Director Hansal Mehta came across the subject matter for “Aligarh” in a most fortuitous manner while shooting Fox Star Studios India’s “Metro Manila” Indian remake “CityLights.” He spotted an email from writer Ishani Banerjee in his junk mail folder that contained the basic idea for the film and immediately passed it on to his award-winning editor Apurva Asrani to develop as his debut script. “Apurva was just waiting to write,” says Mehta.
Based on true events and set between 2009-13, the brief period when homosexuality was decriminalized in India, “Aligarh” is the hard-hitting tale of a gay university professor of literature who is trapped in a compromising position with his lover in an illegal sting operation, is consequently suspended by the university and fights for his rights with the help of an ambitious rookie journalist. Manoj Bajpayee (“Gangs of Wasseypur”) and Rajkummar Rao (“Shahid”) play the leads.
“It was not just about homosexuality being illegal in India, which in itself is serious, but I thought it made a huge case for the right to privacy. Today the Indian government says that the right to privacy is not a fundamental right and has raised this issue in the Supreme Court,” says Mehta.
For Mehta, “Aligarh” is the third part in a loose trilogy about the human condition that began with “Shahid,” about human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi and continued with “CityLights” that looks at the challenges faced by migrant workers in the big city. Mehta says, “It is sort of my coming alive as a filmmaker, finding my voice, finding my own consciousness. There is a certain stream that is propelling me toward these ideas and it need not be a trilogy, it is going to continue. We are violated in many ways, particularly in India, and with a right wing government it is getting worse. I find film is a potent medium to provoke some sort of debate.”
“Aligarh” is a co-production between Mehta’s Karma Pictures and Bollywood studio Eros Intl. and was produced for a shade under $1 million. Eros is normally associated with Bollywood blockbusters. “We have been famous for big ticket films, but we believe in high in content quality films also,” says Eros Managing Director Sunil Lulla. He points out the non-mainstream content that Eros has backed in the past like “Vicky Donor”, “NH10” and “English Vinglish.”
Eros began in 1973 as an international distributor of Indian films before entering the production arena later and consequently has an extensive distribution network in more than 50 countries around the world. Eros will distribute “Aligarh” in traditional Bollywood markets and also non-traditional territories like Romania, China and Japan where they have recently entered, along with local partners wherever necessary. “Films like ‘Aligarh’ are not your normal big ticket films and they need to be released in a different way. We have the expertise for this and will be able to do justice,” says Lulla. The film will also be made available on the Eros Now digital platform that has 27 million subscribers worldwide.
Next up for Mehta is “Simran,” that will have Bollywood it girl Kangana Ranaut (“Queen”) playing a small-town Indian girl robbing banks across California that begins shooting in February 2016. “The film is a departure from my past three films, but it is about the human condition in its own way,” says Mehta. He is also developing a biopic on the controversial Indian politician Sanjay Gandhi who died in a plane crash in 1980. Alongside, Mehta is developing a web series on world politics titled “Code of Silence.”
“Aligarh” will have its world premiere the A Window on Asian Cinema strand at Busan on Oct. 4 and its European premiere will be at the BFI London Film Festival.