Rohena Gera’s 'Sir' competes at La Semaine de la Critique

First films are often firmly rooted in the filmmakers’ own lives and experiences. No surprise then that it is the world around her that informs Rohena Gera’s début feature, Sir. “A lot of us [in India] have grown up with someone — a nanny or domestic help — taking care of us,” she tells me on a long distance call from Paris. But what has always struck her is the distance within the same home between them and the families they work for. “It’s as a though a wall separates them,” says the Pune girl, who is now settled in Paris with her French husband and young daughter.

As a child, Gera never understood these dynamics. The socio-economic divides and segregation bothered her, made her uncomfortable, but she was unable to process them. Sir — about a domestic live-in help, Ratna, and her wealthy employer, Ashwin — is a throwback to these ostensibly insurmountable barriers and inequities, the concomitant collisions, and often surprising confluences and connections.

The film is taking Gera on her first visit to Cannes. She heads to the French Riviera town this month with Sir playing in the prestigious La Semaine de la Critique (Critics Week, May 9-17) that runs parallel to the Cannes Film Festival (May 8-19). It will be competing in the sidebar — known for showcasing directors’ first and second feature films and the platform where filmmakers Wong Kar-wai and Alejandro González Iñárritu made their débuts — whose jury is headed by Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier. Chosen from around 1,100 submissions, the film has been described by artistic director, Charles Tesson, as one that “says something deep and meaningful about the middle and upper class in India through a tale of an impossible love”.


The director had tweeted recently: “Majority of Cannes critics’ week competition films are directed by women. Thrilled to be one of them.” It is also thrilling to note that she, along with Nandita Das, whose Manto competes in the official Un Certain Regard section of the festival, are the faces of the Indian challenge at Cannes this year. Both deal with significant issues, be it class divides or freedom of expression.

Reality check

I catch Gera when she is excited but still undecided about one extremely crucial, though seemingly inconsequential, Cannes thing — what to wear for her photo-call. “I know very little about high fashion. Someone is looking into some French designers for me,” she says.

Rohena Gera’s 'Sir' competes at La Semaine de la Critique

Ideally she would love to be able to just watch films all day at Cannes, but her packed schedule is unlikely to allow that. “I will have to run into a cinema and see whatever I can when time permits. I may not be in a position to choose,” she says. However, on the wishlist is Egy nap and Chris the Swiss from the Critics’ Week, Palme d’Or contender Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White, Lukas Dhont’s Girl from Un Certain Regard section and, of course, the big opener, Asghar Farhadi’s Todos lo saben.

Spot the Indian celebrity
  • Smriti Irani: The Minister of Information and Broadcasting will lead the official Indian delegation, and inaugurate the India Pavilion set up by FICCI at the Marche du Cinema (Cannes Film Market). The delegation will include CBFC chairman Prasoon Joshi, filmmakers Jahnu Barua and Shaji Karun, and actor Parvathy.
  • Nandita Das: The director-actor’s film, Manto, will be competing in the official Un Certain Regard section.
  • Dhanush: The actor will unveil the India poster of the Indo-French co-production, The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir, at one of the many events on the sidelines. Directed by Ken Scott, it is his first international project.
  • Manoj Bajpayee: The actor, with director Devashish Makhija, will launch the first look of the film Bhonsle, produced by Muvizz, the Singapore and India-based global film and media production and distribution company.
  • Boney Kapoor: The producer, with his daughters Jhanvi and Khushi, will attend a tribute to Sridevi on May 16, presented by New York-based production and distribution film company, MariKen Productions.
  • Sonam Kapoor: The actor will walk the red carpet for L’Oréal on May 14-15, soon after her wedding on May 8.
  • Kangana Ranaut: It is the actor’s first time at Cannes. She will be there, with Huma Qureishi and Jim Sarbh, on invitation by the Grey Goose brand.

The high of the festival outing notwithstanding, she is also quick to point out that her film is not an “arthouse” venture. “It is sweet, accessible, uses music, and leaves you with something to talk about,” she says, all without being preachy and righteous about issues.

Having grown up in India — though she later lived in California, New York and Paris — Gera considers herself both an insider and an outsider to Mumbai. She shot the film over 31 days, entirely on location in an apartment in a Lower Parel high rise. “There is no set, it has been all about real spaces, homes and streets.” The apartment is almost a character in the film housing two disparate worlds of the film’s protagonists within its walls.

The idea was to make the actors also feel as real as the setting, to have them disappear in the shadows so their characters can come to the forefront. “The characters and the fabric of relationships had to be done inside out than outside in,” she says. The reason for choosing Tillotama Shome was to have someone who could be Ratna naturally than having to “become” her. Shome is someone you could grow to love; like Ratna. Gera didn’t want an actor who would “dazzle with the glamour” and then have to work on “dressing her down”. Vivek Gomber, who the director had not seen outside of Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court, nailed it in the auditions as Ashwin.

