Cast: Tillotama Shome, Vivek Gomber, Geetanjali Kulkarni
Director: Rohena Gera
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Sustained restraint is the defining aspect of Is Love Enough? - Sir, Rohena Gera's narrative feature debut. The film spotlights the wide class chasm between two individuals whose strictly transactional master-servant relationship gives way to an awkward and emotional bond. It employs refreshingly uncomplicated methods that, despite their directness, yield a multi-layered film.
Sir, which won a Cannes Critics Week award in 2018 and was due for theatrical release this year days before a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown forced cinema halls to down their shutters, is a genuinely heart-warming and thought-provoking love story that offers a mellow, engaging variation on a thorny theme.
Rohena Gera's finely chiselled screenplay examines a difficult-to-bridge divide and the inhibitions and prejudices that beset the relationship between a real estate tycoon's writer-son and his 24/7 housemaid in a swanky sea-facing Mumbai apartment.
It brings into sharp focus the ways in which an inchoate love affair is impacted by economic status, notions of cultural superiority and intense inter-personal negotiations to tide over the many degrees of separation at play. It resorts to no dramatic flourishes. It adopts minimalistic means to depict the tremulous, awkward trajectory of love across deeply entrenched barriers.
Sir enters a space in which barely expressed impulses yield outward acts - mostly small gestures of generosity and gratitude - that suggest an evolving, norm-breaking connect between two socially 'unequal' people and presents it not only without judgment but also with deep empathy for both. There is a natural, totally believable arc to the way the two key characters respond to each other - and to the emotions it triggers.
The wealthy man and his housemaid aren't obviously made for each other. They belong to different worlds. When love blossoms between the two, it isn't of the kind that sweeps people off their feet. It tiptoes into their lives almost unnoticed, stops them in their tracks and forces them to ponder if the unlikely liaison forged between them is worth a shot.
The unconventional love story subverts established power equations. The well-heeled employer is the supplicant while the supposedly servile moves into a decision-making position. That apart, the man, who is supposedly calling the shots on account of the authority he wields, isn't the one in control.
The film strikes a delicate balance between social commentary and straightforward storytelling. While the writing is instantly impressive, the impact of the tale is enhanced by the quality of the lead performances by Tillotama Shome (she has a significant percentage of Marathi lines) and Vivek Gomber. The duo helps the film sustain its purposefully understated tone even when the conflict points are at their sharpest.
Every step of the way, the two actors measure up to the inflections of their roles. They give the director's vision just the sort of subtle articulation that it needs in order to take full effect. Geetanjali Kulkarni, in a cameo as Ratna's confidante Laxmi, delivers a solid supporting act.
Shome plays Ratna, a village woman widowed at 19 and seeking to give herself and her younger sister back in the village a leg up in life. Gomber is Ashwin, just back from the US and at a loose end after an aborted wedding. The film opens with Ratna being summoned back to Mumbai to take care of Ashwin's apartment.
The exchanges between the two are formal to the point of being stuffy. For Ratna, Ashwin is always 'Sir'. For Ashwin, Ratna is, to begin with, an inevitably peripheral presence. But as the days roll by, the line that he has drawn between himself and the world - inside the house, Ratna is the world - begins to be obliterated. His dependence on her gives way to familiarity and friendship.
The two actors make it all look unbelievably convincing as they bring out the nuances of the tentative and surprising equation between two people whose worlds - and worldviews - represent two ends of a social spectrum and yet never stray away from the realms of the psychologically plausible.
Factored into the main class and culture clash are other less intense collisions that help the audience understand the minds of Ashwin and Ratna. One pertains to how differently Ashwin and Ratna think. The former lives in the lap of luxury but something is missing in his life. His home is a gilded cage enveloped in a sense of emptiness. Ratna, with her warm and gentle demeanour, dispels some of the desolation that surrounds Ashwin.
Ashwin is polite to a fault. He is a sensitive man without the slightest trace of entitlement. Every instruction that he gives Ratna sounds more like a request than an order. And he never fails to thank the maid when his bidding his done. When a visiting friend is curt with Ratna, he stands up for her. "I don't have morons like her work at my place," the guest says. "Fortunately, she does not work for you," Ashwin shoots back.
Ratna has dreams not only for herself but for her younger sister (Bhagyashree Pandit), too. She hopes that the girl will, unlike her, complete her education before plunging into matrimony. Hope never deserts her. She aspires to be a fashion designer and requests Ashwin for time off every day to hone her tailoring skills. Having put his own dreams on hold, Ashwin's sees in Ratna's ambition a means to take his mind off his own fragile state of mind.
The terrace, which offers a contrast to the confines of Ashwin's insulated home in a skyscraper, is Ratna's retreat when she feels the need to get away from the grind of the daily chores that are her lot. The rooftop acquires increasing significance as the story unfolds and Ashwin sheds his reservations and makes his feelings known.
Ashwin has sharp differences of opinion with his old man (Rahul Vohra), a hard-nosed entrepreneur who puts profit over everything else. "I am all for green buildings but not if we end up in the red," the father says. Ashwin makes no bones about his disagreement with his dad's business ethics.
In one scene, Ashwin, on a visit to a construction site, walks through the substandard living spaces of the workers employed by his father. No words are spoken, but his guilt manifests itself in the very next sequence - the one in which he ticks off a guest for being rude to Ratna.
Is Love Enough? - Sir is the first post-pandemic nationwide theatrical release. It isn't the sort of film that will have you dancing in the aisles. It serves a greater purpose: it is a wonderful little gem that tackles a difficult theme with admirable poise and precision. Impeccable writing, sure-handed marshalling of resources and unblemished acting make it an unmissable film.