Screenwriter Rohena Gera, 45, marks her directorial debut with Sir, a feature film that explores the dynamic between a domestic help and the employer. Recently screened at the Critic’s Week Sidebar at Cannes where it won the Gan Foundation Award, Sir also received the audience prize at the Cabourg Film Festival in France. The film is also slated to open World Cinema Amsterdam in August. In this interview, Gera speaks about her film’s take on class, her love for the written word and why she prefers fiction to documentaries. Edited excerpts:
Sir marks your directorial debut in feature films. What informed your choice of subject — of the house help, Ratna, and her relationship with her employer, Ashwin?
Like a lot of us, I grew up with domestic help at home, but from a very young age I had trouble dealing with the class dynamic. I was very attached to the woman who worked in our house but I understood that she was different. She ate separately, though, sometimes, I shared her thali… but it was still unusual. Later, when I went away to study, I looked at India from the outside and felt, even more acutely, that there was something not right about how we live. It’s only years later that I thought of addressing this relationship through a love story, one that positions people as equals, and shows the domestic worker as an optimistic person, not a victim.
The film doesn’t take on caste, but the way we deal with economically backward classes in India, perhaps, comes from the old casteist mentality.
How does your film reflect the changing dynamics between the house help and employer?
Ratna, the character played by Tillotama Shome, is not a victim. She has a dream, she is alive… she is like the women we see all around us, who rise above their circumstances and find a reason to smile each day. I think things are on the verge of some sort of change, but we are not quite there yet. Relationships are evolving, and, sometimes, there is an uneasy dependence… but even when we are dependent on people, we don’t necessarily show them the respect or appreciation that they may deserve. But, let me clarify, I don’t think it’s a good guy-bad guy thing at all. The dynamics are extremely complex. What’s important to me is that we don’t see people as clichés.
Were films a crucial aspect of your childhood? What made you embark on a filmmaking career?
I was born in Pune and lived there till I was 18, at which point I left for university in the US. My family was not inclined towards films at all. My mother was the editor of an English language newspaper in Pune, then called the Poona Herald (it came to be known as Maharashtra Herald, and was later taken over by the Sakal group). Often I found her work very interesting and I’d go to her office after school. The press was in that same building and it was magical to see it churn out newspapers. Later, I understood what my mother felt about the responsibility of the fourth estate, and so on. I think I was interested in writing from a young age but didn’t know it.
When did you fully realise your inclinations?
When I went away to university, I still didn’t know I wanted to write. At first, I was curious about communication and advertising. At Stanford, where I did my Bachelor’s in English, I also attended my first fiction writing workshop and realised that it was something I felt very connected to. I went on to do a Master of Fine Arts from Sarah Lawrence College, New York in fiction writing and poetry. While at Sarah Lawrence, I started interning at Paramount Pictures in Manhattan and that is the time, around 1997, when I assisted on my first film shoot, on a film called Side Streets by Tony Gerber in New York.
You started as a screenwriter on Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin (2003). How challenging was it, especially at a time when TV was dominated by Ekta Kapoor’s K-soaps?
Jassi Jaissi Koi Nahin was officially licensed from the Colombian show Yo Soy Betty La Fea. In fact, Jassi was made before Ugly Betty. I was one of several writers on the show, so I can’t take credit for it. I was trying to get by in Mumbai, looking for work, and I pitched something to Deeya and Tony Singh (director), who eventually hired me to work on Jassi. It was great because it was a theme I could care about.
You also dabbled in documentaries with What’s Love Got To Do With It (2013). Which format are you more comfortable with?
I love fiction, but I also enjoyed documentaries because they are unpredictable, and people can be so delightful in how they share their lives or reveal little gems. I prefer fiction though. I love telling stories. Making the feature was a wonderful experience because, after years of writing, which is fundamentally such a lonely process, I got to collaborate with an amazing crew, and nourish my vision with their ideas and expertise.
Do you think Bollywood has changed enough to accept narratives driven by characters who are not larger than life?
I sincerely hope so. It seems that audiences are seeking out good, fresh films. But again, I am not really in touch with what is going on in Hindi cinema. I’ve been working independently outside of Mumbai — mostly between Paris and Pune for the past several years. But I do think audiences can change the film industry — if they buy tickets to films that interest them irrespective of whether the films are star-driven or not, they will make things change. The star-powered films have staying power. The actor-driven films are harder to sustain. So, if Indian cinephiles want things to change, they will have to go see independent films on the first day and tell all their friends!
When do you plan to release your film in Indian theatres?
I don’t know the date yet, but we are working on it. The India release is very important to me and I hope we will be able to have a strong release.