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Spend a few minutes in a hall showing Todd Haynes’ Carol, then move to one where Hansal Mehta’s Aligarh is playing, and you will 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 night-time haze.

On the other hand, if you closed your eyes and listened to each film for a while, you would 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.

In both stories, 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, Hitchcock made a wonderful film of Patricia Highsmith’s first novel, Strangers On A Train, in 1951. But more on him in a bit).

Manoj Bajpayee (right) in ‘Aligarh’
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Manoj Bajpayee (right) in ‘Aligarh’

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, 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.

Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.

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