Friday, March 18, 2016

On Aligarh, Carol, rear-window ethics, and a love that whispers its name

[My latest Mint Lounge column]

Spend a few minutes in a hall showing Todd Haynes’s Carol, then move to one where Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh is playing, and you’ll see two very different-looking films. The first, which earned an Oscar nomination for Cate Blanchett, is lush, full of soft warm colours, and is not just set in the early 1950s – being based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt – but bears a visual resemblance to the melodramas made in that decade by Douglas Sirk (a director whom Haynes has quoted before). Mehta’s film – built around the rhythms of small-town India and a tour de force performance by Manoj Bajpayee – looks much starker, apart from a lovely, languid opening sequence where a rickshaw emerges through a nighttime haze.

On the other hand, if you closed your eyes and listened to each film for a while, you’d feel the similarities in the sound design. In both, some of the most important scenes have a hushed quality and you have to strain to listen: if you are sufficiently immersed (and assuming you are not the caterwauling buffoons in my row during the Carol screening, who seemed to think they had bought tickets for Batman vs Superman), you lean forward in your seat, forget to crunch your popcorn – and this in turn makes the louder moments, the short bursts of physical or verbal violence, even more effective.

Both narratives involve homosexuality in societies where a veil is drawn over such relationships. In Carol, an affluent married woman faces allegations of improper conduct, and the possibility of losing custody of her child, because of her relationship with a young salesgirl; the lawyers’ discussions are euphemistic because they can barely bring themselves to even acknowledge this form of love, much less “speak its name”. Aligarh is about an elderly professor, Siras, being hounded and losing his job after he is caught in a compromising position with a rickshaw-driver – the codes of “propriety” and “shame” here aren’t far removed from the world of Carol 65 years earlier in another country. But equally, both stories are as much about loneliness as about love, and how the two things are linked: when you find that vital bond with another person, a bond that can encompass friendship and affection (“mera friend” is what Siras insists on calling the driver) as well as physical attraction, does it matter that the relationship isn’t convention-approved?

In each case, the transgressing lovers are subjected to a sting operation (Carol’s husband hires a detective to audio-record her trysts), a demonstration of how private spaces and actions can quickly become public, how a prurient society can bully those who don’t conform – and this contrast between private and public life is stressed visually in each film. Aligarh begins with Siras returning to his flat with the man who shares his bed, the camera lingering at a fixed distance outside the building, watching lights going on and
off in windows, before the outside world bursts in on them. Carol has similar exterior shots, including one that reminded me of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, one of the great films about voyeurism and the ethics of peering into other people’s houses. (This isn’t a far-out association, by the way: the Carol scene is set in Greenwich Village, which was also the location for Rear Window’s famous building façade, many little dramas taking place behind many little windows. Besides, Hitch made a wonderful film of Patricia Highsmith’s first novel Strangers on a Train in 1951. But more on him in a bit.)

And yet, in both films the inner spaces – where people grapple with their own feelings and identities before they can participate in a larger battle for equal rights or social acceptance – are ultimately more important. In Carol, the salesgirl Therese is unable at first to process what she is getting into – are such things even possible, you can hear her asking herself, as her relationship with the more experienced woman deepens. Siras in Aligarh has a poetic-idealistic attitude – he speaks of love as a transcendental force that resists labels – but there is also a hint of a provincial conservatism, of a man who recoils from words like “gay” and questions like “Was he your lover?” or “Did your wife leave you because of your sexual preferences?” He seems to blush when confronted along these lines by a sympathetic, city-bred reporter (who is generally more comfortable talking about sex, and probably feels like his candour would be refreshing for the hounded professor), and he is not “enlightened” in the way that liberals who fight for LGBT rights might want him to be. His English is halting, he isn’t conditioned to speak politically correct language: he has to be corrected when he uses “a gay” in a sentence. He doesn’t see himself as a poster-boy for a cause, and is startled that other people – strangers! – are signing petitions supporting him.

The film includes images from a Gay Pride parade in Delhi – young people wearing their sexuality on their sleeve, two girls kissing each other for the camera – and exhilarating as these scenes are for anyone who cares about minority rights, I thought about the large gulf between the worlds of these youngsters and the world of the reticent professor. What would he make of all this? How would he feel if he had been taken to the parade and asked to make a public display of affection for a camera – the very instrument that had been the medium for his humiliation?

Watching Siras, I also thought about another academic who, being from a more permissive society, led a respected life despite being openly gay – but who had once struggled a great deal with his sexuality. In a piece titled “The Murderous Gays: Hitchcock’s Homophobia”, one of the finest combinations of personal essay and film analysis I have read, the critic Robin Wood discussed the self-loathing he experienced early in his life, and how he became obsessed with a character in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) at age 17 without consciously realizing that the film had a gay subtext. (“The identification was largely masochistic, and tended to reinforce all my negative attitudes toward myself […] Yet no other film had given me a character with whom I could identify in quite that way.”) Wood ended the essay with the provocative suggestion that the act of murder jointly committed by the film’s protagonists was a sort of vicious response to the “stigma” surrounding them – and that society was ultimately responsible for the crime.

Aligarh ends with another sort of crime, a suicide that can be seen as an act of protest in the face of mounting hostility. As the screen fades to black the indelible image is that of Siras rising in his bed, disoriented, calling out “Kaun?” to the darkness around him. Perhaps he has had a nightmare where people are again bursting into his house with cameras? Or perhaps he is calling out to us, to the society that has judged and destroyed him and is now watching his story from the safe anonymity of a movie hall. Unlike Robin Wood – and unlike the two women in Carol – the idealistic professor didn’t get the happy ending he deserved.

