Rohena Gera isn't batting for love, just asking questions about it. That's what she says over the telephone from Paris, ahead of her feature debut Sir's premiere at the Cannes Critics' Week – a sidebar at the festival dedicated to showcasing directors' first and second feature films. A "gamble on young auteurs," is how artistic director Charles Tesson described it in 2015.
From around 1,110 submissions, Sir is one of seven films from around the world to have made the final cut. It's an impressive league to be in – Wong Kar-wai got his start at Cannes Critics' Week with his film As Tears Go By (1989), as did Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu with Amores Perros (2000).
Gera's film is centered on a domestic help Ratna (Tillotama Shome) who falls in love with Ashwin (Vivek Gomber), the son of her upper-class employers. "A lot of us grew up with people who worked for our families or took care of us. When I was little, I had a live-in nanny too. So when there's someone who lives in your home, there's an intimacy to that relationship, but there's still a tremendous distance. There's these two parallel worlds in one home. The staff know everything that's going on in your life, but there's always a sort of unbridgeable gap. So the idea for the film stemmed from there – something that is familiar and at the same time, goes unquestioned because we are used to it. I wanted to explore the lives of two people who share a space without sharing their lives at all," she says.
A major part of the film was shot in an apartment in Lower Parel. From writing the script to post-production, Sir took about four years to make, but was the culmination of 20 years of work, says Gera. She made her directorial debut with What's Love Got To With It? (2003) a documentary about the machinations that go into arranged marriages. "I was exploring this idea that arranged marriages are built on – that love is not as important as stability. I wanted to explore whether the advocates of arranged marriages were right when they said, 'You build a stable relationship and then the love will come'." The documentary premiered at the Reel Real category of the 15th Mumbai Film Festival in 2013 and was later picked up by Netflix.
Gera's experience of making What's Love Got To With It? came with its fair share of struggles. A sparse crew meant her husband, actor Brice Poisson, sometimes had to handle both camera work and sound design. A DOP, in film school at the time, would drop in to help occasionally. "From that, to move to a film where you have a crew of 70, it's quite different. What's amazing about making a feature and working with extremely talented actors and having the good fortune of having an amazing crew is that it becomes a collaborative effort and you're not alone anymore. Shome and Gomber are both extremely talented and more importantly, hard working. They came up with backstories for the characters and developed their inner worlds."
Over time, something I've found interesting about love stories is their power to make us rethink things. You see the world differently when you see it from the point of view of someone you care about.
Developing characters is something Gera is familiar with. She is credited with the story of the 2003 Aishwarya Rai Bachchan-starrer Kuch Naa Kaho and the screenplay of the Kunal Kohli-directed Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic (2008). So what makes love such a prominent fixture in her body of work? "Maybe I'm a romantic at heart. Over time, something I've found interesting about love stories is their power to make us rethink things. You see the world differently when you see it from the point of view of someone you care about. That being said, Sir is much more than a love story. It's also about empowerment and freedom and faith in oneself. It's about what's possible in our lives and why. Why do we allow ourselves to love who we love? How do you stop yourself from falling in love with the wrong person? Who is the wrong person? Who decides this and what is their decision based on? I think questioning society is a much larger theme in the film" she says.
Tesson had a similar observation. While announcing the official selections for Cannes Critics' Week, he called Sir "a subtle and very moving reflection on the capacity of love to upset the status quo". Gera was thrilled. Having long admired Tesson – she calls him an "encyclopedia" of knowledge about Indian cinema – she says the validation and appreciation she received from Cannes was priceless. "It's something you don't dare hope for."
The real test for her, however, is how the audience reacts to the film. "That is what's making me anxious. I want to be in that dark cinema hall with the audience. I'll be holding my breath watching them," she says.