HT Brunch Cover Story: The invisible lives of India’s domestic help
He’s become the icon of talent, thanks to his role as Balram in Netflix’s The White Tiger (2021). And she’s made everyone rewatch her debut, Monsoon Wedding (2001) after her stellar performance as Ratna in Is Love Enough? Sir (2018). Adarsh Gourav and Tillotama Shome have arrived, even though they don’t seem to agree when we chat.
But even a decade ago no one could have imagined that the roles these two actors played could possibly catapult anyone to the limelight. For, Adarsh plays a driver, who fights his master and the near-slave ideology he’s been brought up with, while Tillotama plays a domestic help, who “dares” to have feelings for a man she is literally living with, even though he is her employer / “master”.
Ain’t no mountain high enough
Adarsh and Tillotama, who come from more privileged backgrounds than the characters they played, had battles to fight while prepping for their roles. For Tillotama, the most difficult part was calibrating the friendship and desire that slowly grows between Ratna and Ashwin. “There’s no big dramatic moment, but a slow burn with many minute changes. Like, I walk down the same corridor a hundred times, but this time everything’s changed,” explains the 41-year-old Lady Shri Ram College graduate, whose performance in Qissa (2013) won her the best actress title at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF).
For Adarsh, doing the voice-over and narrating the film left him feeling doubtful about being repetitive. He was already equipped to play a driver or waiter, having worked at a food thela in Delhi for two weeks, washing plates and keeping the place clean. “All the invisible boundaries were visible because I experienced it first hand and realised that when you don’t look a certain way, you suddenly become invisible,” he says. But Adarsh could return to his more privileged life. “Most people don’t have that choice,” he says.
When Tillotama read the script of Is Love Enough? Sir, she realised she was guilty of the very thing the film critiqued. “I am really class conscious. When I sit in an Ola or Uber, I don’t check out my driver. I’m on my phone, engaging with people of my ‘class’. I accepted these things about the society I live in without questioning them,” says the actor.
“We are so class biased that we can’t imagine intimacy between ourselves and the people who are such an intimate part of our lives,” says Tillotama. “The people who work at our homes make food for us, come into our bedrooms, but a friendship or romance is unimaginable. It’s really soft apartheid.”
Adarsh is horrified by how institutionalised class biases are. “There are people who depend solely on us for how they are employed, but that shouldn’t exist,” he says. “It’s my duty to help them out as a citizen, but it’s the duty of the government to make sure that these conditions don’t exist. It makes me uncomfortable because I don’t really know what the solution is,” he adds.
Tillotama’s research for Ratna brought to light the fact that barring a few cinematic appearances over the last 40 years, most film clips featuring domestic help come from the world of pornography. “Because we can’t even imagine that ‘servants’ have desires,” she says. “We fumble when we use the word ‘maid’. Why are we so clumsy? Because we’re so guilty! So much that we don’t even know how to talk to them properly!”
Most of us learned the true ‘value’ of domestic help during the lockdown last year, Tillotama muses. “In my parents’ home in Kolkata, there was a separate bathroom for the workers. Come the pandemic, everyone is using the same bathroom and taking the same zinc and magnesium supplements, because suddenly if anything happened to you, it would also happen to me,” she says.
Domestic help also don’t have assigned working hours, points out Adarsh. Tillotama agrees. “Where are the unions? Where is the health insurance? Where’s the medical leave? This is systemic violence and we are totally perpetrating it,” she quips.
The only way to escape the class you were born in is to educate yourself. So even though Ratna wasn’t educated, she insisted that her sister, Chhoti, went to school. “Class exploration comes with education. If Chhoti studies in an English medium school, she will get out of the ‘servant class’. ‘Servant’ is a terrible word in the first place. We are all serving something – an agenda, idea or boss!”
To top it all, Indian cinema tends to romanticise the less privileged. “What do we film their lives for? For not having a washroom and being forced to use the beach instead? Having undrinkable water? There’s nothing fabulous about it. And why should they keep ‘adjusting’ and ‘making do’? It’s such b******t logic,” cuts in Adarsh.
Bringing about a change
Both of them think the roles they played brought some awareness of the issue. “People watch themselves more, they are more conscious,” says Adarsh, who’s even had people tell him that they are now scared. “The White Tiger places a mirror in front of you and makes you examine yourself. At the least, it opens conversations. And if it affects your behaviour towards people, that’s a victory for the film.”
Tillotama has been overwhelmed by people reaching out with stories about being in love with someone who worked in their house, but were packed away because it was such a taboo. “But change is a battle you have to constantly fight. It isn’t possible through a film. I can’t say even I have changed, but I’ve been made aware of not being a good person,” she says.
Cinema that preaches never works anyway, says Adarsh. “But when it questions things that have been in existence for a long time – that’s my thing.”
“A lot of people have asked what happens to Ashwin and Ratna afterwards. But how you think their story ends says a lot about you and the kind of world you want to live in,” says Tillotama.
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From HT Brunch, February 28, 2021
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