“Sir” Joins Small Canon of Films Challenging Bollywood’s Classist, Formulaic Depiction of Domestic Workers
Rohena Gera’s film pushes the viewer to see a household helper as a human being with the same romantic and sexual desires as everyone else.
In March, Tillotama Shome, the actress essaying Ratna, a lower-class domestic worker who embarks on a romance with her privileged, educated employer in the just-released Sir, underlined a crucial obstacle while preparing for her role: the lack of reference points in Hindi cinema for a comparable love story. The absence of domestic workers as romantic leads in Hindi cinema is an odd erasure, considering that they have never been missing from films. “The only place that had any allusion to a relationship between a domestic [worker] and her employer was Indian pornography,” Shome said.
A Google search confirms her claim. The prevalence of “Indian maids” as a sub-genre of porn holds a clue to their rampant fetishization in Indian culture, where displays of class superiority are an everyday language. On one of the porn sites, there’s even a clip from Zoya Akhtar’s segment in Lust Stories (2018) – titled “Bhumi Pednekar hot sex fuck scene.” The short charted the ebbs and flow of a passionate sexual relationship between a domestic worker and her employer, revealing by extension the double standards of the Indian middle class. Taken out of context though, this scene perpetuates an inaccurate representation of the power dynamics between such a couple, making consensual sex come across as a conquest, and reducing domestic workers to sexual objects meant to be owned.
Over the years, the relationship that Hindi cinema has forged with a league of domestic workers – home helps, nannies, governesses, family retainers – who have frequently existed in the fringes of countless narratives, suffers from a similar strain of classism. In Hindi films, a female domestic worker, irrespective of the duration of her onscreen appearance, doesn’t just exist; instead, she serves a purpose. Take, for instance, Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001), a sprawling family saga about parental ego and estrangement, that boasted of arguably the most celebrated domestic worker in Hindi cinema: Daijaan, or “DJ” (Farida Jalal). Employed in the upper-class Raichand household, the devoted DJ was primarily tasked with providing round-the-clock care and attention to the family’s younger son.
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The most enduring Daijaan scene in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham is the one in which she recognizes Rohan, the younger heir of the Raichand family, a decade after seeing him for the last time. The sequence has her realize that Rohan doesn’t know how to tie shoelaces, and she rushes to his rescue until he reveals his identity. It’s worth noting how the film sees DJ – as an asexual prototype of an ideal servant – maternal, obedient, and devoted to her employers. Even though Daijaan forms an integral part of the proceedings, there’s very little information the film reveals about her personal life that is divorced from her role as a caregiver. Her presence never comes close to offering a lived-in experience of a person whose life revolves around cleaning up the leftover of others.
Daijaan in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham is emblematic of Hindi cinema’s historical gaze toward these domestic freelancers, one that strips them of any identity beyond their duties. They’re either the childhood nanny equated as a maternal figure (Kaveri Amma in Swades), the bumbling help accorded a love story with another servant, even though both are viewed as comic relief (Hum Aapke Hai Koun!), the almost-neurotic domestic worker treated as an object of pity (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan in Thappad, Rohini Hattangadi in Arth) or used as an example of female submission (Teen Batti Char Raasta, and Nauker).
Even when these women crop up in film after film, filmmakers are rarely trained to pay attention to their existence, using them instead as narrative devices meant to mock the naivete that arises out of class-based ignorance. The glaring neglect on the part of Hindi filmmakers to go beyond the depiction of the domestic worker as a stereotype is also witnessed in Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), another Johar-produced outing. In the film, the domestic worker is its punchline. Kantaben (Sulbha Arya) isn’t written as a person; instead, she is made to represent a regressive mentality, one that regards same-sex love as sin. She appears in no more than two scenes in which she swiftly becomes the laughing stock. The joke is both on her, and her. This distant gaze others the domestic worker as well as strips them of a fair playing ground to defend themselves – the viewer isn’t permitted to acquaint themselves with the reasoning behind Kantaben’s beliefs before mocking her.
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Even in seemingly progressive films like Dear Zindagi (2016) and Noor (2017), outings which come a decade after Hindi cinema’s fixation with espousing family values (domestic workers have traditionally been considered an indispensable structure of joint families in Hindi films) reached its expiry date, little has changed. Noor still reserves a certain condescension for its house help, who single-handedly runs the household. There’s a scene where the titular Noor (Sonakshi Sinha), a millennial journalist, wakes up hungover and launches on a tirade against her employee, Malti. “Who takes so many offs?” she asks irritatedly, barely waiting for Malti’s explanation before burdening her with another menial domestic task (“Get the geyser fixed”). There is no acknowledgment of the worker’s all-consuming labor in Dear Zindagi either, in which Kaira treats her help as a service.
In a sense, Hindi cinema’s depiction of domestic workers has always been a one-way street, never quite highlighting the class disparity that needs to exist for upper-class families to keep employing domestic workers in the first place. This incomplete portrait stems from the fact that filmmakers didn’t deem it their responsibility to ask: Who is a domestic worker beyond the kitchen?
Zoya Akhtar’s breathtaking segment in Lust Stories was the first film to envision that answer. In under 30 minutes, Akhtar molded the film as a potent indictment against the upper class and its treatment of the working class ‒ the staff who know their employers better than their employers know themselves. Even a small character (Rasika Dugal appears in the closing minutes) is infused with distinct detail that delves into her personal motivations. In fact, Lust Stories achieved something that Hindi cinema has long considered unimaginable: depicting a domestic worker as a sexual being. The fact that Akhtar strayed against linking a lower-class status with the absence of desire is nothing short of revolutionary.
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The year after, Ritesh Batra’s Photograph took it further by using its domestic worker character to demand accountability from the country’s privileged. Here, an orthodox upper-class Gujarati family employs Rampyaari (Geetanjali Kulkarni) who tends to the family as if it is an act of religious dedication. Batra charts out the distance that the family willingly imposes between themselves and her in small, intimate bursts of information.
For instance, despite their politeness toward her, the family still views Rampyaari as someone inferior to them. She is made to sleep in the kitchen, she has her meals alone on the kitchen floor, and her head is perennially bowed down in front of them. It’s imperative what Photograph chooses to shatter: the illusion that somehow progressiveness is an offshoot of class superiority or even literacy. Both these narratives, informed heavily by the lived-in experiences of the help, at last manage to give her a full-bodied existence. If Sudha in Lust Stories revels in her sexual promiscuity, then Rampyaari in Photograph is revealed to possess a sense of humor.
What perhaps might take forward the transformation of Hindi cinema’s gaze toward house help is filmmakers writing them as romantic leads, instead of subplots. By designing itself as a love story that cuts across class barriers and confronts the inextricable hold of class prejudice in the process, Rohena Gera’s Sir aims to fill that vacuum. If Akhtar posited that sexual intimacy is well within the reach of domestic workers, then Gera’s empathetic gaze is egging the viewer to see Ratna as a human being not defined by her profession, but rather, as a person with the same romantic and sexual desires as everyone else. Sir then, seems to be asking the most defining and overdue question of our times: How long will Hindi cinema get away by entwining an individual’s worth in a narrative with their social standing?
Poulomi Das writes about film, pop culture, and gender. And dreams of french fries, unaffordable vacations, and Netflix. Tweet to her at @PouloCruelo.