An Outsider Amongst Us
A quiet man at the University suddenly finds himself in the spotlight and he does not like it. How can a life be reduced by one word? Slogans and help are raised in other parts of India to help him. But then his pain is his own. And even then he knows he's the outsider. Alone. This is a tale of nuances and Manoj Bajpayee's performance is a masterclass. Unmissable.
If you googled Professor Srinivas Ramchandra Siras, you would open page after page after page of how we as a society failed an individual. And we continue to do so even today. The state hides behind ancient laws, and we hide behind homophobia instilled into us by years of false information propagated by self-interest groups.
A man who was doing his job quietly for over twenty years, away from home and family for thirty is singled out for being different. And it is done so shamefully, a young journalist driven by the need to see how the professor is faring. What the young journalist discovers is a man who is gentle and eccentric and old. And a victim to a systematic conspiracy to humiliate him.
Through the young reporter's eyes, we meet Professor Siras. Rajkummar Rao does a wonderful job to represent all of us, who have so much sympathy for someone who has been unfairly treated. How cleverly the script takes that sympathy and turns it into empathy! We find ourselves drowning in moments that are made unforgettable by Manoj Bajpayee.
'Aapki nazron ne samjha pyaar ke kaabil mujhe' is the song that comes out from the red two in one, and professor Siras is sitting in front of that altar of songs that mean so much. To watch Manoj Bajpayee lost in that song is a treat indeed. It's like being in a masterclass of acting. That song suddenly becomes more than just a love song. It's a cry for acceptance.
If there was any scene that should be put into a time capsule for posterity, a scene you should put into a textbook as essential for acting, this would be it.
Also the loneliness of this man, who lives in an apartment that has grills on windows everywhere, three locks on the door... No one can miss it. It is there for everyone to see. The loneliness of being Prof. Siras.
Manoj Bajpayee's persona seems to shrink in every scene, as though he is embarrassed to be there. When he's sitting at the doctor's to have his blood pressure checked, when he's sitting in his own home - his body language shows he gathers himself from occupying more space than needed.
Imagine living an entire life hiding from people, on the fringes, afraid to breathe. Imagine being pushed out of your comfort zone, your home, unceremoniously. Again and again. And not when you are young and resilient, but when you're older and ready to retire.
The easy bond that develops between the journalist and the professor is so natural, you forget that the professor has been accused of 'unnatural acts', you only understand the need of this quiet man to belong to someone, to belong to a society, to not be labled 'an outsider' in your own hometown.
Does Aligarh even consider him as one its own?
'Bachelor hoon baba! I have to cook for myself!'
'I am very much disturbed'
'We are brahmins, and you touched the daal...'
Manoj Bajpayee manages these very simple speech inflections of a Marathi person so easily and naturally, that it is hard to imagine him as a lecherous bad guy in Gangs Of Wasseypur of the boxer shorts-clad ruffian from Tevar.
The best scene in this film is very understated and conversational. And it happens on a boat. If I could jump into the movie and hug the man in complete delight that his one gesture expressed, it would be how professor Siras reacts to Deepu Sebastian, the journalist wanting to take a picture.
The conversation has been reported by every one who has seen the movie. 'How can a word with three letters define my life?'
Did Professor Siras struggle with being labled 'gay'? Did he not know he was not considered to be 'normal' in this judgemental world? He's told by the lawyers who are helping him fight his suspension that it's not 'a gay' but just 'gay'
He does not seems to have any space for the rest of the world. He is lost. He should have been left alone. He would have written more poems like the ones he recites from his book 'Grass under (my) feet', listened to Lata Mangeshkar songs, had his couple of drinks, taught and faded away. But the insidious campaign to malign him broke him and what we see on the screen is so tragic, your heart wells up in empathy. How can we as a society not let live?
The film is an important one because it questions everyone's role in the death of this quiet man.
The TV crew who barged into his home and filmed him in what should have been confined to his bedroom, the neighbors who watched his eviction without saying anything, his colleagues at the University who did nothing, the students who did nothing, the newspapers who printed salacious stuff without fact checking, the people who read that news and did not care what effect it had on a man's life...
The film has a wonderful support cast as well. The scared Professor Sridharan, who wants Siras to conform, Ashish Vidhyarthi as the lawyer who is fighting for Siras' rights and of course, the young journalist played by Rajkummar Rao who writes about the professor's rights. But the film undeniably belongs to Manoj Bajpayee.
I did not understand why the film claims to be a work of fiction when it uses real names, places and speaks of events that took place... And when the events seem to be frozen in a gasp, you sort of wish the film had shown us what was going on inside his head. That takes away from the greatness of this endeavor...
The film raises a question about basic rights as human beings. Who decides what is normal and allowed and legal? It will inspire many more to stand up for the rights of those who are not in the majority.
What amazes me is how the loneliness of this man is made evident again and again in the film. From the obvious scenes of his detachment in the courtroom to how he shuts himself from the world in his own home, to the subtle yet obvious song he sings at the party celebrating his win at the courts: 'Me maz harapun basale ga!'
'I have lost myself (in Krishna)' sings a lovelorn gopi. A fitting song for someone who is not really present in this world, and yet...