty years ago. I think we need to embrace our own cultural connotations of homosexuality and bisexuality rather than following what has been appropriated by the west.” Wise words, indeed.