Thursday, January 28, 2016

Aligarh trailer and the Punjabiyat of Ranjit Katiyal

So the trailer for Hansal Mehta’s upcoming film Aligarh is finally out, and the fact that I happen to have watched the film a few months ago does nothing to temper my excitement. In fact having loved it at MAMI, I feel somewhat invested in the film's commercial fate. This story based on true events deserves to be told, and it could not have been in better hands than the superb cast and crew of Aligarh. If you haven't watched the trailer, drop everything and watch it on the Eros website right now.

I'll spare you any details about the story until its release, but allow me to wax on a neat little detail, already revealed in the trailer.

Like the real life professor on whose story it is based, Manoj Bajpai’s Prof Siraj in the film is in his 60s, and teaches Marathi at the Aligarh University. At one point he laments that this adds to his isolation in this Urdu dominated city (besides his sexual orientation).

One of the many things that sets this film apart from the Bollywood mainstream is this choice of a central protagonist. When was the last time you saw a soft spoken, ageing, middle class Marathi man of slight stature at the centre of a Hindi film?

And this isn't just because of the “based on real events” tag on the film. In adapting real events or books, filmmakers have the creative freedom to change some details of character, and they do it all the time. In the film adaptation of The Martian, the character of Venkat Kapoor is modified into the African-American Vincent Kapoor, perhaps because they wanted Chiwetel Ejiofor to play him. And who can blame them? He was amazing.

In the more recently released Airlift however, I'm a little disappointed in the film's decision to fuse two real life heroes from Kerala into one Punjabi Akshay Kumar. Why did AK's character in the film have to be a Ranjit Katiyal, the strapping Punjabi savior of a predominantly Keralite Indian population stuck in the middle of a warzone in the Gulf? If it was because the makers were keen to have AK play the part, it was perhaps wise not to make him bumble with an accent.

In doing so however, the film loses out on quite a bit of the kind of nuance that can add texture to the narrative, and sometimes make for some delicious cinematic moments.

This is not a social rant, but one about a creative choice. Nor does it make Airlift a bad film. The film works beautifully within its own universe, but a little more authenticity could have made it so much more. A stray observation on the Kerala-Gulf connection. Some harmless cultural humor. A slight Sidin Vadukut touch, maybe.

Granted, the film is not about any of these things. It is a tight thriller with a very focused storyline. Then again, would it have been any less tight or focused with a Malayali family at its centre? Haven't we had enough Punjabi NRIs in our films?

Cultural details add value to such stories. What would Munnabhai’s confrontations with Dr Asthana be without those Bambaiyya potshots? An street ruffian with a heart of gold in a medical college. What would Piku be if Bhashkor wasn't so Bengali? An ageing, intellectual Bengali hypochondriac in Delhi.

And when you watch Aligarh, ask yourself what that film would be if Manoj Bajpai’s Siraj wasn't so Marathi. A homosexual Marathi poet teaching in a Muslim University.

Like Aligarh, the source material for Airlift afforded it the opportunity for a protagonist who would be unusual for a Hindi film, but the more engaging for it. A Malayali Christian businessman in Kuwait. Sadly, for whatever reasons, the makers chose not to use it.

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