Not Just Bollywood: Sir (India-France, English-Hindi-Marathi 2018)

Laxmi (Geetanjali Kulkarni, left) and Ratna (Tillotama Shome) go shopping together

Sir begins in a village in what I assume is the Western Ghats in Maharashtra. A young woman is about to return to Mumbai where she is a live-in domestic servant in the apartment of a young man who should be on his honeymoon. But the marriage did not take place and Ratna (Tillotama Shome) is now in a potentially difficult situation. Previously the young couple were living together in the apartment and the young architect Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) is now on his own. What follows over the next week is a form of ‘odd couple’ drama. The narrative is deceptively simple but carries both an emotional weight and a subtle social commentary. It is a very fine and delicate piece of filmmaking, deserving its appearance in Cannes Critics Week in 2018. Rohena Gera makes her début as a fiction feature writer-director though she has considerable experience in both American and Indian film industries.

Gera trained in the US and she clearly knows the Mumbai upper middle-class and the largely English-speaking families whose sons and daughters have been to university in the US. But she has done her research carefully and the narrative is largely driven by the village woman who has come to Mumbai, hoping to send money home and to train as a tailor in whatever spare time she can find. Ratna was widowed at 19 soon after her marriage, placing her in a difficult situation in her traditional village – which she hopes to escape in the city.

Vivek Gomber and Tillotama Shome

Tillotama Shome gives a wonderful performance in a role for which she had to learn Marathi to converse with her character’s family. At work Ratna needs enough Hindi and English to cope with her role as a ‘domestic’. Most reviewers refer to Shome’s role in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001) but in the Press Notes Gera tells us that it was Shome’s performance in Qissa (2013) that convinced her that the Bengali star of independent and mainstream cinema was right for the role. She also reveals that although she was impressed by Vivek Gomber’s terrific performance in Court (2014) she didn’t think he was right for the role of Ashwin. Fortunately, friends convinced her she was wrong and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role as Gomber manages to find the perfect combination of frustration, decency and repressed emotion to suggest how Ashwin feels. Although she is only in a supporting role Geetanjali Kulkarni makes an important contribution as Ratna’s fellow domestic servant, Laxmi, from a neighbouring apartment where she is a nanny (ayah?) cum maid/housekeeper – a rather different role to her public prosecutor pitted against Vivek Gomber in Court. But Kulkarni’s characters  often seem to be working-class or what in the UK would be lower middle-class. The nuances of class are just as important in India. Ratna’s difficult position in Sir is beautifully illustrated in the sequence in which Ashwin’s parents hold a reception where, as a servant, Ratna is virtually invisible. She serves guests and then returns to the kitchen where squatting on the floor she joins the other servants to eat their food. When Ashwin comes to speak to her, he embarrasses her in front of her friends – people should know their place. At this point Ashwin and Ratna know that they cannot be together. The social class divisions are too important and other people would suffer if they attempt to cross boundaries.

Rohena Gera finds an ingenious way to end her narrative. I’ve seen some Western reviews from Cannes that don’t really ‘get’ the story but this one from an Indian critic makes sense to me. Baradwaj Rangan points out that Gera covers several important social issues in Modi’s ‘Shining India’ but that she first makes a film rather than an argument. I think he’s right. There is something universal and humanist about the story which is also rooted in Indian society. Formally the narrative presents between a ‘closed’ romance melodrama within the flat where the mise en scène says a lot about the invisible barriers between the employer and servant with shots of Ratna’s room, the ‘dividing walls’ of the apartment and the wariness with which the characters approach each other. But when we move outside the building and follow Ratna around the city and back to the village, a different sort of story develops. The neutral location turns out to be on the roof of the building. In a Cannes interview Rohena Gera explains what she thought this overall split meant. Fundamentally though, the film works because of two terrific central performances. YouTube features a Cannes interview by the two actors together which reveals how much they worked with each other to build a convincing relationship.

I enjoyed the film very much and I look forward to seeing what Rohena Gera does next. Here’s a sequence in which Ratna and Laxmi borrow the doorman’s scooter and go shopping. If you go to YouTube you can find the second Cannes clip in which Ratna and Ashwin are together in the flat . . .

. . . and here is the international trailer:

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