Hansal Mehta Talks Gay Victimisation Drama 'Aligarh'

By Shackleton, Liz | Screen International, October 30, 2015 | Go to article overview

Hansal Mehta Talks Gay Victimisation Drama 'Aligarh'


Shackleton, Liz, Screen International


Screening as the opening film of this year's Mumbai Film Festival (Oct 29-Nov 5), Hansal Mehta's Aligarh is based on the true story of a university professor who lost his job when he was caught on camera having consensual sex with another man inside his own apartment.

Manoj Bajpayee (Gangs Of Wasseypur) plays the professor, while Rajkummar Rao (Shahid) plays a young journalist determined to uncover the truth behind the sting operation that cost the professor his job.

After premiering at this year's Busan International Film Festival, Aligarh also played at the BFI London Film Festival. Although resolutely independent in its voice, the film was financed by Indian studio Eros International, which co-produced with Mehta's Karma Pictures.

Mehta began his directing career with critically acclaimed films such as legal drama Jayate (1998) and gangster film Chhal (2001), before embarking on what he describes as an unsuccessful foray into mainstream Bollywood. He returned to story-driven filmmaking with award-winning drama Shahid (2012), distributed by Disney UTV, and City Lights (2014), a Hindi adaptation of Metro Manila, backed by Fox Star Studios.

Q: What made you decide to tackle this story?

A: I have an obsession with stories about people who are marginalised. This particular story ended up in my email inbox - a woman working in PR sent me a short synopsis, which I found intriguing, so I bought the story from her. I sent it to my long-time editor, Apurva Asrani, who was at the point where he was ready to write. He wrote the script and the girl who sent me the idea did some preliminary research, which we used to flesh out the story.

Q: Were you nervous about making a gay-themed film in India?

A: The film is set during that short period when homosexuality was decriminalised in India, but I didn't see it as a film about homosexuality. I saw it as a film about the invasion of somebody's privacy. This man was a poet and a teacher and all he wanted was to be leftalone. All he wanted was his music and whisky in the evening and some intimacy in his own private space and yet that was invaded and his sexuality became the subject of public debate. For me that was far more disturbing.

Q: How did you go about pitching the film and raising finance?

A: My previous two films had met with some sort of critical and commercial success so the market was more receptive to me. I think my films are seen as telling a certain kind of human story and appealing to a larger audience because of the simplicity in the way they're narrated. So I pitched this to Eros and it took them five minutes to say let's go ahead. I can't say I worked hard to pitch the film.

I really believe that if you want to change the system, you need to work within the system and slowly subvert it, rather than try to create an entirely new ecosystem, which hampers your journey as a filmmaker. I've made my last three films with studios and yet managed to retain my own voice.

Q: But how do you manage to retain your voice within the Bollywood studio system?

A: I use the budget as my selling tool - if something can be made for two million dollars, I would rather make it for one million. I'm a fairly disciplined filmmaker so what I pitch is the budget - here is a unique subject that can be made at a cost that is attractive and with respectable actors who have had some sort of mainstream success. …

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