Interview Hindi

Sir is very personal for me: Rohena Gera on a romance that reveals India's class divide


After doing the rounds of international film festivals, Rohena Gera's Sir had its India premiere at the 10th Jagran Film Festival in Mumbai. The director spoke of her need to make the film, the challenges, and the endearment of Tillotama Shome.

Shriram Iyengar

"I was always nervous before the India premiere," said Rohena Gera. She needn't have been. The filmmaker's debut feature, Sir, was received with an ovation at the 10th Jagran Film Festival in Mumbai, its India premiere. This, after the film's successful travels abroad.

At Cannes, Sir won the GAN Foundation Award. At the New York Indian Film Festival, it won the Best Film award while Tillotama Shome got the Best Actress award. Shome won the Best Actor (Female) award at Jagran as well.

Speaking of her leading lady, Gera said, "She brought in these little tics, little gestures which she incorporated into her body language. I really felt that she could do it. She needed to grow on you. There is also Tillotama’s charm. She really makes Ratna an endearing character."

Sir is a story that opens a window into the lives of two people who discover each other and the invisible wall of class in India, Sir is as poignant as it is endearing.

"This way of living has been something I have lived with my whole life," said Gera, who is also the film's writer. "The built-in injustice is something I was aware of and uncomfortable with. I carried it around, the feeling of the strange segregation within the home. Then it became clearer to me when I moved away and studied in California.

"I thought of taking on this issue, a struggle for me personally, as a love story. Then you talk about the two people as equals. You don’t be a victim of the present narrative, and do a much more complex story about two people," she said. Excerpts from an interview: 

Every story has an origin. What triggered you to write Sir?

This way of living has been something I have lived with my whole life. The built-in injustice is something I was aware of and uncomfortable living with. I carried it around, the feeling of the strange segregation within the home. It became clearer to me when I moved away and studied in California.

When I came back, it became clear to me that this is unique to us, and this is not right, the way we live, although I did not have a way to address it. For years, I simply carried it around as a part of me. Later, after my documentary, which dealt with ideas of love and relationships and how we love whom we choose to love — there are so many interesting things, like encouragement when you fall in love with the ‘right’ person — I thought of taking on this issue, a struggle for me personally, as a love story. Then you talk about the two people as equals. You don’t be a victim of the present narrative, and do a much more complex story about two people. 

How did you avoid the issue of a privilege bias creeping in, even subconsciously?

There was a lot of rewriting. I don’t know about privilege bias, but I kept going back to the subject. I am, fundamentally, a writer, and I was screenwriting at the time for many years. The issue I had was that I would often try to be clever, or dramatic. Then I would have to go back and take it out. Every time I had to remind myself that this is insincere, I am trying to manipulate the audience. Then I would take it out. 

The process was about coming closer and closer and closer to these two people and seeing what would happen. I didn’t have a plan about how the story would turn out. I kept sketching it out, and as I got closer to the end, the story formed itself.

You have been writer, director and involved in the production of the film as well. Which part of the job was the hardest?

I have always been a writer, but being a producer is really hard. It is a thankless job. So please be kind to producers (laughs). They don’t really get enough credit. They have all the stress and none of the glory.

Most people would say the writing was the hardest part….

For me the writing process is painful, but comfortable. I am okay with writing, rewriting, throwing away drafts and starting over from a blank page. It is part of my training. But you know that it is a discipline, and that is the way it is. Direction is so much fun because there are collaborators. People bring in their energy, and ideas, and take your ideas into an even better space. 

The film also deals with the sense of loneliness through Ashwin and Ratna’s individual lives. How did you approach that?

I think he [Ashwin, played by Vivek Gomber] is more lonely than she is. I think friendships are very important, and she has that. He has his buddies, but she really counts on Lakshmi (Geetanjali Kulkarni). They talk, cry together, and have a bond. 

I feel that they come together more because they see a spark. They inspire each other. He [Ashwin] is not even aware that he is lonely. He has people in his life, but he is not connected to them. It is the idea of someone seeing you for who you really are. The simplicity with which she cuts through the crap is what draws him. Then, bringing up the best in them,

Vivek Gomber and Tillotama Shome in Sir

You spoke after the film screening, saying you had always had Tillotama Shome in your mind for Ratna. Why so?

