Netflix’s new release Sir is about breaches across the social fabric of caste and class structures between an upper-caste, New York-returned, English-speaking employer Ashwin (Vivek Gomber) and a domestic worker, Ratna (Tillotama Shome). Ratna, who gets widowed at 19, chooses to work in the big city of Mumbai, which over the course of the film, highlights the plight of migrants in the city who end up taking jobs as domestic workers.
The film, directed by Rohena Gera, attempts to bridge hierarchies in the social ladder, which the title Sir squarely puts as a marker of social reality. Ratna cannot make herself call her employer anything beyond ‘Sir’ until the end of the movie when she is no longer employed. Many have observed how this film is a radical take on love stories across caste-class divides. Even the additional title to the film claims, ‘Is Love Enough?’.
‘Is love enough?’
The film tries to puncture the veil of social hierarchies through Ashwin’s conduct, which manifests in his realisation that he loves Ratna. However, Ashwin’s love for Ratna doesn’t find as much merit as his treatment of Ratna as ‘human’ does: both share a relationship of affection and care, be it Ashwin’s generous gift of a tailoring machine to her or her sewing of a shirt for him. But it ends at just that. This conduct of humanising Ratna operates in a world of merit and hard work, where if Ratna works hard, she will get ahead in life.
For Ashwin, Ratna is not ‘just’ a maid since he doesn’t “see her like a servant”. Then the film’s attempt at challenging social relations is a failure because it only gives us a conciliatory peek. This is the problem of Ashwin’s character, who is blind to caste-class operations and social realities because he doesn’t care. A case in point for the well-meaning, philanthropic and the kind English-speaking ruling class for whom this blindness is a prerequisite for the functioning of their lives.
But Ratna is pragmatic and aware of her social location. As a result, she is stoic and tentative with regard to her interactions with Ashwin: limiting it to her professional labour, while intermittently providing personal advice and moral support. Yet, Ratna can only enter the space of a casteless, classless world if Ashwin allows it.
On the other hand, Ashwin’s breaches of hierarchy are comparatively smooth: he enters her space seamlessly, going into her room with a noble curiosity, which Ratna cannot. Constantly walking on eggshells and trying to strike the right balance between being a ‘person’ while also being a ‘servant’ (which Shome achieves with brilliance), there are larger bridges to cross which ‘love’ cannot deliver.
The complexities in ‘feelings’
Ashwin, in what is supposed to be an emotional outburst, questions Ratna’s stoicism as feeling-less. He screams, “Do you not feel anything?”, and that too in English, which Ratna is hardly proficient in. Ratna’s response to this accusation is a sharp, “Main gawaar zaroor hongi par itna samajhti hun ki yahan aapki rakhel banke nahi rahungi. (I must be illiterate but I understand the implications of your proposition – that I must live as your mistress which I won’t.)”
Ashwin is shocked and indignant at Ratna’s crude reduction of what is supposedly his expansive love for her. Such a demotion of Ashwin’s feelings is understandably pragmatic for Ratna. She must come to these reductions, her ‘feelings’ must make sure she chooses self-preservation over a caste-class blind love which believes in bettering her ‘condition’.
Perhaps, that’s what the additional title, ‘Is Love Enough?’ is trying to convey. But the film doesn’t let us engage concretely with that question. It flattens what began as a radical movement across social positions, to a sappy Ashwin telling his father “I’m in love with her therefore I must move away to New York since I can’t be with her”. If only Ashwin could stay back and break those caste-class divisions using his social position.
If not love then what?
The shift of the film’s focus to love – how love levels these inequities in position – feels inauthentic. It doesn’t. Instead what the film did was neglect those inequities. Ratna and Ashwin’s love story cannot be extricated from the conditions within which social relations of employer and employee are created, or to put it more concretely, the ruling class and the working class.
What the film achieves is recognising the tenderness of love’s possibilities. It is within love, that hope can spring, and so does solidarity. A closer engagement with the film’s issues can let us critique the very nature of love. We must recognise the complicity of Ashwin’s location in creating impossibilities in the quest of their love but also the conditions which create such a location. The possibility that love promises then becomes impossible if we do not comment on our own complicities – the love with which we engage in the everyday performance of our caste/class realities which cement these social relations.
The film ends on a note where Ratna finds a job (due to Ashwin’s kindness) in a leading fashion designer’s factory, which is run by the same woman who had rebuked Ratna for dropping her own wine glass on her dress. This turn towards how the elite are philanthropic and actually kind to the domestic servant without critiquing how the occupation of servants is created with the complicity of the same elite caste-class nexus, is limiting. An instance of upper-class/caste redemption? Perhaps.
However, this redemption is hollow as long as it does nothing to dismantle the conditions that create such a society. Yet, Netflix’s Sir is a commendable work on showcasing how the spaces and sensibilities of the two worlds are so tightly woven around humanising as well as dehumanising social structures which, on a closer look, requires a more detailed engagement with relations of caste and class in India.
Ankita Dhar Karmakar is a postgraduate student at Ambedkar University. She tweets @dharspeaks.