Gently suggestive and mostly confined to richly detailed interiors, the contempo Mumbai-set “Sir” recalls Tran Ahn-hung’s “The Scent of Green Papaya” for its depiction of a furtive love blossoming between an upper-crust architect and his widowed domestic helper. Yet rather than reiterating Tran’s nostalgic fetishization of the docile Asian woman, tyro writer-director Rohena Gera emphasizes the female protagonist’s dignified struggle for self-sufficiency. Still a Cinderella tale of sorts, the film nonetheless gains gravity for its insight into Indian social rigidities that tether both impoverished villagers and well-heeled urbanites.
Like Rima Das (“Village Rockstars”), Gera is a female Indian director making her mark celebrating women’s empowerment against dire economic odds. Like Das’, her direction exudes a simple grace that transcends local issues. The Indian-French co-production could bank on sales agent MK2 to put it in festivals and art-house European theaters. With films like “Ilo Ilo” and “Sunday Beauty Queen” planting Asian domestic workers on the cinematic map, “Sir” should have long fest legs.
Ratna (Tillotama Shome), who became a widow at 19 when her husband died two months after their arranged marriage, goes to Mumbai to work in the affluent household of Ashwin (Vivek Gomber). The two first forge their solidarity when she lies to help him dodge his nagging mother (Divya Seth Shah). Then they find solace in sharing their wedding woes — Ashwin, whose engagement to family friend Sabina has been called off, is going through a rough patch.
Bit by bit, their back stories emerge over several scenes, fleshing out their characters and emotions and giving cultural context to their inescapably convention-bound world. Ashwin, who appears stand-offish at first, elicits sympathy when the reasons for his engagement to, and subsequent breakup with, Sabina come to light. Regardless of the class gap, the protagonists’ predicament underlines the irony of how parents too eager for their children to find happiness become the cause of their misery. “Parents are in such a hurry to marry us off,” says Ratna with a sigh.
Without resorting to strident outcries against female oppression, Gera makes one aware of the stigma Ratna endures as a widow. Though by comparison Ashwin’s situation seems like a walk in the park, Ratna’s the one who tries to make a fresh start in Mumbai, insisting that “life isn’t over” for her. Petite and fragile, with a girlish, angelic smile that belies a painful past, Shome provides a soft edge to an indomitable spirit. She shows particular delicacy in capturing Ratna’s manner toward her employers, which is deferential but not subservient. Likewise, Gera gets the curt condescension of Ashwin’s posh relatives and friends just right, without making them monstrous class caricatures.
Although Ratna’s ambition to become a tailor may seem modest to the entitled circle she serves, audiences across cultures will find it easiest to relate to, especially in scenes when her motivation runs up against an intransigent male profession that keeps women down to continue exploiting their cheap labor. Even as she insists she’s learning the trade to pay for her sister Choti’s education, Gera makes one feel her joy in mastering something creative rather than menial, and her growing radiance comes from gaining new purpose and freedom, rather than springing from the affectionate attentions of her employer.
Shot mostly inside a tastefully comfortable bachelor pad or around the same residential block where social liaisons are segregated in an unspoken but inviolable way, the film evokes the protagonists’ love in a low-key but credible manner, one grounded in daily acts of thoughtfulness and revelatory small talk. This builds to a sensuous and poignant confrontation, in which her pragmatism and his naive idealism are completely understandable, reinforcing the built-in unfairness regarding gender and class.
Gentlemanly, educated and considerate, Ashwin is almost too good to be true. When he gives Ratna a present, saying, “Everyone is entitled to their dreams,” it’s inexcusably cheesy. However, Gomber conveys a boyish melancholy that’s hard to resist. Overall, the script is so character-driven that audiences become thoroughly acquainted with the protagonists, much as they get to know and care for each other so intimately.
The production strives for an unassuming but polished visual style that doesn’t sensationalize chasms between rich and poor. DP Dominique Colin’s beautiful slow pans glide across rooms where the protagonists each scurry around in solitude, apart yet connected to one another. Occasionally, a long shot captures Ashwin’s loneliness as his minute figure gazes from his terrace at a glittering mosaic of skyscrapers. Jacques Comet’s smartly paced editing gives the drama a boost in tension at crucial points. Parul Sandh’s production design subtly creates partitions and tight spaces that symbolize the gilded cage India’s elite lives in, most notably a pivotal scene in which Ashwin rides the industrial elevator in his father’s construction site.