Cinderella Of Mumbai:
Some years ago, a married film star was accused of raping his domestic help; when he claimed it was consensual, the response to it was worse—could he not find anyone else but the maid? Actually, most people who expressed an opinion were certain that the woman must be doing it to blackmail him for money, and when he didn’t comply, she went to the cops.
In one of the shorts (by Zoya Akhtar) in the anthology Lust Stories, a young man and his domestic helper (Neil Bhoopalam-Bhumi Pednekar) have an affair, but the moment he finds a suitable girl to marry, the maid is relegated to the kitchen.
In India, the relationship between an employer and house help can rarely be equal, even if the latter is educated and smart. That’s why when Rohena Gera’s film Sir is preceded by the question Is Love Enough? the answer is evident. Never mind that our fairy tales—Cinderella tops the list—are all about princes swooping in to rescue damsels in distress; but the female is almost always a princess.
The “servant” (she calls herself that, otherwise it is now politically incorrect to use that word) in the film, is the young widow Ratna (Tillotama Shome), who lives in a tiny room in her employer Ashwin’s (Vivek Gomber) swanky apartment, and silently goes about her work, anticipating her boss’s every mood and need. Most men, if asked to describe a perfect wife, would probably come up with a wishlist that would point to a woman like Ratna. Their situation is typical of Mumbai, where middle and upper class people have “servants” to do their domestic chores, but neither Ratna nor Ashwin are stereotypes of their class. A recently dumped-at-the-mandap Ashwin treats Ratna with respect (the time spent in the US probably taught him about dignity of labour), and she holds ambitions that would be considered beyond her reach.
“You want to be a tailor” he asks when she takes up sewing.
“Fashion designer,” she replies. Then, seeing the look on his face, says, “Kyon? Nahin ban sakti?
She has the ability and determination to dream, but when she hopes to educate her sister and pull her of the oppressive environment of the village, the girl does not want to be rescued.
But, of course, class differences slam down on Ashwin and Ratna. When he says it makes no difference to him, she snaps, that it does to her. Because she does not have wealth and privilege to cushion her. She would have the face her world made up of others like her, who would resent, and certainly disapprove of, a relationship with her boss; at least openly, they can only speculate about what goes on behind closed doors. (In real life, a young woman would not even accept a live-in position at the home of a single man, for fear of what people will say).
Sir is a watchable modern, urban fairy tale, with fine performances, that gently hints at the issues that plague the underprivileged—the condition of widows, the way domestic helpers are treated (Ratna’s friend played by Geetanjali Kulkarni voices the reality of the maid’s situation), how men casually undervalue a woman’s work, like the tailor Ratna learns from.
In the real India, Ashwin would never be able to face his family (snooty mother and ex) and friends, if he actually married Ratna–those people who don’t even look at the person who is serving them at a party and believe they are woke if they say a distracted “Thank you” to the help. “You cannot date your maid!” Ashwin’s practical friend exclaims. One cannot even imagine a story in which the situation is reversed—a rich woman falling for her “servant.”
In the real world, #Me Too allegations do not affect any actor or filmmaker’s career, but by “slumming” it, the promising actor ended his career.