Sir movie review: Rohena Gera’s film is a masterful romantic drama about a domestic worker and her employer
The commentary in Sir is rooted as much in the condescension of its affluent characters as it is in the electric tension between Ratna and Ashwin.
castTillotama Shome, Ahmareen Anjum, Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni
languageHindi, English, and Marathi
(This review was first published when Sir was screened at the New York Indian Film Festival 2019. It is being republished in view of Sir releasing in Indian theatres on 13 November, 2020.)
Stories of romance overcoming class boundaries have permeated decades of Indian cinema. Even the very first Indian talkie, Ardeshir Irani’s Alam Ara (1931), tells the story of a prince who falls in love with a nomadic woman exiled from his kingdom. While mainstream Bollywood productions often have a more quixotic, happy-ending-at-all-costs paradigm — Bobby (1973), Pardes (1997), Singh is Kinng (2008), Namaste England (2018); you can practically pick them out of a hat — regional and alternative cinema tend to offer more grounded reflections. Nagraj Manjule’s Marathi-language Fandry (2014), for instance, features a Dalit boy longing for an “upper-caste” girl, though the film’s focus isn’t his romantic pursuit, but the structures preventing his dreams from becoming a reality.
Rohena Gera’s Hindi, English and Marathi-language Sir falls somewhere between these two starkly different approaches.
It tells the story of Ratna (Tillotama Shome, A Death in the Gunj), a widowed domestic worker who finds a complicated romantic spark with her recently single employer Ashwin (Vivek Gomber, Court), who’s just returned from the U.S. after breaking off his engagement.
And while the film expertly dramatises the hurdles in their path, its commentary is rooted as much in the condescension of its affluent characters as it is in the electric tension between Ratna and Ashwin; it’s a socially-minded indie that you almost wish would transform into a lavish, starry-eyed musical — but it can’t.
Ratna, who’s saving up for her younger sister’s education, hopes to be a fashion designer, though circumstances in both her village and in the big city box her in. Back home, she’s defined by her dead husband (who she barely knew to begin with), and she can’t even wear bangles around her family. In Mumbai — where she’s allowed to make her own living as a domestic worker, while learning to sew from the local tailor — her employ becomes her identity. Ashwin may be kind to her, but both he and his more ill-mannered guests rarely see beyond Ratna’s status; her dreams may as well be secrets.
However, in the brief moments where Ratna isn’t waiting on Ashwin, and she interacts with his driver Raju (Akash Sinha, Photograph) or his neighbor’s domestic worker Laxmi (Geetanjali Kulkarni, Selection Day), Ratna’s stoic demeanour gives way to an impish smile, and her stillness to a vivid energy, just as the character’s colourful sarees pop against the muted tones of Ashwin’s dour apartment. Shome is, quite simply, mesmerising, and half the story is told through her change in mood and posture.
Each of these “lower class” characters occupies a dual existence; the moments that writer-director Gera chooses to bring Ratna, Raju and Laxmi to life are when they slip in and out of these different modes of being. In the eyes of their employers, they’re obedient, two-dimensional servants — Laxmi, like Cleo in Roma, is at once a beloved mother and scorned servant to the children she works for — but outside their employers’ fields of vision, they’re fully-fledged people with their own unique senses of humour, their own dreams, and even their own passive aggressiveness — they’re allowed to simply be.
We enter each room with Ratna, following her, seeing the world through her eyes. Gera makes sure to craft the story from Ratna’s perspective at all times, lest Sir fall into the trap of a damsel narrative — though Ashwin certainly tries to make it one. Gomber plays Ashwin with a melancholic weariness. A writer in a slump, he doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself now that his dreams of getting married and moving to America seem to have been dashed. Though, as he and Ratna spend more time together, both characters emerge from their cocoons, and they take an active interest in even the mundanities of each other’s lives.
Gera often captures Ratna and Ashwin in isolation. The characters rarely share the frame at first, and each day ends with Ashwin in his spacious room and Ratna in her cramped servant’s quarters, which the shot often tracks between; the wall that separates them is a boundary that the camera, and only the camera, can cross. Though once Ratna and Ashwin begin to open up to one another, Gera’s frame pushes them close. They stand in the same doorways. They occupy the same areas of the kitchen. They exchange tidbits about their lives, the things they wish they could do and the places they wish they could be. Gera, along with editor Jacques Comets and co-editor Baptiste Ribrault, zeroes in on the silences between these conversations, as if to unearth both the characters’ hidden desires and, in the process, tie these desires to one another.
There’s a tangible sense of excitement to something as simple as Ashwin and Ratna passing each other in the hallway, and an equally potent sense of danger when they interact while in the presence of other people. What might they let slip? But, as the excitement between them builds — Gera’s use of silent tension is a masterstroke; shots seem hold on them longer and longer each time — the danger builds just as quickly. Ratna knows what people will say if they learn about their tête-à-tête. Ashwin seems to know too, but he lives on cloud nine, since the consequences for him wouldn’t be nearly as severe.
It takes Ashwin being chewed out by a friend (of his own social standing) for him to finally see things clearly, but by the time he does, he and Ratna have become the only two people who seem to fully understand each other. They know each other intimately, in a way few people in their lives are allowed to. They know each other’s secrets — but Ratna is still his servant. “Please don’t call me ‘sir’,” Ashwin begs her, but how can she not?
Whatever the possibilities— A secret affair? A brief fling? Lifelong love and happiness? — dreamy fantasy and harsh reality keep brushing up against each other, forcing Ratna to exercise caution while Ashwin remains tethered to his naiveté. And yet, the two find uncanny compassion and companionship, despite a romance that can seemingly never be. At least, not yet. Not while Ratna and Ashwin still have lives to live, and happiness to find elsewhere. Perhaps their purpose is to help each other find it, but the livewire chemistry they share makes them feel like an eternal open question; a “what if…” that echoes long into the night.
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