[Related posts: Patricia Highsmith's short stories; Hansal Mehta's Shahid; and a tribute to Robin Wood]


  1. "he is not “enlightened” in the way that liberals who fight for LGBT rights might want him to be. His English is halting, he isn’t conditioned to speak politically correct language:"

    Such a wonderfully precise sentence summing up something I've always experienced about the "liberal" media in India, but never felt comfortable voicing it. Since having moved out of India to a country where English and French are the only two languages spoken by the mainstream, I now feel embarrassed by the fact that I too held such an attitude being a "convent educated city person"- because I spoke a few sentences at a time with felicity, I was more enlightened, more important and had better things to day than those who didn't.I am glad my life's experiences compelled me to snap out of such a fallacy, but it is sad to watch older journalists or interviewees on TV who one would think were wiser, still clinging on to such a self-serving idea and one that is designed to forever keep oneself in a glorified position (at least in one's mind) while dehumanizing the rest of the people who do not fit in with this idea, and relegating them to an inferior position, at least in one's mind, forever. Wonderful write-up! I love how your write-ups give me the sense that it has been crafted with great attention to the detail of every thought and sentence.

    BTW a vocabulary question for you: my understanding of the word "tryst" is a secret meeting, esp. between lovers. That is how you too appear to have used it. But in many, many Indian "English" websites such as TOI, HT, etc, I always find the word being used for a mere meeting (with no suggestion that it is a secret). For example, India's tryst with the Oscars. Care to comment on that? Has the Indian English dialect stripped "tryst" of its original meaning to now mean any meeting? Like the North American English dialect seems to have adopted "irregardless" as a word that is essentially identical to "regardless". Thanks!

  2. I love how your write-ups give me the sense that it has been crafted with great attention to the detail of every thought and sentence.

    Thanks, Se V! Very nice to get that sort of appreciation because, yes, I do spend time getting thoughts in order - often, more time than can be justified by the amount one gets paid as an independent writer. (The Mint column is another matter - they pay very well by Indian standards, so one feels motivated to do the work. Not in most other places though.)

    About "tryst" - yes, the original meaning has been diluted a bit over time (which is true of so many other words). Possibly just a matter of time before the broader meaning gets incorporated into dictionaries!

  3. Hi Arjun,

    This one particular scene in Aligarh bothered me quite a bit , The scene where Prof Siras and Deepu sebastian go out for lunch and half way through the meal Rajkumar asks Siras to Have some more Dal and Siras denies it saying that I cannot have it as you touched the vessel with the same hands you ate meat, I am Brahmin and I cannot do that.
    I was appalled with that reaction of Siras, Here is a guy who is not willing to eat from the same vessel, the dal's integrity did not change by touching the ladel and the vessel by Deepu,And if Siras can have such trivial prejudices then how does he expect the society to have empathy for him. I mean if you look at conventional social norms Homosexuals are frowned up more than meat eaters, Homosexuality unfortunately is Criminal and Scandalous and Unnatural and being non vegeterian as not as frowned upon.
    Deepu was a Hetrosexual who had empathy for him and understood him, stood by him.
    I have no idea what the writers where thinking while writing that scene, what is it that they were trying to convey

    1. I thought it was a wonderful, very well-observed scene and that it must have taken real courage as a writer to go ahead with it - when the easier, more comforting option would have been to present Siras as morally unassailable, the snow-driven Good Guy as Victim. To a degree, it ties in with that point I made in the piece about him being provincial and not being "progressive" to the degree that gay-rights activists would like him to be (or even knowing how to be progressive in that sense).

      It also ties in with something I have often encountered, and used to struggle with a bit: the inconvenient fact that people who are on the receiving end of discrimination don't necessarily acquire sensitivity/empathy or learn how to transcend their own prejudices towards others. A man who has been severely affected by racism can still be a chauvinistic lout in his relationships with women. A woman who has been oppressed/discriminated against can be nasty to lower-class or lower-caste people, if she has been conditioned to think in terms of those divides. And so it goes. Human nature.

    2. Should also add (after rereading my comment) that a vegetarian Brahmin's proscription against eating food touched by a meat-eater is not exactly uncommon - and it is based on very firmly ingrained ideas of propriety and culture (irrespective of whether you or I feel the same way about these things).

    3. Oh yes! Human nature. Empathy comes hard after conditioning and enculturation. Very well reasoned discussion.

  4. In that case Siras would have never gone to a place which served meat, it definitely did not look like the kind of place which would have a separate kitchen for Veg & Non Veg.If the writer really wanted to show that one who is a victim of a prejudice need not necessarily be devoid of any prejudice himself, then they could have done it plugging all loopholes. Why even go into restaurant serving meat?Could have used some other device or sequence.

  5. Just to add, we have to understand who this person 'Siras' is and where is he coming from. These days, people still hold on to their prejudices but even that it diluted. We see so many who say, "I don't eat the meat but I am okay with the gravy". Even Jainis who say that. Siras lived in Aligarh for over 2 decades, a place where the majority dhabas probably serves both veg and non-veg. He lived there an unmarried man and ate that food. Even the canteens inside the University serve non-veg majorly, along with some veg food. Hence, for Siras, it is not at all a big deal to go to a restaurant that serves both and eat veg food and refuse to touch the 'daal' that has been touched by a meat eater sitting right across him. It is to show how convoluted his sense of prejudice is. He was a strict vegetarian, reluctant activist and took a lover who was a low caste Muslim. You have to understand this particular scene in the whole context.