Love on a leash

Updated: 15 November, 2020 07:05 IST | Meenakshi Shedde | Mumbai

The film, an Indo-French co-production in Hindi and English, reaches India after releasing in 23 nations, shame on us!

Illustration/Uday Mohite
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeIndians are some of the most hierarchical, racist skunks on the planet. Rohena Gera's Sir — Is love enough? asks if love could possibly change that. It is an exquisite jewel of a romantic drama, that your heart will remember long after you've seen it. It's the perfect Diwali gift—it has actually released in Indian theatres nation-wide this week, hallelujah! This debut feature was at the Cannes Film Festival's International Critics' Week in 2018, where it won the Gan Foundation Award for French distribution. The film, an Indo-French co-production in Hindi and English, reaches India after releasing in 23 nations, shame on us!

Ratna (Tillotama Shome) is a Maharashtrian woman from a village, who works as a housemaid for Ashwin (Vivek Gomber), a wealthy construction business heir, in a Lower Parel highrise (when did you last see a kaamwali bai as the heroine in a feature, let alone its romantic lead?). The drama is set early on: Ratna is a young widow, while the US-returned Ashwin has just cancelled his wedding, as his fiancé was apparently caught having a fling. He's a writer in a funk, following this fiasco and the death of his brother. For Ratna, the Mumbai job is an escape from the stifling village, a chance to pursue her dreams. Ratna is sensitive to Ashwin's feelings: from being politely efficient, she discreetly takes on more, fobbing off his Mummyji's calls when he wants to be left alone. The English-speaking, squash-playing Ashwin is much slower to notice she's more than a "sarvant" (as Ratna calls herself), and learns about her dreams of becoming a fashion designer, and how she's paying for her sister's studies, so she can escape her own fate. Slowly, these lonely souls are drawn to each other—but can love really bridge the class divide?

Gera writes and directs this deeply felt film with an assured hand, delicately crafting many resonant moments, rather than a big drama. Her finely nuanced screenplay and dialogues address class, the rural-urban divide, whether dreams can get in the way of love, and how class can be both limiting and liberating. She packs so much into the film, but with a feather light touch; there's not a moment you don't believe, even when the boss tenderly kisses his maid. Shome (Qissa) is terrific as the self-respecting Ratna, who is here to make a career and cautiously puts love on a leash, and we root for her unashamedly. Gomber (Court) is a good foil as Ashwin: restrained as the upper crust employer, who is decent in considering her a friend than a servant—exceptional for India—yet doesn't realise how his tenderness towards her in public is humiliating for her as well. This strongly feminist film is flecked with delicious humour, and the climax is a masterstroke, with a poignant, O Henry-ish ending. It is very challenging for a filmmaker to leave you with a smile on your face and a tear in your eye, but Gera does this effortlessly. Dominique Colin's cinematography, though largely indoors, observes how the class divide slowly crumbles into tenderness. Editor Jacques Comets does a superb job, and there is lovely music too. The film is produced by Brice Poisson and Gera, who are married, and coproduced by Thierry Lenouvel. Kudos to Platoon One Films and PVR Pictures for distributing the film in India.

Many Indian films have addressed romance across the class divide, including Zoya Akhtar's Gully Boy, Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding, Lust Stories, Dharmesh Darshan's Raja Hindustani, Shyam Benegal's Ankur (Hindi), Girish Kasaravalli's Thai Saheba (Kannada) and Anjali Menon's Manjadikuru (Lucky Red Seeds, Malayalam). Nishtha Jain's documentary Lakshmi and Me examines her own privileged relations with her maid. Sir is a very welcome addition. It is a contemporary classic. Don't miss this film.

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at meenakshi.shedde@mid-day.com

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First Published: 15 November, 2020 04:19 IST

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