Cinema is rarely acknowledged as an exclusive domain of academic exercise but it offers very rich dimension to not just our understanding of the issue, it has a power to move us and shake our believe in a manner not possible through other mediums, apart from the directly influence it wields, cinema can be read as a source as a performative act, that is, how can we understand the relation between the medium and the audience, the signifier and the signified here takes a much more diverse form because signifier here is not just a spoken or written word, it is a performance unfolding before us, so is the signified, which is an image but also a sound, a word spoken. Thus the commentary that establishes the plane of interaction between the signifier and the signified is not just an unspoken word but also an incomplete or even absent gesture, emotions, and expressions. It is in these silences that I wish to locate the film. Thus the analysis of the film is not just the critical description of the nuances of the film but also the conscious state that I undergo while watching this film as a part of an academic exercise and as a history student, which would have been an entirely different exercise had I been watching this movie as a lay viewer. Also, we can use Derrida’s conception of re-reading the text. As he points out, a preface of a text is basically a re-reading of the text by the author as it is based on a perceived meaning of the text, but no text is read twice in the same way, so every time someone re-reads a text he acquires meanings that are very different from its intended meanings. Thus, as Michel Foucault points out, in treating the signifier as an enigma and trying to resolve it through commentary, a word acquires signified, and layers of meanings that were not originally intended.
Coming to the movie, Aligarh opens with a visual description of a dystopian setting. Through the use of pan camera angle and night vision shots the movie tries to establish the mundane and gloomy existence of the protagonist, which also serves as the pretext for the scene yet to be unfold. The scene that follows establish one night as a perceived metaphor for the working of “illegitimate” domain of sexuality, perceived because this autonomy of “personal domain of sexuality” is to be disrupted by the “social ethics of sexuality”. Again we go to Foucault, who points out educational institutions, hospitals and church as the site where the “discursive discourse” of sexuality is defined as well as regulated and in that sense exercised. Curiously enough, the one who are scrutinized for their “unethical” sexual behavior is not the student but the professor. Thus, Aligarh can be seen as a site of defining of the institutional modalities of sexuality and a homophobic structure through which the sexual code of hetero-normativity is exuberated. Aligarh is also a story of alienation- an individual as a metaphor for the different spheres of alienation that interacts and overlap with each other. So professor Siras is not just culturally alienated figure due to the linguistic differences but also alienated as an odd one out in the community of patriarchal family units, and in such hetero-normative units, a single/unmarried/divorced person is seen as sexually dangerous- a digression from the normal sexual code defined by our society, which needs to be regulated and if necessary, purged. In a sense it represents a power structure held by the social bodies, expressed both linguistically (through suggestive signification) as well as through social and violent reaction. The interaction between professor Siras and Deepu is a sphere of overlapping of spheres of both the individuals- Deepu’s journalistic ethics vs. his empathetic behavior towards Siras and thus the camera men who recorded Siras’ relation with the rickshaw puller as well as Deepu’s first interaction with Siras (with his over-exuberant cameraman friend clicking pictures) are encroaching the space of Siras, and only when Siras allows him into his space does Deepu is able to carry forward his work. The dilemma of Siras to interact with outsiders and trying to find escapism from his existential crisis is also reflected in the narrative. The songs he plays on the recorder are also momentary escapism from his miserable existence. In another scene, the playing of old song carries with itself an air of nostalgia which helps him escape the misery, existential crisis, cultural alienation and sexual jeopardy as well as social ostracizing in the present. The inner domain of both the characters are claustrophobic to various degrees, thus the narrative is also an interaction of claustrophobia between an indifferent metropolitan vs. the morally scrutinizing Aligarh
We find that the deployments of sexuality via cultural norms are more severe than the linguistic reluctance associated with the taxonomy of sexuality. Sexual divergences are either criminalized or pathologized wherein the individual becomes a mirror of its sexual choices, he or she becomes an object of severe authoritarian gaze which objectify an individual to an extent that they become a mere face to a sexual category. It also offers perspective on the concept of space defined generally through the binary of public and private. What we witness in the narrative can be termed as the “encroachment of space” of an individual which raises questions as to whether morality and norms and propriety can be universally attributed and reinforced, and can those norms be forcefully imposed in the private sphere, in the very existence and identity of an individual, and can a person be punished for violating norms of propriety that doesn’t create any external problems, in his private sphere. In fact, through the court scenes the punishment meted out to the individual for his perceived divergences are justified through a teleological rhetoric of greater good of the society. Thus the violation of right of privacy and human dignity are garbed under the rhetoric of social morality. Also, as a debate acquires a greater stage the sphere of representative of that collective morality. It raises questions as to whether morality has a cultural bearing. How come sexuality acquires overarching discourses that dominates the sphere of politics, society and culture? And how come the digression from hetero-normative sexuality acquires a much more grave disdain when associated with class question. What on the first place it reflects is a bourgeoisie idea of morality and secondly it assumes a layer of exploitation when two different classes are engaged in such a relation.
In the end the movie comes full circle to the idea of claustrophobic existence. Even though Siras wins the case, the hopelessness of justice and the social prejudices associated with the identification and the reluctant affirmation of that existence makes the claustrophobia greater than even temporary escapism of cinema. And he succumbs to the claustrophobia in and out. Now there is no clarity how Siras actually died and speculations of his alleged murder are very ripe. This again points out the social stigma and its violent repercussions when society doesn’t let go of its prejudices, and as we see in this case how it becomes a bigger entity than the life of an individual (or perhaps it reflects the reluctance on the part of the moral community to accept its defeat). Anyways, Siras was choked to death by the claustrophobia that defines both his private and public sphere.
The film helps us chart out different layers of power structures, sexualities and most of all it questions our existence and how much of it actually belongs to us, and how much of it is surrounded by the notions that not only guides, but sometimes dictates and forcefully determines our existence. The bigger question is our right to live with an identity that is truly ours. Or whether there is something that we can call “our existence” or even that in totality, a social construct.