It’s an old Bollywood plot – rich village landlord’s son falls for poor village girl who is clearly out of his social class and caste, and they battle the world for their love. ‘SIR‘, the 2018 movie directed by Rohena Gera, is an adventurous attempt to spin this familiar trope into an urban 21st century setting.
What if the rich boy was a bachelor in a slick Mumbai flat and the poor girl was actually the maid who housekeeps for him? Can there be an actual romance that bridges the cultural chasm between them?
Until a few years ago, Bollywood kept ‘the help’ at arm’s length, using only the ridiculously cliched loyal- onto- death type of character, who alternated between providing comic relief or fading into the background.
Recently, however, the stream of innovative filmmaking pouring out of Netflix and other platforms has begun to take an interest in depicting the social dynamics between domestic help and their employers, with a realism most city folk can relate to.
SIR is unique in that it’s about the genuine feelings that develop between a master, Ashwin (played by Vivek Gomber), and his maid, Ratna (played by Tillotama Shome). It’s well done and quite absorbing, despite a hiccup or two. The suspense of wondering how far Ashwin and Ratna would go to challenge social norms hooks the viewer almost as much as great performances by the two leads and the supporting cast. After all, most urbanites can identify with the presence of ‘the help’ in the background of their lives – maids, drivers, cooks, guards etc., are ubiquitous in Indian urban settings, especially elite ones; we’ve all heard the jokes about the lady of the house who doesn’t care a whit where her husband goes, but is devastated when her cook returns to his village.
In many ways, SIR represents the new, economically and technologically expanding India, where there is an increasing awareness of class boundaries, even while there is a softening of them.
In 2021, even the poorest vendor on the street has a cell phone. A girl like Ratna, with little English and no money, but with a handy iPhone, can leave her village for Mumbai, where she repeats what her new friend (Geetanjali Kulkarni) tells her, “This is Mumbai! You can be whoever you want to be!”
SIR begins with the ‘master’ Ashwin, returning home, furious and dejected, from his canceled wedding. We find out later that his fiancée cheated on him, and everything exploded just before the nuptials. Ratna is hovering around, servile and handy with glasses of nimboo paani.
We see him sinking into a quasi-depression, alone in his chic Mumbai flat, while his mama comes around to console him, and drops subtle hints to get him to forgive his fiancée’s infidelity. More than anything else, I was impressed with this progressive take on a woman’s cheating on her prospective spouse by the mother-in-law to be, no less.
Rohena Gera does a good job of weaving Ratna’s story into the mix – she’s a young widow who has been allowed to work in the city on the condition that she send 4000.00 rupees each month to her in-laws. Ratna is portrayed with an excess of dignity and virtue, and a fierce desire to forge her own economic independence.
Ashwin’s character is somewhat awkward – a privileged, goody two-shoes nice guy, the kind girls cheat on. And since he’s spending most of his time brooding at home, he begins to appreciate Ratna’s glasses of nimboo paani, home-cooked meals and, eventually, home-spun advice to soothe his aching soul.
Gera handles the trajectory of emotional intimacy developing between Ashwin and Ratna with sensitivity and attention to detail. A series of realistic scenes depicts their tension-filled undercurrents, keeping the viewer hooked for an inevitable confession of love. Several small vignettes, like brushstrokes of authenticity, depict Ratna’s life at the bottom of the social ladder and Ashwin’s at the top – Ratna counting her slim roll of money in her tiny room to pay for a tailoring class; Ashwin at a chic Mumbai bar with a friend who points him to “the girl across .. totally checking you out”; Ratna’s foray into a designer boutique where a guard promptly ushers her out, a stark reminder that class boundaries still exist.
Yes, SIR is watchable, right up to its final surprising twist. The script, direction and acting can almost make the viewer believe this relationship could happen easily. Can two people from such different universes – a barely literate maid, and an upper middle-class professional, the product of elite private schools, share a genuine, respectful love?
We almost believe the relationship until their first physical interaction – the first misstep which snaps the viewer out of this well-crafted romantic haze. In a ‘sex scene’ that happens too fast Ashwin fumbles, while Ratna’s physical response seems too sophisticated. An urbane Mumbaite making it with his maid in the real world is a hard sell. If Ashwin was less westernized or depicted as less entrenched in Mumbai’s party scene, disbelief could have been suspended more easily.
That being said, for a movie like SIR to have been made at all and receive good reviews (it won the Critics Week award at Cannes), is an indication of the cultural tremors that are transforming Indian social hierarchies. Definitely three stars!
Jyoti Minocha is an DC-based educator and writer who holds a Masters in Creative Writing from Johns Hopkins, and is working on a novel about the Partition.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents