Tag Archives: Rohena Gera

Sahib’s in Love With The Maid in ‘Sir’

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.

Tillotamma Shome as the maid Ratna

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.

Tillotamma Shome in SIR

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

Cinematic Gold from Bollywood and Beyond

The advent of winter brings with it the annual 3rd i Film Festival, a visual smorgasbord of fresh perspectives and brave new voices by independent filmmakers from South Asia and the South Asian Diaspora, including stories from India, Sri Lanka, UK, Italy, and the USA. 3rd i’s 17th Annual San Francisco International South Asian Film Festival: Bollywood and Beyond (SFISAFF) launches at the New People and Castro Theaters in San Francisco from November 7-10, moving to Palo Alto on November 16. Some of the movies are unafraid to explore issues that are uncomfortable, give voice to the oppressed and shed light on matters often overlooked or ignored.

A highlight for this year coming straight out of TIFF and Venice Critics’ Week is Gitanjali Rao’s animated feature Bombay Rose. In the rich, colorful and layered hand-painted animation there is an ethereal brightness to the chaotic Mumbai streetscapes where Bollywood cinema is both satirized and romanticized, and small town folks in the big city can be crushed by its mean streets, or redeemed by love. The film moves seamlessly between a documentary feeling of present-day struggles in Mumbai, to the lusciously designed dream sequences set in ancient India and inspired by Mughal folk art. Yoav Rosenthal’s original score merges swooning ballads with traditional Bollywood music and a haunting Latin love tribute.

A still from Bombay Rose

This year’s special focus is on Young Voices, with a host of films that feature stories with strong youth characters. Dar Gai’s Namdev Bhau: In Search of Silence is a witty, off-beat take on the road movie, set against the breathtaking landscapes of Ladakh. The film features an inter-generational storyline about the relationship between a young boy and an elderly man, as they head for the peace and tranquility of the Silent Valley, leaving the hustle and bustle of the city behind. Filmmaker Gai, a philosopher by training and originally from Ukraine, has made India her filmmaking home and is touted as an exciting new voice in Indian cinema.

A still from Namdev Bhau: In Search of Silence

Also part of this youth focus is Rima Das’ Bulbul Can Sing. The film takes us back to the timeless beauty of the northeast in this bittersweet narrative that draws inspiration from her own experiences of growing up in the Assamese countryside. This is no simple rural idyll however; in Das’ deft hands, the film transforms into a deeply compelling exploration of love, loss, and adolescence.

A still from Bulbul Can Sing

Safdar Rahman’s heartwarming story of young Chippa features Sunny Pawar (award-winning child star of LION). Chippa sets out into night-time Calcutta looking for a father he has never seen, finding a city of migrants who speak in a curious mix of languages. Chippa is not oblivious to the grim reality and communal suspicion surrounding him, but chooses to encounter this world with a mixture of bravado, curiosity and humor.

A still from Chippa

Another film in the youth category is The MisEducation of Bindu screening in Palo Alto, which premiered at Mill Valley Film Festival, and follows a day in the life of formerly homeschooled Bindu as she endures an American high school and tries to graduate early. Her mother does her best to keep Bindu on track while maintaining her South Asian heritage, and her clueless stepfather tries to give Bindu advice on boys and high school life in America. Paying homage to Bollywood rock with one fantastical Bollywood dance number, Bindu dreams about escaping and longs for her home in India. Director Prarthana Mohan will be present for a Q&A session after.

A still from The MisEducation of Bindu

 

Rounding out the youth films in Palo Alto is romantic comedy Bangla, with Phaim. An awkwardly charming 22-year-old Italian-Bengali panics when he falls in love with an impulsive and spirited Italian girl. The attraction between them is immediate, and Phaim will have to figure out how to reconcile his love with his life full of rules. This whimsical lens on the clash of cultures is based on the director’s own life, who plays the lead fictionalized version of himself.

A still from Bangla

 

Another stellar narrative in Palo Alto is Rohena Gera’s Sir, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival. A nuanced and sensual film, it explores the forbidden attraction between Ratna, a maid, and her employer Ashwin, a wealthy Mumbai bachelor, with each character quietly yearning to break free from the narrow bounds of their class and gender-based expectations. Gera achieves a particular delicacy in her directing, combining an appealing, understated sweetness with an edge, and thwarting all expectations and stereotypes of a typical Indian love story.

A still from Sir

 

The festival features stories of addiction, which includes acclaimed black and white photographer Ronny Sen’s indie Cat Sticks. A gritty and haunting narrative, the film follows the stories of several addicts looking for the high of halogen, a synthetic brand of heroin that created havoc in India at the turn of the millennium.

A still from Cat Sticks

 

The other film in this focus is Bhaskar Hazarika’s quietly shocking The Ravening (Aamis), which opened to great acclaim at the Tribeca Film Festival. An unforgettable meditation on taboo and transgression, the film blends gentle romance and body horror into a unique cinematic experience. Hazarika masterfully concocts a tale of love and addiction that builds slowly – from a lilting rhythm to a pounding finale.

A still from The Ravening (Aamis)

 

While this year’s program predominantly showcases narrative features, documentaries are also part of the lineup. Equal parts comedy and self-discovery, Laura Asherman’s intimate doc American Hasi is a portrait of Indian-American comedian, Tushar Singh. In an attempt to accelerate his career, Singh maps out a 35-day tour in India (with his mom in tow), taking part in India’s flourishing stand-up scene.

A still from American Hasi

Comedy also features prominently in this year’s edition of Coast to Coast, 3rd i’s signature shorts program which brings California filmmakers into conversation with filmmakers from South Asia and the Diaspora. The program includes Varun Chounal’s Gabroo about a young Sikh boy’s complicated relationship with his hair, Mahesh Pailoor’s portrait of Pakistani-American comedienne, Mona Shaikh, and Andrew Sturm’s political satire on the border wall, 31 Foot Ladders, along with a variety of short docs, narratives, and music videos.

A still from Gabroo

This year for the first time in the festival’s history, 3rd i will offer a free Master Class in filmmaking from the talented documentary filmmaker Nishtha Jain (City of Photos, Lakshmi and Me, At My Doorstep, Gulabi Gang). Jain returns to SFISAFF to talk about her filmmaking process, to present excerpts from past work and the present, and to talk about the different social and political movements in India and its alignment with her work. Jain’s work holds up a mirror to some of the most pressing concerns in India today, including India’s #metoo women’s movement.

Documentary filmmaker Nishtha Jain will offer a free Master Class in filmmaking.

Women’s issues are at the forefront of several other films in the lineup. Vasanth S. Sai’s Sivaranjani and Two Other Women pays a cinematic homage to the “everyday” woman and is a deeply moving work that focuses a critical lens on patriarchy, with outstanding performances by each of the lead actresses. The film captures the micro awakenings of identity and self-worth when family dynamics, early marriage, and pregnancy threaten to usurp the individuality of three women, unfolding across three different time periods.

The festival brings back Sri Lankan director Prasanna Vithanage with a screening of the historical epic feature Children of the Sun (Gaadi) about a Sinhalese Buddhist woman in the 1814 Kandyan Kingdom of Sri Lanka, stripped from nobility, who subverts the destiny forced upon her. His searing masterpiece is a period drama that takes on caste conflict and British colonial influences in Sri Lanka in the early 1800s. Director Vithanage will join a panel discussion following the film.

Among the voices to amplify, LGBTQ+ themes feature prominently in Poonam Brah’s Home Girl  about a British lesbian woman’s coming out story while navigating her mother’s death in Coast to Coast, 3rd i’s shorts program, as well as Ronny Sen’s Cat Sticks illuminating the life and trials of a transgender sex worker, and Rima Das’ engaging youthful exploration Bulbul Can Sing.

Castro Passes ($35) are only available online until Nov 5. Tickets to individual films are $11/online and $13/at the door. More information about the festival, including expanded program, guest and ticketing information, please visit www.thirdi.org

 

Mona Shah is a multi-platform storyteller with expertise in digital communications, social media strategy, and content curation for Twitter, Facebook for C-suite executives. A journalist and editor, her experience spans television, cable news and magazines.

Cover photo credit: 3rd i Films. 

This article was edited by Culture and Media editor Geetika Pathania Jain.