Rohena Gera on using love as an equaliser to question class divide in Sir: 'Wanted to stick to the truth of the characters'
'It’s too easy, making it dramatic or making somebody the bad guy or just going down this fairy tale path. But how do you make it real?' says Rohena Gera.
Around 1996, when screenwriter and director Rohena Gera was a student in New York, her mother had come to visit. The duo went to watch Robin Williams-starrer The Birdcage, a comedy focused on a gay couple. After watching the film, Gera’s mother, who did not know many people from the LGBTQ+ community, became interested in the lives of the people of the community.
“If you’re not sure, or have questions, or some latent homophobia, the film takes you on this journey where you’re rooting for the gay characters. And without even realising it, you as a person are transformed into really understanding that people are people,” Gera says in an interview with Firstpost. This experience is what ignited Gera’s interest in film as a medium. It helped her realise that not only was film a great form of storytelling, which she is passionate about, but through humanising an ‘other’ and making audiences root for that character, she could also “gently, subtly influence how people think.” As writer and director, this is the route she has taken with Is Love Enough? Sir, a love story between Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) and his live-in domestic help Ratna (Tillotama Shome), by focusing on the latter as an individual, and making the viewer empathise with her.
The seed for the film was sown in Gera’s childhood, as she observed the stark class divide in her own home. “From breakfast to dinner, everything is classist in the way you interact with people who work so intimately in your home,” she says. “I kind of lived with this question pretty much my whole life. I carried it around like a guilty secret but I didn’t really know what to do about it or how to talk about it.”
She was looking for a way to address the issue without being preachy or villainising anyone, keeping in mind her own position. “I feel like I’m not a bad person but I’m very much part of the system. So what does it mean?” Through a love story, she could address the issue without taking a superior stance or telling the viewer what to think. “Suddenly, it opened up in my heart because (if it’s a love story) then I realised that I could break out of this whole dynamic of inequality, of having him be the oppressor and her the victim,” she says. “If you fall in love with her and she says no, that’s it. You’re just as lost, doesn’t matter what you have in your bank account. So that helped me make it a story between equals,” says Gera.
Making it a love story also allowed her to explore the idea of who we fall in love with and how, something she had first inquired through her 2013 documentary What's Love Got to Do with It?, which follows eight individuals on the brink of arranged marriages. While romantic love is a very powerful force and stands as a direct challenge to societal structures, there is also intense moral policing around love in Indian society to reinforce ideas of 'right' and 'wrong' partners, something most people have neatly internalised. “(Asking) what’s love, or just thinking about love, talking about love, engaging with love. This idea of how do you allow yourself to fall in 'love' with who you do?’ Because it’s so convenient sometimes that you don’t fall in love with the wrong person. There’s a moment of giving yourself permission.” So with her film, besides questioning the class divide, Gera is also reminding how empowering a genuine connection can be for a person.
With the film, the reason love works as an equaliser instead of dwindling into the victim-oppressor dynamic is largely because of Ratna’s character. Had that character been meek, she might have felt the pressure of the social imbalance affecting her feelings and choices. But with her writing, Gera was careful about crafting a strong, independent character. “Her grit, determination, dynamism, the person she is, those things inspire and transform him. (It’s) love as an action. What people do to each other, how they inspire and support each other, bring out the best in each other.”
When portraying this evolving dynamic on screen, Gera uses few dialogues. Although they have a lot to talk about, there is very little they say out loud. “There are all these moments where you can only suggest things, you can only suggest desire. But you can’t address it directly,” says Gera. So the development of their relationship is portrayed largely through silences, the use of space between them, lighting, and music. Gera has maintained this subtly throughout the film, focusing instead on “giving space to thoughts and feelings,” and a particular mood hangs in the apartment through the course of the film.
To get across her point, Gera’s writing process involved a lot of rewriting. “I’ve been a screenwriter for many years. So sometimes I would fall into the trap of trying to be clever or do something 'dramatic.' And I had to keep going back and remove things and come back down to the truth of the situation. It was really about being honest to my characters and to myself, and saying 'let’s not cheat.'”
Portraying reality as closely as possible was essential for Gera, starting with absolute clarity about who her characters were, and then letting them lead the film. This decision was grounded in her desire to move audiences. “If it’s a fairy tale, we can separate ourselves from the experience,” she says, about art which allows one to sympathise with the situation, but puts distance between reality and fiction so that the audience is not actually questioning their own beliefs.
“I really wanted to stick with the truth of the characters because it was also my truth. It’s too easy, making it dramatic or making somebody the bad guy or just going down this fairy tale path. But how do you really bring the questions (forward), make it real?”
It is to effectively convey this subtlety that Gera tried, as far as was possible, to shoot chronologically, following the sequence of events in the script. “Because the film is so many tiny and subtle little moments, we couldn’t just say, here are all the night shots in the corridor, now change your emotions. It’s very difficult, because it’s so subtle,” she says. This approach made the experience more real for the actors, allowing them to work in that subtlety more smoothly. Since a majority of the film is shot in one apartment, which was on the 22nd floor, one would have ended up spending a lot of time with the back and forth, if the actors had trailers parked in the compound. So for the sake of efficiency, Shome and Gomber shared one of the rooms when they needed to rest. This meant that they never really stepped away from the world of the film, physically. “The act of being in that space constantly (had an impact). They’re not going into their trailers, and just watching another movie.” With the actors and crew all constantly working together in that space, the intensity of the apartment has made itself resoundingly felt in the film.
Since its premiere at Cannes, Sir has travelled to over 40 international film festivals, and received almost 20 awards, including the Gan Foundation Award for "ambitious and original features." Although the class divide the film portrays is specific to India, there is much that people all over the world can connect with. Among them are the characters: Ratna’s determination to achieve her dream of becoming a fashion designer, and Ashwin’s mindset of having given up on his dream of becoming a writer are both mindsets one experiences at different points in their life, and will find relatable.
The film is also a generally safe and positive space. “When you have these plot-driven things, sometimes there’s so much negativity coming at you,” which is not the case with this film. “And both these people are decent people. There are no evil monsters in the film.” It is also the tenderness of Ratna and Ashwin’s relationship that Gera thinks is striking a chord with people. “You want to feel that way, right? You want to feel that connection, you want to care. They inspire each other, and bring out the best in each other. And I think that’s something which connects with people because we all want that. We all want somebody to shine that light on you, and say I believe in you.”
While the film is doing well and the love it highlights is resonating with audiences the world over, it is the love Gera has in her own life that made it possible. Through the years of struggle and self-doubt, her husband Brice Poisson has been by her side, supporting her and believing in her work. It is also for this reason that he decided to produce the film, to protect her vision from being altered by outside pressure.
Gera points out how much travel was involved, which was a challenge for her as a woman and a mother. “I’m extremely aware that a different man may not have supported me in the same way. As a mum, if somebody tells you, ‘It’s not good for your kid if you travel so much,' I would have just stopped. It would have been so easy to nudge me in the wrong direction. So many subtle ways in which somebody can let their insecurities get in the way.” But instead, she received unrelenting support, a love that resonates in Ratna and Ashwin.
With everything that has gone into the film, Gera is now looking forward to its Indian release, and interested to see how people will engage with it. “I hope the audiences come out in support of our better selves.”
Sir is available in Indian theatres.
All images from Facebook @SirTheMovie.
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