Dreaming big

Gera has tried to treat both her protagonists as equals, the otherwise wide chasm between their worlds notwithstanding. Neither is portrayed as a victim, but both are vulnerable in their own way. “I have dealt with their individual lives, given a sense of their respective hopes and struggles, dreams and aspirations,” she says. In fact, she turns the expectations around the two on its head. So if you believe that a person’s status and stature define their happiness, you would be in for a surprise. Ashwin is lost in spite of having it all, while Ratna has hopes and dreams of a better future despite having nothing to hold on to in the present. “We have an expectation of ourselves, but put limits on our own dreams. Sir is about breaking free of a lot of these duties and obligations, of being able to fight for your own dreams,” she adds.

For her, the film itself is a culmination of a personal dream of sorts. “It has been a long journey to find my own voice, to make the film I have always wanted to, to tell the story I wanted to, in the way I wanted it to be told,” she says. The inspirations have been auteurs like Wong Kar Wai, Cédric Klapisch, Kathryn Bigelow and Julian Schnabel. The validation from the Critics Week underlines for her the need to take risks and trust one’s own instincts as a storyteller.

A long road

Originally from Pune, Gera graduated from Stanford University in California and went on to do her masters in fine arts from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. She started her career at Paramount Pictures’ literary affairs office in New York and went on to work in the film and television industry for almost 20 years. She co-wrote Bollywood ventures like Kuch Na Kaho and Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic, and also wrote more than 40 episodes for the very successful television series, Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin. She worked in TV when it was fresh and new, and looks back at it as a great training ground. Those were the days of single TV homes, which meant crafting programming with a universal appeal.

Rohena Gera’s 'Sir' competes at La Semaine de la Critique

She produced and directed a non-profit campaign after the Gujarat riots called “Stop the Hatred” to fight communalism, featuring icons like Amitabh Bachchan, Zakir Husain, Aamir Khan, Ashutosh Gowariker and Sachin Tendulkar, which was screened in cinemas and TV channels across the country. She independently produced and directed a documentary, What’s Love Got to do with it?, before launching into Sir. An Indo-French co-production, it received the support of the World Cinema Fund (Cinémas du monde) of the CNC (National Centre for Cinema) in France for post-production. The film has been picked up by MK2 films for international sales as well as the well-known French distributor, Diaphana. Gera hopes to distribute it herself in India.

Critical appreciation at Cannes and a good theatrical release are paramount but, for her, the biggest reward would be the conversations that may come to build around its theme of class divides. May be then the walls between many Ratnas and Ashwins will begin to come down.

Double impact

With two films screening at Cannes, Tillotama Shome on challenging roles and uncomfortable questions

It’ll be double the fun for Tillotama Shome in her first outing at Cannes. Not only is she playing the lead in Rohena Gera’s Sir, she also has a cameo with Paresh Rawal in Nandita Das’ Manto.

Rohena Gera’s 'Sir' competes at La Semaine de la Critique

She is quick to point out that the films were not picked by her with international festivals like Cannes in mind. “I opted for Sir because it made me uncomfortable,” she says. She read the script at one go on some unexpected time off at the shoot of A Death in the Gunj. The theme of class divides made her wonder about her own stand on it. Don’t our daily power dynamics hinge on class? Despite the empathy and sensitivity are we entirely devoid of class prejudices? “I felt complicit and guilty… I was taken in by the meta narrative of what is right or wrong,” she says.

She was just as taken in by the disparate lives of the two protagonists and how they are taken forward in the script. “What would the natural progression be for them in the real world? It is difficult to come up with answers. How do you choose the end? You can’t be idealistic, naive or Marie Antoinette about it,” she says.

The synergy with her co-star Vivek Gomber went beyond the workshops; there was anyhow no formality of a fixed calendar or time for them. But there was comfort, honesty, diligence and an effort to push each other. “Gomber has the same willingness, desire and hunger,” she says. In fact, Shome felt a sense of community and camaraderie with the entire cast. “It was like a caravan moving together,” she says, motivating each other to succeed.

Both her Indian projects competing at the film festival are helmed by women. Though she is fierce in her stand for parity and equality, she doesn’t want to see cinema only as a gendered medium. “A film is a film, a director is a director,” she states. What is more important for her is the fact that both her films are representing stories that are difficult to tell. “It is hugely inspiring and encouraging to have them on a platform that is so looked up to,” she concludes.

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 5:43:07 PM |

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