In Rohena Gera’s Sir, Tillotama Shome plays Ratna, a maid at the huge apartment of the wealthy and recently single Ashvin (Vivek Gomber). Ratna always calls her employer “Sir”, and alongside ensuring that his every need is met, pursues a tailoring course so that she may put her sister through college. The movie explores the growing bond between employer and employed, one that dredges up class prejudices and exposes the limits of Ratna’s dreams.
Gera’s debut feature was completed in 2018 and is finally being premiered in India at the Jagran Film Festival. Sir will be screened in Mumbai on September 26. The Hindi-English production was premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018 in the International Critics’ Week section. Sir has also been released in several countries, including France, Germany, Greece and Spain.
Tillotama Shome also stars in another movie showing at Jagran, Chintu Ka Birthday. She made her debut as the maid Alice in Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001), and her credits include Shadows of Time (2004), Shanghai (2012), Qissa (2013) and A Death in the Gunj (2016). In an interview with Scroll.in, Shome traces the journey from Alice to Ratna.
What was your initial reaction to playing a character from a class different from your own?
I felt very queasy. The fear of misappropriation was huge. I had played a maid before Monsoon Wedding, but in this film, the class politics were much more heightened.
I got the script while shooting for A Death in the Gunj. I kept steeling myself that it would get uncomfortable. I was very tempted to look at how the story ends. I was waiting for the script to harm itself – so far, so okay, but what if this gets problematic?
That doesn’t seem to have happened, since you did accept the role.
By the time I had finished reading the script, I was very intrigued by the world. I also felt a sense of guilt. I had blood on my hands, and I was very much guilty of the very thing that this film critiques, this soft apartheid, in a sense.
When I was doing my research, the hits that came up on the internet when you searched for maids and friendships had to do with pornography. Our conception of a relationship between a man and his domestic help is completely exploitative. That is when I felt we had really taken on a lot.
I understood why the film was so important for Rohena, and I held on to that sense. The story was born out of her own relationship with her nanny. I wouldn’t have had the courage of putting this feeling of discomfort on paper. I admired Rohena’s innocence, in a sense. She too was equally apprehensive, of playing this thing without doing a disservice. One thing I took from Rohena, at the cost of oversimplifying, was Ratna’s sense of dignity. This is, after all, her film and her story.
Several scenes reveal the relationship that gradually builds up between Ratna and Ashvin, played by Vivek Gomber. What were your scenes together like?
When I did the audition with Vivek Gomber, it felt equal. In any case, very few people are completely unaware of class.
I am very aware of prejudice, and would like to be a better person. You are aware of trying to fix the things that you have not questioned before. I felt that the way Gomber is as a person, that bit was effortless.
There was a hyper-awareness, of me really not wanting to mess up or be insensitive, of us being on our toes about what we did as actors. We went through the rigour of this for a month. We were together in a lot of scenes, and we were constantly at it.
Did you have any personal references for Ratna?
I grew up all the over the country, since my dad was in the Indian Air Force – Kashmir, Calcutta, Delhi, Bangalore. I remember that my nanny in Bangalore gave birth to her baby and came to work immediately afterwards. My mother nearly had a heart attack.
I have been in Bombay for about 10 years now. My domestic help is Gauri, a firecracker, a strong and no-nonsense maternal figure who walks into our bedroom and says wake up, and who chastises us if we haven’t had lunch. These women have a sense of mobility – I have seen that in Bombay and other cities too. They have an inherent strength, they help us with such intimacy and yet are so isolated. They inhabit our intimate spaces and yet there are strong boundaries.
The only way out for Ratna was to have pride in her work. That freed me – her meticulousness, the attention paid to her job. Her spine is always straight, like an arrow going through the day.