Maid for each other

Published on Jan 23, 2021 07:14 PM IST
Rohena Gera’s new film shows a wealthy homeowner falling in love with his domestic help. How did the writer-director do away with Bollywood’s rich-poor clichés and address this with realism and sensitivity?
Rohena Gera’s latest movie Sir has received rave reviews in India and abroad
Rohena Gera’s latest movie Sir has received rave reviews in India and abroad
ByShunali Khullar Shroff

Watching a profoundly beautiful film made by an old friend can be an atypical experience, especially if the film is her award-winning debut feature. Part of You, even as you get absorbed in her storytelling, is looking for pieces of that friend in her characters, as if in need of confirmation about what you believe you know about her. This is exactly what watching Is love enough? Sir on Netflix by Rohena Gera does to me, recently.   

A love story that explores class dynamics in the Indian society, Sir has me riveted and I can’t stop thinking about the restraint and maturity with which Rohena, the writer and director of the film, tackles this complex subject.

“I cannot get over your film. How could you get it so right?” I text her. And I am not the only one feeling this way, my social media feeds are full of high praise for the film.

Rohena lives with her husband Brice Poisson and their nine-year-old daughter in Paris. In India, to see her parents in Pune since the past month, she is equally shocked by the response to Sir.

“This outpouring of love that I am getting, I never expected it. I was worried they would just reject Sir here,” she tells me over a phone call. “I have had so many messages on my social media accounts from people to tell me just how moved they are by the film. It isn’t just the affluent among us, who are rethinking things, it seems to be connecting to people who are more familiar with those struggles as well.”

Points of similarity

I have known Rohena from when we were in our 20s. Her house help at the time was a Maharashtrian woman named Vandana, who like Ratna from the film, was a widow and whose feelings Rohena tried best to not disregard, much like Ashwin in Sir

Is Ratna inspired by Vandana, I ask her. “I think she is a combination of different women. There are definitely aspects of Vandana in her, like there are things that she and I had talked about like wearing a small black bindi when she was in the city, which wasn’t allowed in her village. For her it was this big moment to be able to choose to wear one. I gleaned a lot of insight into her life and the challenges of what she had been through from just chatting with her.”

It was during this time that she began to understand that people who worked for you came with their own dreams and aspirations, and weren’t just two-dimensional beings. “I lived with Vandana for a long time in Mumbai and I think there is a way in which you can bond with somebody like that because basically you are like roommates. Even so, it is interesting to see how those hierarchies play out because it is cool to say we are all equal and this domestic worker is like a family member, but up to what point are you going to be ok with it?” she says.

Rohena recalls the time when Brice and she had guests over, Vandana would cook for them and then come out of the kitchen and wait around to get the compliments from their guests. “If nobody praised her cooking she would ask – ‘how is the food?’ I used to find that annoying. But then you have to also question yourself, right? Because on the one hand you say they are family but then you are not okay with certain things,” she says.

Social conditioning

But how does one go about compensating people who work at our homes for the inequities and structural inequalities they have faced since generations?

Rohena agrees that there is no easy solution to this problem and, in many ways, we are all complicit in allowing such a brutal social system to carry on. “I have been carrying this guilt inside me my whole life. If you look at it, the way our society really treats one segment of the work force, which is undocumented – no protection, no rights, no fixed working hours, or salary structures, then we are not very far from slavery, right? This has its roots in classism basically.”

When she was living in Mumbai, Rohena used to pass by a slum near her building, which to most people was a source of annoyance. But she viewed their world differently.

(Anticlockwise from left) Rohena with her husband Brice Poisson at the Cannes Film Festival; A still from the movie featuring Tillotama Shome; Rohena with the crew of the film; On set with the cast of Sir
(Anticlockwise from left) Rohena with her husband Brice Poisson at the Cannes Film Festival; A still from the movie featuring Tillotama Shome; Rohena with the crew of the film; On set with the cast of Sir

“It was interesting to see them laughing and enjoying, as mothers sat on the pavement taking lice out of their children’s hair, or communities sat in the sun, chatting. I was going through a tough phase in my life then, and asked myself – who am I to decide what happiness is? Someone living in an air-conditioned home isn’t necessarily happier than these people. Success, wealth and privilege do not guarantee happiness. I realised that every person there was a full person and that people aren’t just a product of their class or gender or sexuality.” Class, she concluded, was just one factor, there are many other things that define what a person was and this is what she tried to convey through Ratna and Ashwin in her film.

Success story

Sir ran to packed houses in France, where it is counted among the top five Indian films ever, along with Salaam Bombay! (1988) and The Lunchbox (2013). It premiered at the prestigious Cannes Critics’ Week, where she became the first woman ever to win the Gan Foundation Award. Rohena was also invited to walk the red carpet in solidarity with 81 other women at Cannes to make a statement about gender inequality in cinema.  

Brice, her husband and producer of Sir, joins the conversation briefly, to tell me that all Rohena did at Cannes was to rush from one interview to another and she couldn’t even find the time to click pictures on her phone. “Cannes is like a marathon with a champagne glass in hand,” he says.

After Cannes, Sir went to more than 45 international festivals where it collected 18 awards across categories.

Getting personal

I ask her if Ashwin, the wealthy employer, would have fallen in love with his maid Ratna had he not been at such a vulnerable spot in his life after a break-up? Can we mistake co-dependence for love? 

“I don’t think the relationship is coming out of dependency, but because he is vulnerable when he sees her. She steps up and tells him that life does not get over etc. She has been invisible to him until now and he starts to see her as a person and falls in love with the person, because she is telling him stuff nobody else is. And she brings out the best in him. She encourages him to be truer to himself with regard to his dreams,” says Rohena.

When asked what does success feel like now, she says, “I have been around long enough to know that it is transient.”

“For me, it is deeply moving because I went out on a limb to make this film and it could have so easily fallen between the cracks. It wasn’t an art house enough and it isn’t commercial enough, so we are sitting between two chairs. I do know it could have ended up being on a hard disk lying under my bed and seen by just my parents and extended family. So, to me it means a lot that it has been received so well.”

Rohena is nervous about her next project. “Success can be unnerving,” she says. She’s taken her own time to create this memorable movie. So, maybe she should sit back and enjoy her success? “Maybe I should just give it all up and retire,” she chuckles.

Shunali Khullar Shroff is a Mumbai-based writer. Her last book was titled Love in the Time of Affluenza.

From HT Brunch, January 24, 2021

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