Sir: Of Domestic Workers Who Risk Dreaming And Falling In Love

Rohena Gera’s ‘Sir’, while subverting the popular portrayal of domestic workers in Indian Cinema, is authentic to the core.

The panoramic shot capturing Ratna and Ashwin alone in their rooms shows them divided by a wall, physically and metaphorically. Ratna is a widow from a poor family in a Maharashtrian village, working as a live-in domestic worker for a recently single Ashwin who has returned from America. The wall dividing them is indeed an unbreakable one, the elite echelons of society to which Ashwin belongs can have a Ratna only on its margins, serving drinks to guests at parties and coiling back to where she belongs, having food with other house-helps at the kitchen floor. As we begin another pandemic-charged year, there may be a sense of desensitisation to these divisions. After all, we have spent nearly two years retreating behind our ‘walls’. “Is Love Enough? Sir” may just be enough to shake us out of our collective stupor. What’s remarkable about the movie is that instead of trying to phantasmagorically subvert the existing social structure, it portrays it with a brutal authenticity. What it does subvert is the popular portrayal of domestic workers in Indian cinema.

It’s an ode to the aspirations of those working in our homes, performing tasks for meagre pay– who too can dream and think beyond survival. Despite being a bright and ambitious student, Ratna was married off hastily due to her family’s underprivileged socio-economic background and compelled to leave her studies midway. Widowed only four months into her marriage, she leaves her conservative family and moves to Mumbai to work as a domestic worker and support her sister’s education while also gradually working towards her passion for fashion designing. This is what most Bollywood movies fail at but Sir gets right; the cliched Ramu Kaka trope that depicts a man wearing old rags, sporting a cleaning cloth that perennially dangles from his shoulder, as he always remains at the beck and the call of his larger-than-life employer, is the only portrayal of domestic workers that the mainstream cinema has offered conventionally.

The romanticisation of this hapless character is what makes it further problematic, too much has been demanded from a Ramu Kaka- someone who loves and cares for his employer’s kids as if his own, the epitome of honesty and empathy, a loyalist and often times confidante, hardly having any ambitions of his own, serving tirelessly without wanting any more in return than what has ‘justly’ been offered. Yet, the “Ramu Kaka” always remains at the fringes of the narrative, appearing sporadically and always tolerant in the face of exploitation of his labour. The Ramu Kaka of affluent families has more recently been replaced by a bai in Indian cinema, reflecting the changing lifestyles and nuclear family patterns as a result of rapid urbanisation and migration: in all, the rise of the new middle class propelled by the economic reforms of early 1990s. More often than not the bai has also been reduced to a caricature. The notorious scene in which Kabir Singh hysterically chases his domestic worker in the eponymous movie instantly comes to my mind. Sir does not dehumanise or caricaturise Ratna; it shows her vulnerabilities and loneliness, her fears, her dreams and ambitions, little moments of joy, awkward silences and puzzled hand movements with distinctive honesty. She’s as human as her employer, she isn’t required to prove her humanity repeatedly. 

The two fall in love and eventually share a brief yet passionate romantic encounter which fizzles out as they realise that the gap between them is unbridgeable. Even though Ashwin is persistent on ignoring their material realities and moving in together, Ratna is cognisant of the rigid social norms, of how love is not enough in a social structure which punishes and ostracises those who break hierarchies. An empathetic Ashwin’s naivety might not be wilful but his ignorance is culpable, rooted in the privilege of not even having the consciousness of the structural hierarchies that constitute the identity of a Ratna, the woman he has fallen in love with, and the myriad women like her. On the other hand, her lived experience of oppression endows Ratna with the foresight to realise the repercussions of such a romantic union beyond the romantic and naive notions Ashwin nurses about love. As Hannah Arendt would say, our distinct identities are forged and gather meaning through their acknowledgement by the political communities we are a part of, we have been socialised into deriving our dignity from our social circles. For someone as conscientious and honest as Ratna, who is determined to carve out a better life for herself and her family, her dignity is precious, it cannot be traded for an uncertain and unimaginable romance (“mujhko farak padta hai”). She knows that she’d be subjected to character assassination and demeaning specualtions projecting her as a gold-digger, a calculating woman beguiling a wealthy man out of his inheritance. We get a glimpse of this grim reality when her co-workers ridicule her as Ashwin offers to wait for her at his mother’s party.

