By Arun Fulara. Posted on October 26, 2015
Editor and now screenwriter Apurva Asrani is enjoying his second run with films. Aligarh, for which he wrote the screenplay has created buzz in the film circuit. The film was premiered at the Busan International Film Festival and at also played at the recently concluded BFI London Film Festival, where it received an overwhelming response. The film will have its India premiere at Jio MAMI next week when it opens the festival.
Apurva shares with us his journey so far with Aligarh.
The central idea of Aligarh for me goes way beyond sexuality. Sexuality in my opinion is never black or white, it is far too fluid and beautiful for terms like gay or straight to do justice to it. I think people who are forced to slot themselves or commit to labels end up doing themselves a huge disservice. Let your sexual identity be what it is, let it evolve when it must. Lets not restrict it. What Aligarh primarily deals with is the right to ones privacy, to ones dignity. It is nobody’s business to force you to commit to a label. What you do in the confines of your private space is protected by the constitution. Article 21 clearly upholds your right to your privacy and your dignity and that is the important message.
Manoj Bajpayee & Rajkummar Rao in Aligarh
I’ve seen success and failure far too many times in these 20 years to take anything in our business for granted. All we knew is that we knew we had made an honest film. Hansal and our team used the success of Shahid & Citylights to create a cocoon around Aligarh that kept it free from the corruption of box office expectations. I have to thank producers Eros International for backing the film with all their might, and with no questions asked. The intention of Aligarh is to ignite debate in society, to hold a mirror up to the rising intolerance that stifles innocent citizens. The fact that these prestigious festivals recognised our intentions was assuring to say the least. Also it is very important for the world to take notice of an unfair blob in our democracy, where people are not treated equally based on what they do inside their bedroom. Aligarh getting such a great outpouring of support internationally has highlighted this burning issue for the world to see.
The London Film Festival holds a very special place in my heart. I spent many years in my 20’s studying and writing in London. I used to watch films at the festival, attend talks at the BFI and always hoped to have a film screen there. But then, I had to leave London with a broken heart 9 years ago. I came back to a career Mumbai that had long withered due to my absence, and I was neither here nor there.
I worked doubly hard to rebuild a respectable body of work and returned to London for the first time this trip, with Aligarh! I hoped deep down that the film would resonate with the city’s discerning audience. Our film is not an activist film. It doesn’t provoke people to ‘come out and be proud’. Its message is firm, but delivered without the usual drama. I hoped that people there would get what we were trying to do.
I could not make it to Busan. But Hansal called me right after the premiere and he was ecstatic that we got an ovation. I asked him what the response was like and he said people were congratulating him in Korean and the translator had disappeared after the Q & A. But they were smiling, nodding and shaking his hand. Now even though that seems like a favorable response, I needed to see it for myself to feel assured!
At BFI LFF, we sold out both shows about 3 weeks before the screenings. So by the time we got to London, almost all the admin at BFI knew who we were. They treated us like stars and that we didn’t expect. There was a general air of respect for the film even before the first screening.
From L to R - Apurva Asrani, Shailesh Singh, Cary Sawhney and Hansal Mehta
Our first screening was at the prestigious ICA cinema, just a few hundred meters away from Buckingham Palace. The audience was educated and proper; a nice mix of South Asian people, people of colour, but mostly white people. I was a bag of nerves but Hansal seems to be a pro at dealing with screenings, so he pulled me to the bar and we downed a few pints of great beer. By the time the screening finished and we were ushered in by the awesome BFI crew, the audience was already applauding the film. The walk to the front, watching people stand up and applaud louder, is where I understood that the film had hit the intended mark. They had got it.
The Q & A with Cary Sawhney (who had first recommended Aligarh to the BFI) was passionate, almost 80 per cent of the audience had stayed back to talk to us. The United Kingdom takes education and human rights issues very seriously and the audience felt very strongly for Siras’s character. Everyone raved about this being Manoj Bajpayee’s career defining role. Also I think Hansal's stark, bare bones filmmaking style resonates with the docu-drama approach that the British are synonymous with. But nothing could beat the look in peoples eyes as met us one on one. There was warmth, there was compassion, there was respect. I felt vindicated.
The burning issue at the heart of Aligarh is something each of us Indians is grappling with. Our freedom is being compromised everyday and ridiculous ideas of morality are taking over our lives. Everyone is, or will be marginalized at some point. For Aligarh to succeed, it must hit home with our own audiences and people must identify with the film. If they can grow to love our protagonist Siras, without judging him like his university did, then I will feel like we have succeeded.
I am grateful to MAMI for recognizing the intention of our film and for giving it such a prestigious platform. For a Hindi film to open the festival and for its director Anupama Chopra to write such a fantastic review of the film, was beyond my expectations. Enthusiastic MAMI audiences are writing about out film everyday, counting down to the India premiere at the 1000 seater Regal theater. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. So I hope Hansal & I will find some good beer nearby, and this time we will have the whole team of Aligarh with us!
You can book the tickets for Aligarh here. Bookings start 9 am on 28th Oct.