More than a cameo

Wed 11 Oct 2017

I consider myself an optimist who carries an umbrella and I walked into Mumbai’s Regal Cinema on October 30, 2015 prepared for rain.

Writers Ishani Banerjee and Apurva Asrani had already introduced me to their friends and family as the inspiration for Rajkummar Rao’s character in Aligarh . The movie, in its India premiere, was opening the Mumbai Film Festival.

Ishani had contacted me in May 2014, asking for inputs on the life and death of Shrinivas Ramchandra Siras. Hansal Mehta was to direct a film based on the Aligarh Muslim University Reader who took his own life after being harassed for being gay. I was in contact with Siras during February-April 2010 and was the last person to talk to him.

When screening began, Rajkummar’s introduction briefly made me reach for that umbrella: the fictional Indian Post , for which his character worked, was a caricature of The Indian Express , where I was a reporter at the time. The same applied for the portrayal of photojournalist Tashi Tobgyal, without whom the story could not have been written.

A brief phone conversation established the character’s connections to me — there was a smattering of Malayalam thrown in and there was a reference to my strained relationship with my father over money. That was pretty much all of me in the film.

I had had two conversations with Rajkummar, after which I sent him a voice clip of me reading a Hindi text, to help him get a sense of my Malayalam-accented Hindi. He read me correctly as an eager beaver. I have been told that Rajkummar’s character talked like I do. I did not dare disagree when someone mentioned that he looked like me.

Throughout the growing anticipation of being played on screen, I had kept reminding myself that it was not about me. Though Aligarh was no journalistic enterprise, it was no coincidence that it was a mantra that I had picked up as a reporter. I had come to trust the writers with the material. Beyond passing on information, I never tried to find out what they did with it. This detachment would come in handy later. When it turned out that the film had revealed Siras’ partner’s name, I could wear the reporter’s hat to talk about how even the best projects with good intentions can err.

I knew that Apurva had taken creative liberties to tell Siras’ story — I and the Reader of Marathi never met. I have often been asked whether the events of the film took place. Scenes that show the two protagonists meet did not, but the conversations that made them possible did. Most denials though, have been issued over a scene unrelated to Siras. At the risk of damaging my street credibility, I will admit that I have never had a romantic encounter with a senior colleague.


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