Rohena Gera’s Sir Delicately Deconstructs The Language Of Love  , Film Companion

Director: Rohena Gera

Cast: Tillotama Shome, Vivek Gomber

The man is away on a trip. Consequently, the woman is allowed to visit her family. It’s a soothing break from her new big-city life. This is her time. She gets a call. Her little holiday is cut short – the man’s trip has ended early, and she needs to be around to receive him. She drops everything and returns to their swanky apartment. She readies it for his premature arrival. He comes back in a bad mood. She stays out of his way, but cares for him in the only way she knows how to. Despite being a vegetarian herself, she cooks his favourite mutton. She cleans after him. She covers him with a blanket in the middle of the night. She handles his phone calls. When he’s at work, she thinks about how to please him. When he’s at home, she keeps checking on him. They don’t speak a lot. They live in separate rooms. Theirs is a marriage of convenience, a match arranged by his mother. She is the “homely girl” he needs after his wild stint abroad; he is the Godsend she needs after the death of her first husband.

It says something about the institution of Indian companionship that, for the opening twenty minutes of Rohena Gera’s film, Ratna (Tillotama Shome) and Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) look like an ordinary married couple. There’s not much to suggest otherwise. The veneer breaks only when we hear the term she addresses him by: Sir. Ashwin is the employer and Ratna is his live-in housemaid. Ashwin’s wedding has just been called off, and Ratna returns from her village in time to assist his grieving. He is lost and lonely, she is spirited and hopeful. Is Love Enough? Sir is about their unlikely bond – a meditation on the shackles of social structure, but also an indictment of the social anatomy of love. In many ways, Ashwin and Ratna are already together; romance is the last-ditch formalization of their relationship. 

It’s one thing to make a film about Ashwin and Ratna. But it’s entirely another to tell their story. As is the case with interfaith connections, it’s too easy to fetishize the novelty of interclass connections. Most romantic comedies and coming-of-age dramas are satisfied simply with the concept of love blossoming between an employer and a maid. The love itself is rarely of consequence. The rich-poor barrier is seductive enough, irrespective of who they really are. They fall for each other because it makes for interesting cinema; their chemistry is a catchphrase. But writer-director Rohena Gera infuses Ashwin and Ratna with a sense of cultural individualism. The attraction between them is not a gimmick. Indian society conditions its occupants to interpret – or misinterpret – domesticity as the language of desire. Most of us grow up in households where the vocabulary of romance is rewritten to include words like “duty” and “responsibility”. The selflessness of caregiving is routinely equated to the selfishness of affection. Falling ill or old, and therefore being worthy of care, then becomes the most intimate act of love. The best of marriages settle into this cycle of maintenance. This explains why some of the most iconic movie heroes are broken men finding peace in the women who fix them. The difference between compassion and passion is merely a linguistic one. 

As a result, Ratna’s professional duty to take care of Ashwin inherently assumes the tone of personal responsibility. In a beautifully performed scene, Ratna, while awkwardly hovering around the dining table, confides in Ashwin about her own past in the hope that he is inspired to move on. She compares the demise of his engagement to the literal demise of her husband. He is amused. But the fact that she has a past, a personality – and even independent aspirations – as a caregiver becomes an X-factor for a man accustomed to the subtext of subservience. This moment alters his perspective towards her. She’s not only preserving his space, she’s also sharing it. Being heartbroken, and therefore being worthy of her care, then becomes Ashwin’s most intimate gesture of love. 

The film also takes into consideration who they really are. The background rationalizes their emotions. Ashwin was a writer in New York before a family crisis forced him to return to Mumbai. Being a writer, and having a writer’s head, escapism is his currency of living: he is more prone to flights of fancy than the average striver. He sees the unseen, and observes things that may or may not exist. Developing feelings for his househelp, then, is hardly unfeasible – it plays out like an against-all-odds fairytale for him, where he is the privileged loner (Colin Firth’s track in Love, Actually comes to mind) in search of a story. His current job, as an architect in his father’s company, is also an allegory for class misconceptions. For outsiders like Ratna, the collapse of his space looks a lot like the construction of his space – it’s hard to tell them apart. The hollowness of the building is misleading; onlookers automatically expect it to be filled. Ratna assumes that wealthy men like Ashwin have no worries. But being under construction also means being incomplete: it’s only later that she admits his sadness made him poorer than she ever was. 

Similarly, Ratna’s ambitions to become a fashion designer reveal an inbuilt impulse to transcend the optic superficiality of social barriers. One person’s reality can be another person’s fashion – and controlling society’s gaze based on appearance is Ratna’s idea of breaking free, both physically and psychologically. When Ashwin wears the “flashy” shirt she has stitched for him, it reduces the insurmountable void between them: she’s in his world, but he’s wearing hers. The terrace is Ratna’s private spot, even though Ashwin’s fancy balconies offer an identical view: she prefers to look at Mumbai on her own terms, unobstructed by the robes of privilege, so that maybe she can first tailor the inner-wear of the city before styling its outerwear. 

Tillotama Shome’s performance as Ratna – an extension of her debut as the Delhi housemaid Alice in Monsoon Wedding – goes deeper than context and mannerisms. An actor usually furthers the storytelling; here, she is the storytelling.

Tillotama Shome’s performance as Ratna – an extension of her debut as the Delhi housemaid Alice in Monsoon Wedding – goes deeper than context and mannerisms. An actor usually furthers the storytelling; here, she is the storytelling. The discerning viewer is inclined to look for glitches in authenticity and gait when an artist straddles one corner of the class ladder. For most of the film, I was distracted by the way Ratna says “sir”. Unlike the handful of English words embedded into her routine (‘ser-vant,’ ‘sorry’), the ‘r’ in her sir stays silent. The intonation is anglicized: it isn’t consistent with the rest of her pitch. This troubled me; the error felt too fundamental. 

However, an unassuming moment later in the film hints at an answer. Ratna serves Ashwin dinner in his bedroom. He is busy watching a film. As soon as she enters, he instinctively hits the pause button. The frame frozen is that of a couple kissing, lips locked and tongues touching. There’s an uneasy shuffle. Ratna quickly sets his plate down and exits, but not before catching a longer glimpse of the frame. Towards the end, when the two finally kiss, Ashwin may not realize it but Ratna’s lips imitate the image from his television set the other night. She tries to kiss, too, in his language. 

Her ‘sir’ doesn’t feel like an anomaly anymore – one instantly imagines her practicing the word in front of a mirror, her lips mimicking the art of belonging. For most, it’s a title of subordination. But for her, it becomes a term of endearment. Like Ratna herself, the ‘r’ is just a silent consonant. 

Sir is currently out in select theatres

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