Netflix’s ‘Sir’ is essential Indian cinema

In the first month of coronavirus lockdowns in the United States, when everyone began constantly screaming “WHAT SHOULD I WATCH” — and Mashable began our exhaustive and ongoing streaming guides — someone asked for Bollywood movie recommendations in one of my group chats.

“Any recs of an objectively good / wow Bollywood movie from the past 5 years?” she asked. “Objective” was a tough enough requirement — as someone whose job it is to recommend entertainment to people, I know that it makes no difference how critically acclaimed or carefully crafted something is if it doesn’t ultimately fit someone’s personal preferences. But “wow” absolutely stumped me, so much that I couldn’t endorse the rest of the chat’s ample suggestions. I never caught the Bahubali hype, I thought Kapoor & Sons was good but not great, and Dangal’s climax was too melodramatic. The only suggestion I gave was 2018’s Raazi, about a woman undercover during war between India and Pakistan — a film that stayed with me long after I left the theater.

This question would nag at me for months, long after the person who posed it had presumably scratched the itch with Andhadun (promising but fell apart in the final act) or something similar. I could not think of a single relatively mainstream Hindi-language feature that had wowed me like Raazi or 2013’s The Lunchbox. I craved a film that would make me feel that way again. Then the answer dropped on Netflix, ever so casually, on Jan. 9. The launch was so unassuming that Netflix didn’t even upload a trailer until Jan. 16.

Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) and Ratna (Tillotama Shome) share a tense moment in “Sir,” now on Netflix.

Image: screenshot / netflix

Sir, written and directed by Rohena Gera, is the simple story of Ratna (Tillotama Shome), a live-in maid for upper-middle-class Ashwin in Mumbai (Vivek Gomber). After Ashwin’s engagement falls through, he continues to employ Ratna despite the social stigma of their living situation, and they develop a mutual respect, friendship, and eventually love. The film — Gera’s feature debut — did the rounds at 2018 film festivals, picking up awards for direction, acting, Best Film, and a nomination for Cannes’ Critics Week Grand Prize. It debuted in Indian cinemas in Nov. 2020. 

At 99 minutes, often without dialogue, Sir is a cinematic triumph. Gera and Shome compromise nothing in a full and poignant portrayal of India’s working class, without turning Ashwin and his social strata into caricatures of wealthy, Anglicized demons. Their romantic involvement seems impossible despite the film’s tagline (“Is love enough?”) yet Gera develops it just subtly enough, guiding us to an organic and emotional final act.

Sir offers soft aesthetics and a gripping emotional core, and it does so without compromising on an inherently Indian story and characters.

I’ve found that when most Indian Americans like myself talk about “objectively” good Indian media, they usually mean by Western standards. I stopped listening to a podcast about Bollywood movies because its hosts were clearly genre novices and measured everything by these metrics. It’s not that Indian movies are behind in some regard, but that they have different artistic sensibilities and values (like the melodrama and musical numbers of commercial Bollywood films). In striving to please the West, mainstream Indian movies become implicitly Westernized themselves — movies where nothing except the language and actors resembles Indian life or culture. 

I’ve seen these films praised over the years for their so-called freedom. The group chat also suggested Dil Dhadakne Do, a movie about ultra wealthy families on a luxury cruise which, while well-performed and directed, felt Indian only in billing and language. But a lack of culture is not what makes a film universal. A culture that is deeply authentic and specific — ever heard of a little film called Parasite? — can draw people in far more effectively.

Sir offers soft aesthetics and a gripping emotional core, and it does so without compromising on an inherently Indian story and characters. Household help is common in India — as we watched, my mother brought up her aunt’s maid, Shondha, who makes the same observations and concessions as Ratna whenever we visit — but Sir makes Ratna the film’s emotional core, prioritizing her history, relationships, and desires. It also highlights Indian values that the modern era loves to scrutinize — sex, class, the treatment of married and unmarried women — without dismissing them flat-out as primitive and unwelcome. 

As Ratna and Ashwin illustrate, things are not so cut-and-dried in reality. The characters never have to be told to view each other as equals, complex and lovable in their own ways. They simply do.

Sir is now streaming on Netflix.

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