There is something inherently distasteful and eye-rolling about the idea of a well-to-do eligible single man falling in love with his live-in house-help in a Mumbai highrise. I have to admit I approached Rohena Gera’s feature-film debut with a lot of apprehensions. By the end of the sparse slim and tender tale of forbidden love, I was completely sold over, thanks to the dignity grace restrain and nurturing unconditional kindness of Ratna, the maidservant who dares to dream.
And ensnaring her employer Ashwin, into a romantic attachment was certainly not part of her dreams. The way the extraordinary Tillotama Shome plays out Ratna’s ordinary dreams left no room for sneering scepticism. This impoverished unassuming honest graceful woman’s humble background never pushes her into any compromising position. She is the portrait of dignity and composure even as her liberal-minded boss becomes growingly attracted to …gulp!... his maid.
Rohena Gera builds the relationship in the domestic environment with subtle gestures of unpunctuated empathy. There is an uncalculated precision in the way the relationship grows. House-help Ratna’s character is written with rare care. In the hands of Tillotama Shome, Ratna becomes someone we know intimately in no time at all. The minutest of gestures speaks volumes of her self-respect.
As she approaches the city from her village in a bus she quietly slips on some bangles which are forbidden to a widow in the village. Even a simple gesture like shutting the door behind her after serving her ‘Sir’ with his food says so much of her silent self-regard and her instinctive regard for protocol. My favourite moment between Ratna and Ashwin is when she tells him about her tailoring dreams.
Not tailor, she corrects him, a fashion designer. When he expresses surprise she looks straight at him and says, “Kyon hum jaise log fashion designer nahin ho sakte?” At the moment I felt the full surge of her dreams and aspirations irradiating the very core of this delicately drawn drama of love over class distinction.
Tillotama Shome shines in every frame. She creates a connection between Ratna’s inner darkened world and the tentative hope and light that she seeks outside without falling back on any compromise. I have not seen a more articulate flawless performance in a very long time. Vivek Gomber as her employer and suitor steps back and delivers a muted and an interestingly shadowy performance where we sense rather than see the man’s sorrow.
I also liked some of the incidental characters like Laxmi (Geetanjali Kulkarni, reliable as ever) the maid next door and Ratna’s confidante. And the driver Raju who explains to Ratna what her Sir means by calling her brave.
Ms Gera’s screenplay creates intimacy without taking the couple into the bedroom. The way Ratna boosts Ashwin’s morale without crossing the line at the beginning of their association is a marvel of gentle evocative writing. There is a sense of a gentle romantic tension between Ratna and Ashwin which the camera (Dominique Colin) captures in frames that are natural yet striking, colourful but never over-done.
By the end of it, I was praying for this ridiculously unorthodox relationship to culminate in a union. I also wondered what Ashwin’s mother (Divya Seth)’s reaction would be when her son would walk in hand-in-hand with the house-help to announce he is marrying her.
I want to know more about what happens to Ratna after this rare and precious film leaves us. And really, a lot of our empathy with the character has to do with Tillotama Shome’s effortless interpretation of it. One extra star in the rating, entirely for her.
Written & Directed by Rohena Gera Sir gets 4 stars.