'Sir': Film Review | Cannes 2018

Cannes Critics’ Week
A modest yet effective tale of love and class.

Writer-director Rohena Gera ('What’s Love Got to Do With It?') tells the story of a master and servant who fall for each other in this Cannes Critics’ Week debut.

Set inside the skyscrapers of modern-day Mumbai, Sir is not your typical Indian love story, nor does it necessarily work out the way you would expect.

But in this thoughtful study of class and the way it can both restrain and empower, writer-director Rohena Gera has crafted an intelligent romance within the confines of upper-crust Indian society. Premiering in the Cannes Critics’ Week sidebar, the film could occupy the same slot that The Lunchbox did back in 2013, providing feel-good fodder for international markets.

Ratna (Tillotama Shome) is a young widow who travels from her small village in the countryside to the megalopolis of Mumbai, where she’s employed by a wealthy family of builders to serve as a chambermaid for their son, Ashwin (Vivek Gomber). When the film kicks off, Ashwin is about to get married, but we learn that the wedding has been called off after his fiancee was found to have had an affair. Left alone to work for his dad’s company and brood a lot around the house, Ashwin will slowly develop a bond with Ratna that extends beyond a mere master-servant relationship into something more.

Keeping the drama limited to a high-rise apartment and a few exteriors, Gera uses a classic setup — forbidden love between two lost souls — to explore questions of class, and caste, in a city that has grown from its colonial roots into a burgeoning world capital. Thus, while Ashwin enjoys the pleasures of India’s new yuppie culture, throwing small parties and playing squash with his buddies, Ratna is confined to the kitchen and her tiny bedroom, yet can still pursue a fashion design career on the side. At an earlier epoch, she would have had few options and an affair with her master would have never been conceivable, but Gera shows how times have truly changed.

Still, Indian society remains strictly hierarchical for the most part, and Sir ultimately reveals how unbridled emotions cannot survive in such an environment. Ashwin, who worked as a journalist in the U.S. before returning home after the death of his brother, is westernized in thought and attitude — he treats Ratna like a friend rather than a maid — but faces the pressure of his family and social standing. And Ratna, who as a young widow has very opportunities in life, is smart enough to know that her story with Ashwin will never end happily ever after.

With much of the film seen from Ratna’s viewpoint, we initially perceive Ashwin as she does: from behind closed doors, or during the moments she brings trays of food or drinks to her master and his guests. Gradually their relationship transforms, but the two are still held back by their social positions. Gera makes the most of her setting in that sense, with veteran French cameraman Dominique Colin (L’auberge espagnole) revealing the characters against a backdrop of steel-and-glass towers that stretch up to the sky but feel much more claustrophobic than liberating. Mumbai may be a modern mega-city, but that doesn’t mean anything can happen, nor that people feel any less lonely there.

Performances from the two leads — who switch between Hindi and English depending on the situation — are strong, although Shome is often more compelling than Gomber, whose character feels a bit too restrained at times. A somewhat cloying score from Pierre Avia is overused in places, and there are times when the production feels closer to a TV movie in its scope. But for her first fictional effort, Gera has nonetheless crafted a warmly nuanced look at love in a place filled with constraints and contradictions, and where a broken heart could perhaps be the first step toward emancipation.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Critics’ Week)
Production companies: Inkpot Film, Cine-Sud Promotion
Cast: Tillotama Shome, Vivek Gomber, Geetanjati Kulkarni, Rahul Vohra, Divya Seth Shah, Chandrachoor Rai
Director-screenwriter: Rohena Gera
Producers: Brice Poisson, Thierry Lenouvel, Rohena Gera
Executive producer: Rakesh Mehra
Director of photography: Dominique Colin
Production designer: Parul Sondh
Costumer designer: Kimneineng Kipgen
Editors: Jacques Comets, Baptiste Ribrault
Composer: Pierre Avia
Sales: MK2

In Hindi, English
96 minutes