In an interview, Shome (Ratna) remarks how internet search engines, for instance, yield only pornographic results to enquiries about matrimonial or romantic relationships between a man and his domestic worker; even our cultural imagination has no space for viewing such a relationship with dignity. When Ashwin’s father casually asks him if he’s been sleeping with his “maid”, this notion gets further affirmed. The idea that the labour of women serving as domestic workers also comes with the ready offering of their bodies as an extension of the work they do is also to do with the intersectionalities of their identities since more often than not they belong to oppressed castes. The sexual exploitation of Dalit women has been taken for granted for ages. Historically, upper caste women have been portrayed as pure and virtuous whereas Dalit women’s bodies have been thought of as sexually available for the consumption of upper caste men. There are caste-based hierarchies, therefore, even when it comes to the objectification of women’s bodies. Even though caste and class are inextricably linked with gender identity, the gender question becomes more significant since it’s considered normal for a man to access the body of his female domestic worker but if a woman sleeps with her male domestic worker that would cause a scandal. After all, women’s sexuality has to be caged and protected. 

It is difficult not to remember Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, another movie which went on to become a cult classic as it overturned the traditional Indian romance and wedding genre on its head, when thinking about Sir. Alice, also played by Shome, a live-in domestic worker from a village in Bihar, marries for love whereas the protagonist, Aditi, around whose marriage the movie revolves, goes on to marry the NRI man her parents have chosen for her. Aditi’s adventurous romantic encounters with her married boyfriend that end in a mishap are juxtaposed to Alice’s relationship to the whimsical wedding planner PK Dubey whom she marries in a modest personal wedding, as opposed  to Aditi’s grand ceremony. Dubey is anything but the hero and so is Alice anything but the heroine, yet their inter-religious courtship follows the conventional trope of Bollywood romance where the woman is subjected to the male gaze of the hero, who wants to marry ‘a simple and decent girl’ and proposes to her with a flower. While Aditi shatters the stereotype of the chaste upper caste Hindu woman by exercising agency on her romantic life and acting on her sexual desires, Alice’s character subverts the cultural and cinematic stereotype of a domestic worker by foraying into and inhabiting the space conventionally reserved for an upper caste Hindu woman’s romance. “Having a Christian occupy the position of the pure Indian woman undermines the Hindutva identification of the nation with the chaste, upper-caste Hindu woman and a Bollywood stereotyping of Indian Christians as mini-skirted, sexually loose women” writes Jenny Sharpe (Gender, Nation, and Globalisation in Monsoon Wedding and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge).

Recently, Roma and Parasite have shown sheer cinematic ingeniousness in representing domestic workers and bringing them to the center of the narrative. The way the politics of space plays out brilliantly in Parasite through the metaphors of upstairs-downstairs, light-dark and front seat-backseat, is also seen to some extent in Sir where Ratna traverses between the kitchen and the crammed servant’s quarter whereas Ashwin occupies the brighter and spacious parts of the home. Unlike archetypical Bollywood movies, Sir is neither a fairytale nor a fable of star-crossed lovers but it sure is an optimistic take on an undeniably grim reality, resting on the twin foundations of respect for the agency of those who have been the passive subjects of a rigid and brutal hierarchy and the ability to perceive them as humans with equal moral worth. Whereas movies like Sairat, Article 15 and more recently, Jai Bhim dealt with the gut wrenching violence wreaked by the caste system ingeniously, Sir is a more inward looking and introspective movie which instead of showing the mirror, itself becomes a mirror. The affable but clueless Ashwin is the embodiment of the dilemmas plaguing all of us who at some point have realised the sheer magnitude of our privilege. The movie has been left open-ended but perhaps it is this belief in Ashwin’s ability to treat her as a moral equal that encourages Ratna to eventually address him by his name instead of calling him sir. It is a well-crafted movie in terms of both plot and cinematography; Tillotama Shome brilliantly fits the bill as a coy but an ambitious maid and Gomber too gives a flawless performance, the sense of dignity they lent to their respective characters throughout the film without fail is remarkable. The subtle narrative with an eye for the mundane hits at the social reality with finesse.