Vivek Gomber and Tillotama Shome in a scene from the film.
Vivek Gomber and Tillotama Shome in a scene from the film.

To Sir, with love

  • Rohena Gera’s ‘Sir’, which played at Critics’ Week in Cannes last year, is a slow-burning look at an inter-class relationship
  • The film stars Tillotama Shome and Vivek Gomber, and is Gera’s first fiction feature

Rohena Gera’s Sir premiered in the Critics’ Week sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival in March 2018. So it has been a long time to the India premiere, at the Mumbai leg of the Jagran Film Festival in the last week of September. Tillotama Shome plays Ratna, a domestic worker at the home of Ashwin (Vivek Gomber), the surviving son of wealthy south Mumbai parents who is being compelled to join the family business. Over the course of the film, they slowly develop feelings for each other and are faced with the question: Is such a love even possible?

Gera started out writing for the popular 2000s TV series Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin and for films such as Kuch Naa Kaho and Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic. She took to direction with What’s Love Got To Do With It?, a documentary about relationships and romance in urban India. Sir is her first fiction feature (an India release, either digital or theatrical, is being considered). We met her a day after the festival screening and spoke about how she handled the tricky subject of inter-class relationships. Edited excerpts:

Rohena Gera (left) directing Shome (centre) and Geetanjali Kulkarni.
Rohena Gera (left) directing Shome (centre) and Geetanjali Kulkarni.

You started writing the film a while ago. Did the process of making your first fiction film feel long drawn-out?

I started writing it in 2014, after I had done my documentary and it had travelled a bit. We were in preproduction in the end of 2016. It took me two years to get from starting to there—which is actually quite fast. We shot in 2017.

Every part of the process is very rewarding. I realized that all those years when I was a writer, I was doing the hardest part, because you are alone, you are banging your head against the wall. When you have the joy of collaborating, it doesn’t feel long.

You know what feels long drawn-out? When the film is over. From my world premiere to today, I am travelling. It’s the best possible outcome for a film like this, but it’s long. There has been a lot of travel over 18 months. I want to move on. I want to write my next film.

You’ve mentioned in interviews how you became increasingly uncomfortable with the unequal relationship most Indians have with domestic staff. Did living abroad give you added perspective?

For sure. Even as a child I felt the injustice, but when I went away and came back, I felt it more acutely. The way that we live is segregation—aap baahar raho (please stay outside), aap wahin khao (please eat there), apne bartan se khao (please use your own utensils). It’s strange in today’s world, especially when you are in a university and talking about human rights and so many issues, and then you come home and wonder, how do we live?

Given the unequal power equation between the two protagonists, bringing the story to the point where they can potentially be seen as equals must have been challenging.

It was step by step. There was a lot of rewriting. It was through a lot of little moments, like when she asks about the tailoring, and he assumes she needs money, but she says, seekhna hai (I want to learn).

Once I had the setup, it was about going layer by layer, figuring out what would happen with them. Also, nothing can be said between them. They can’t discuss or even tell a friend. So I didn’t have those “cheats".

Another revealing moment is when he asks if she always wanted to be a tailor and she corrects him and says, no, a designer...

Right there you see his classism. He thinks he’s doing the right thing. But we all have our built-in prejudices.

The film is constantly reminding us of the inequality. Ashwin’s friends and relatives are terribly, casually rude to her.

I genuinely wasn’t trying to make them prejudiced or not prejudiced, I was just trying to be honest to what I think would happen. I was trying not to make caricatures. We can all be jerks. When the sister screams at her, it’s because she just got a smack from the brother, when he tells her she’s cynical. She’s in a bad mood and it comes out.

Though everyone else refers to her as a “maid", Ratna pointedly calls herself a “servant". Was this another way of keeping the audience mindful of the gap?

It was. Though to her it makes no difference whether you call her a maid or a servant. She’s not an unhappy person, but she knows this is not something to aspire to. There’s a clarity of thought: I have a bigger dream but I have no illusions—this is my job.

There’s an inventive travelling shot that’s repeated, in which we see the two of them in adjoining rooms, a wall in between.

It was there in the script, designed a little differently. The point was to show both of them in their space on a human level in that moment. When they are back to back watching TV, it’s an equalizer. It was also to emphasize the idea of a barrier. The film is about these spaces within the home—how they are living so close and are yet so far. What happens if you push on that barrier? What happens if it breaks down?

In Mumbai, even posh houses often look cramped, which helps your narrative.

Yes, but Parul (Sondh), who is the production designer, really helped. The house didn’t look like that—it was an empty shell. It was totally redone from the inside: We added walls, created barriers. The corridor from his room to the kitchen, we elongated it, because the movement in that corridor is crucial. It’s a space that separates them but also joins them.

A corridor is also a key setting in Wong Kar Wai’s ‘In The Mood For Love’, a film you’ve mentioned as an influence.

That film was very present in my heart. Nothing was copy-pasted, but it just lives in you. Something I love about that film is the music. It helped me to push my own music.

European music directors tend to be more restrained. I wanted the music to be full—like In The Mood was. Why not do high romance? I gave him lots of Hariprasad Chaurasia references. We managed to get a flautist in Paris to come and record.

The restraint of the apartment scenes is juxtaposed with vibrant, messy scenes on the Mumbai streets.

It was great fun. There was some stuff we shot without proper permission; in the Dadar scene where she’s going to the class, we were trying to distract passers-by from looking into the camera.

In Mumbai, even if you have permission, you can’t shoot in traffic, everyone starts honking after 10 seconds. My DoP (director of photography), Dominique Colin, works on various things, including documentaries, so he was able to adapt very quickly and shoot it.

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