I wanted for this woman [Ratna] to not be a victim. She had to be a complex, beautiful person that we fall in love with. I thought Tillotama would be able to embody that — the strength, the complexity, the struggle. There is a whole history to this character, and if she [Shome] has to portray this optimistic character, she could do it with complexity. Not as a naive, silly girl from the village.

I have seen her work and she is extremely talented and hardworking. If you bring that rigour and commitment to the film, and do it with complete honesty... it is not easy if you think ‘Oh! I can just play a poor woman.' It takes a lot of work. She brought in these little tics, little gestures which she incorporated into her body language.

I really felt she could do it. She needed to grow on you. There is also Tillotama’s charm. She really makes Ratna an endearing character.

There is also Vivek Gomber. He has the job of underplaying his character.

It is a really thankless role. He has to be quiet. The biggest character arc, actually, belongs to him. He has been doing the movement, learning about his prejudices, trying to understand what he is doing. For Ratna, it is a natural understanding. He is the one who is the guilty party, in terms of the class issue. It is very subtle, but he had to retain that mask. One is always wearing a mask for others. Particularly in India, I believe men are under a lot of pressure that they hide.

Talk to us about the camera movement. It acts as a medium through which the audience can experience Ratna or Ashwin’s particular viewpoint in some scenes.

A lot of the shot-taking was written in the script. There was not much improvization in the shot-taking. I really wanted to show their perspective.

For me, that [the shot of Ratna serving Ashwin’s family, immediately after he confesses his love] is one of the more brutal shots. Even more than when she is screamed at by the guest. You really see where she stands. Nobody even notices her. You realize what he [Ashwin] is thinking, that he can be with her, is not the reality.

This sense of difference also comes through in their living spaces. Although both stay in the same house....

It was important for me to show their differences on a human level, and the sameness of the two. You see them both, back to back, watching TV. The tracking shot and the wall in between them is to emphasize the barrier. You can see the connection and the barrier between them. That is the question.

Did you ever think about ending it on a happy, very filmi note. Ratna and Ashwin taking off for the United States away from this all?

I did write several endings, all possible ones to the story. I did try to put them together, because I wanted them to get together. But it turned into some other film. It almost needed a song in the end. It would have needed some screen time. It cannot happen suddenly.

I also tried a tragic ending, a pessimistic one. Somehow, I felt this is the right one.

You also avoid the contentious points of caste and religion. What was the reason for that?

I didn’t want to take up caste because I didn’t grow up with it. So, in a way, I don’t really understand it. It is so complex that I didn’t want to take on something and make a mess of it. I didn’t want to dilute the class issue with the caste issue.

You can be anybody from any religion, but if you work as a domestic servant, it becomes a stamp. I wanted to keep the focus on that. The religion is present but is very subtle.

With reactions and appreciation coming in from audiences abroad, what did you make of it? What connected them to a story that is so specifically Indian in construct?

I didn’t expect it. The reaction has been amazing, but I didn’t expect it because I was not sure they would get it. It is such an Indian story, and it was scary to go out on a limb and make it. It could have ended up being too Indian but not international enough to reach those audiences. I have been really lucky that people have embraced it on the international stage.

The film is simple enough that people understand why the class difference is there, and why it is so difficult to bridge it. I think people really connect to the idea of breaking down barriers and fighting for the dream. Everyone has their own journey and struggle, so when you see an optimistic character, it really makes them root for them. I don’t know really what worked.

Yet, you mentioned you were nervous before the Indian premiere. Any reason?

It has done so well at Cannes, received such nice support. But I was always worried about India. What if they reject the film? What if they feel I have not been honest in some way, or feel uncomfortable about it? 

It is beyond what it is as a film. It is a very emotional thing. It is forcing the audience to question their own way of life. If it were foreign, they can shrug it off saying, ‘Oh, it's like that over there. We live here.’ It is very personal for me. I feel an obligation towards it. 

I wanted to reach out to people through the film in a certain way.  If I do that, that is the ultimate success.

Are you planning a theatrical release soon?

Yes, we are working on it. Something should happen soon, but I cannot tell you right now. Hopefully, it will happen by the end of November.

You spoke of getting back to writing. Anything specific you are working on?

I have just started working on another project, but it is not clear enough for me to tell you.