Starring Tillotama Shome. In English, Hindi, and Marathi, with English subtitles. Rated PG
What is it that advocates of arranged marriage always say?
Oh, that couples usually learn to care about each other.
Well, that happens in Sir because of a domestic arrangement that comes to resemble marriage, against steep odds but in the best ways possible.
Ratna (Tillotama Shome) is a savvy, if lightly educated village girl whose prospects were further dimmed when her newlywed husband died when she was just 19.
In Mumbai, she was hired as houseservant to a wealthy couple in a super-modern apartment near the sea. Things change, right at the start of this big-hearted Franco-Indian coproduction, when Ashwin (Court’s Vivek Gomber), the handsome gentleman of the house, returns from his abruptly cancelled wedding. (The former fiancée is never seen.)
The situation is rife with potential impropriety, but further action is held in check by Ashwin’s brooding depression and the customary distance between master and servant.
How this gradually breaks down is the smartly handled subject of Paris-based writer-director Rohena Gera, whose previous feature was a documentary about arranged marriage and other romantic modes in modern India. That was called What’s Love Got to Do With It?, but this one’s more about basic human understanding. The multiple languages spoken here initially act as further barriers, and later as bridges.
This deeply memorable effort was shot with beautifully simplicity, sometimes with dazzling colours and intoxicating music, but largely in closed spaces that reveal much about their inhabitants—from the books that line every wall for Ashwin, who made stabs at being a writer in New York City, to Ratna’s cramped servant quarters, full of sewing gear connected with her dreams of designing and making clothes.
She’s dutiful to a fault, but has the natural bearing of an aristocrat, while the putative master is hobbled by the desire to escape his father’s architecture business.
The leads are so naturalistic, it’s surprising to see that they also have extensive Bollywood credentials. (Shome has the sharp-eyed stillness that recalls Noomi Rapace.)
A more ordinary film would concentrate on its twosome’s attempts to break out of their closed systems, with predictably melodramatic results. But the bluntly titled Sir isn’t interested in that. The director, who displays real affection for all her people and places, is ever-mindful of the power imbalances at play. And she makes certain that the players recognize them too.
Her very last scene, in fact, is the first in which people speak as equals.