Sir (dir. Rohena Gera)

In Rohena Gera’s discomfiting second film Sir, nuance is packed as uneasily as saris in a Mumbai alley fabric shop: the colors—and characters—customarily resplendent but reflexively collectivist in their assigned hierarchies. To Gera’s credit, her intention is to subvert these oppressive dualities that constitute Indian social consciousness. She does so by giving us a quietly until it’s not so quietly tense love story between a maid and a master in a Mumbai high rise.

The maid, Ratna, is a widow from a nearby village who is valued for her loyalty, reliability and cooking, but who values her dream to be a fashion designer, a leap she knows is extraordinary. The master, Ashwin, is a level-headed, genteel real estate developer whose engagement to someone from his social class/caste—a uniquely vexed Indian intersectionality—has just broken off. Sturdily, humorously, even exuberantly, Gera packs in scene after scene of escalating romantic and sexual tension between the two, in an accessible manner that would force philosopher George Wilhelm Hegel to revisit his famous Lord-Bondsman dialectic.

Here, the lord-master grants the maid-bondswoman time off to be a tailor’s apprentice; in turn, she wards off unwanted phone calls from inquisitive family. He buys her a sewing machine; she makes him egg curry. He aimlessly watches raunchy fare in his ocean-facing bedroom; she listlessly watches soaps within her four-walled room. The actors Vivek Gomber but especially Tillotama Shome (whom you may remember as the simple-strong Alice in Monsoon Wedding) graciously allow us to witness the making of a taboo chemistry. In turn, Gera fares well in the tough task of rendering the spacious apartment—emblematic of dominant Indian society—unsuited to holding her characters’ unsanctioned desires.

Initially, the film seems to wobble towards its tone, its particular clotheslines and drawstrings of arranged tension. However, through repeated scripted actions—Ratna serving Ashwin breakfast, Ashwin returning home from work; Ratna’s wearing her sari as though it holds her guard around him, Ashwin’s ever so casual slouch a fine contrast to his alert demeanor around her—Sir draws us in without making us feel like the third wheel. Gera’s tentative dialectic of kinship and regret, shame and self-expression, lends Sir surprising authority, even though the cloth she’s working through can sometimes cut too close to obvious delineations. What might appear as on the nose in terms of direction is on the dot in terms of exasperations of these lived realities. —Ritesh Mehta

Tillotama Shome in Sir. Image courtesy of Inkpot Films.

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