Caught At Cannes: Review of Sir

Directed by Rohena Gera and starring Tillotama Shome and Vivek Gomber, this film is a deceptively simple, emotionally resonant drama that (rightly) puts its characters before its themes
Caught At Cannes: Review of Sir

Director: Rohena Gera

Cast: Tillotama Shome, Vivek Gomber

Whatever the opposite of "hard-hitting" is, that's the flavour of Rohena Gera's miniature-size drama, Sir. I mean this as a compliment. A lot of Indian filmmakers get into festivals by pushing the right buttons — and Sir (which played at the Cannes Critics' Week) does tell a story that touches on cities and villages, the contradictions in Shining India, the plight of widows, class structure, and so forth. But the director's success is in making a film first. She is no doubt invested in these issues, but she isn't beating her breast and wailing — whatever she wants us to think about is folded into the story and the characters, like spinach in an omelette. It is Good For You™, no doubt, and it will provoke healthy discussions, but you don't taste the spinach.

Ratna (Tillotama Shome) is a maid. That's the word some of the characters use, though her employer, Ashwin (Vivek Gomber), would probably call her his domestic help. Despite his obvious wealth (courtesy the family's construction business), he doesn't treat Ratna like a slave. He says "Thank you" whenever Ratna brings him a cup of tea, or fixes a meal — the way we'd thank the waiter in a restaurant, even though he or she is just doing the job they are being paid for. It's the reflexive kind of niceness you find in people who don't look down on others. In the hands of another actor, Ashwin may have come across as bland, lacking colour and character, but Vivek Gomber makes us see a man who knows that he is privileged but doesn't see why that makes him very different. It isn't self-effacement, either. Ashwin just is.

Rohena, too, doesn't put Ashwin on a pedestal. There are perhaps a few too many tracking shots that go past the wall — The Great Divide, vertically splitting the screen — separating Ashwin's room from Ratna's (she's a live-in maid), but we also see how a relationship could bloom between them. At the beginning, Ratna backs away with a tray of sandwiches when she sees Ashwin is angry, but slowly, she gets to a point where she takes his calls for him, like a secretary who knows her boss's mind. Which is why it breaks your heart when Ratna sees a woman come out of Ashwin's bedroom and ask for a glass of water. You can sense Ratna's confusion. She may not have had romantic dreams. Maybe she just hoped she and Ashwin could have continued like this, just the two of them, with her looking after him. (They are both single.)

Sir isn't after epiphanies. It's more interested in the small moments, the rituals of daily life. The door being opened. Slippers being taken off. Trays of food being carried. Casual chats in the kitchen. And slowly, because there is no one else at home, Ashwin comes to know Ratna — that she has a younger sister, that she is in an off mood, that she's a believer. ("Bhagwan mein vishwas karti ho?" "Karna padta hai!") None of this may have happened if Ashwin were married. Ratna might have just been someone he nodded at, kept saying "thank you" to. A party scene, late in the movie, depicts this indifference. Ratna goes around with a tray of finger food. People don't even look at her. They take what they want and continue talking with each other. Under different circumstances, Ashwin might have been that way too.

One day, Ashwin kisses Ratna. Is this love? Is it loneliness? Is it something about both of them being trapped in jobs that don't match their dreams? (She wants to be a designer. He wants to write.) There's no reason given, but I was surprised by my response. Ashwin plays squash, speaks English with his mother. Ratna's calls to her village are conducted in Marathi, and her idea of unwinding is meeting up with the neighbour's maid. The bus that takes Ratna from her village to Ashwin's house might well have taken her to another planet. But this hasn't mattered in earlier films. I have seen rich boy-poor girl stories before, so why did I wince at this development in a way I didn't in Bobby or Raja Hindustani (rich girl-poor boy, there, still…) or the Shah Rukh-Kajol portions in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham? I think it's because those films were fantasies, whereas Sir is uncomfortably real — and Tillotama Shome is extraordinary in conveying Ratna's vulnerability. When the kiss happened, I realised I didn't want Ashwin's lofty classlessness to screw up Ratna's life. I didn't want to see her hurt.

In a pointed scene, Ashwin walks into the kitchen when Ratna is having dinner with other servants. (It's a gathering in someone else's house.) He asks if he should wait for her. He is just being his nice, polite self. But when he leaves, one of the servants mimics Ashwin and embarrasses Ratna. The scene makes us — at least, it made me — mull over this question: Even if we do not discriminate, are we really equals? Sir is a simple film, but deceptively so. It is an accumulation of small moments that build gradually. Even Ratna's casual act of putting on bangles in the bus comes to mean something. The writing is classless, too. Not all rich people are demonised. Not every poor person is a saint. It's just that there's a schism, and it runs really, really deep.

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