From Pune to Cannes, with love story of maid and master

Five years after ‘The Lunchbox’ was discovered by Cannes, another unusual love story from Mumbai may be on its way to present international success for Indian cinema.

‘Sir’, a film set in Mumbai about a maid and her master’s attempt to break barriers of love, has become the toast of the global audience in Cannes. Premiered in the parallel section of Critic’s Week at the ongoing Cannes film festival, ‘Sir’ is directed by the Pune-born Rohena Gera.

The first feature film of Gera, who now lives in France, is the only non-European film in the feature competition section of the Critic’s Week. The same parallel section of the Cannes festival had premiered Ritesh Batra’s ‘The Lunchbox’, which went on to earn phenomenal global success with its imaginative and simple storytelling about life in the chaotic metropolis of Mumbai.

The film tells the story of Ratna, a young maid from a village near Pune who is working for Ashwin, an engineer from a rich real estate family in Mumbai. Widowed at 19, Ratna doesn’t want to hold back her dreams of becoming a fashion designer. From fresh a breakup, Ashwin is ready to give up on his dreams, until his maid presents him with a new hope.

“You don’t see domestic helps in life, they are invisible people,” says Gera, who along with actor-director Nandita Das are the only two Indian filmmakers presenting their films in Cannes this year. ‘Manto’, the story of iconic writer Saadat Hasan Manto, by Das is part of the official selection of the Cannes festival.

Shot in Mumbai and Mahabaleshwar, ‘Sir’ stars Tillotama Shome and Vivek Gomber. “Sometimes people who have tough lives don’t even see them as victims,” says Gera, who studied film writing in the United States. “They hang on to their lives by fighting for others, like educating their daughters or sisters,” she adds.

Gera and her crew shot for 31 days, most of it in Mumbai’s Lower Parel and surroundings. “After we finished the movie, we were sure it wouldn’t be selected for any festival,” says Gera. The came the call from Critic’s Week, which also discovered ‘The Lunchbox’ in 2013.

“The film is subtle and honest, but in its own way, it is also a feel-good movie,” says Gera, who now lives in France with her husband Brice Poisson, who runs an animation studio in Pune. “There are a lot of gulfs to be bridged,” says Gera.

Gera, who co-wrote scripts for mainstream Bollywood films,’Kuch Naa Kaho’ (2003) and ‘Thoda Pyaar Thoda Magic’ (2008), doesn’t want to see her first feature film as an arthouse movie. “I wanted to make a film that people would like to see,” she adds.

Gera didn’t have to do much research for the film to understand the life of a maid. “I always talked to the domestic help in our family. I have heard many stories from them. In that way, my research preceded the film,” she says.

Vivek Gomber, who played the lead role in the hugely successful 2014 Marathi film ‘Court’ by Chaitanya Tamhane, auditioned for the film after a friend suggested the actor’s name to Gera. “Vivek did a lovely audition,” says Gera.

Tillotama Shome, who is known for her roles in films like ‘Qissa’ (2013) and ‘A Death in the Gunj’ (2017), too auditioned for ‘Sir’. “I wanted her (Shome) from the very beginning,” says Gera, who is in the running for the Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes festival for the first film of a director.

At the Cannes festival, which has taken several steps in the current edition to support movements such as ‘MeToo’ and ‘Time is Up’, Gera joined fellow director Nandita Das and global stars like Salma Hayek to walk the festival red carpet in support of women’s movements across the world for gender equality and justice.

“It was my first day ever in Cannes (on May 12). I had just arrived in the city and went straight from the hotel to walk the red carpet for supporting the women’s movements,” Gera says.

‘Sir’ will be released in France in December. “We are in talks for distributing the film in India,” says Gera.

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