Sir (India/France, 2018) [AFI FEST 2018]

For her second film but debut fiction feature, which premiered at this year’s Cannes Critics’ Week, writer-director Rohena Gera takes the formula of the servant-master relationship-turned-love-story between a young widow from a village and a rich male bachelor as a way to address class difference and prejudice within the context of the Indian urban-rural divide. While nothing about Sir is groundbreaking on a visual and formal level, it does tweak said formula on several points and in doing so redirects the formula’s conventional narrative concerns from saccharine romance that claims to resolve class difference and prejudice to discussions about class perspectives and individual female empowerment. Consequently, the film’s title ends up being ironic, perhaps intentionally.

The first third of the film sets up the expectation of a saccharine romance, as it presents episodic-like sequences of Ratna (Tillotama Shome) and her duties as a live-in servant of a modern apartment owned by Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) over a certain period of time. At the beginning of this time period (and film), Ashwin has just broken off his wedding in the United States and flown back to Mumbai to resume his place within the family’s business of construction and development while reaaclimating to being a bachelor. In the midst of family and friends spewing advice on what he should do—either reconnecting with his former fiancée or diving head-first into the dating pool again—Ratna seems to be the only one around him to provide his life with some kind of stability and consistency. Anticipating and knowing a need, she is always ready to provide a drink, snack, or meal at the appointed as well as impromptu times, for Ashwin himself and/or sometimes visitors. Thus far, Ratna is narratively poised to desire nothing more than be the object of affection of a worldly and wealthy man; and marriage to such a man, what else could one want?!

But while the film initially invites the expectation of a full-blown romance between these two characters, and concluding with a happy-ever-after, it gradually subverts these expectations to become something else: about a woman who wants to realise her fullest self on her own terms, even if that paradoxically means abiding by a village code of hierarchy and doubled social isolation/prejudice because she is a widow. Not once does Ratna disown her class or delude herself into thinking that she can discard it, which presents a more complex relationship between identity (formation) and class (difference). (In contrast, Ashwin’s characterisation is simplistically idealised, reductive, and even underdeveloped.)

These narrative and character developments are admittedly refreshing, in that they refuse to box Ratna in a scenario whose sole trajectory is to have her ‘rescued’ from her class, as is the case with Ashwin’s perspective and other films like it. Ashwin does not care what other people might think or say when his desire for a relationship with Ratna emerges. Easy for him to say, the film seems to note. It is Ratna herself who lays it all down clearly: for the rest, she will be regarded as nothing but a servant, if she is regarded at all to begin with. The film’s most convincing moment that expresses Ratna’s all too acute understanding of how she as a representative of her class is perceived by the rich occurs when she serves guests at Ashwin’s mother’s party. As she mingles around clumps of guests and nears them offering a tray of food, the camera trails Ratna closely from behind, such that the camera and by extension the spectator are placed in her position of not one of the guests looking her in the eye and acknowledging her as a person, if they even look her way in the first place. But at no point in the film does it position Ratna as a victim; neither does Ratna herself. As the film further progresses, Ratna is ultimately the one who decides how things develop and resolve themselves, with Ashwin as well as her ambitions of becoming a fashion designer.

For one thing, Ratna is never exclusively defined as a domestic servant and by Ashwin’s apartment. She ventures outdoors, takes the initiative of asking Ashwin for time to apprentice at a tailor and then to take a tailoring course. Yes, much of the film sees her cooking and preparing meals and drinks for Ashwin, which serves to display her work as well as the emotional intimacy that comes with long-term proximity even though they rarely interact socially even when they are at home together. But she is again not defined by her tasks; it is simply her job, one that happened to also allow her to escape being defined and confined as a widow in her village.

Ratna’s job also helps her to further her younger sister Choti’s education. But in no way is she ever painted as a martyr to such a task, especially since her sister has her own ideas of how to go about fulfilling her sense of self in contrast with those of Ratna. Nor is she portrayed as a heroine exercising self restraint and self-effacement. In truth, however she may feel about Ashwin deep down—which she does not express—is outweighed by her ambition to be a designer; hence, perhaps, the romantic scenes being less than convincing.

And she literally has the last word in the film, which also hints at what kind of future interaction she and Ashwin will have, as she wills it.

Sir was shown on November 9 and 13 at AFI FEST.