DIRECTOR ROHENA GERA Chats SIR – Mythily Ramachandran interviews

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Director Rohena Gera’s debut feature film, Sir produced by Inkpot Films, broke all stereotypes of Indian cinema with a story that explored the changing dynamics of a relationship between Ashwin-a affluent young man and Ratna-his live-in domestic help. In India where caste and position in society determines relationships, Sir was much appreciated for its sincerity and honest narration. Sir premiered in the Critics Week at Cannes (2017) winning acclaim. Gera became the first woman filmmaker to receive the Gan Foundation award as well as a prize at the Cannes Critics Week.

Sir joined the list of seven films selected by a committee from 1100 films. It also received the World Audience award at World Cinema Festival, Amsterdam in 2018. Sir released in Indian theaters in November 2020. This January 2021, this independent film went global on Netflix winning hearts worldwide and topping the list in Netflix India within two days of its release.

Gera grew up in Pune (India) and went on to study at Stanford University and Sarah Lawrence College. She began as a screenwriter with the popular television series Jassi Jaise Koi Nahin. After debuting in Bollywood as screenwriter with Kuch Na Kaho in 2003, Gera directed and produced a documentary What’s Love Got To Do With It? Sir is her first feature film.

Gera lives in Paris with her husband and daughter. Over a zoom meet, she talked about the making of Sir and her journey into cinema.

Mythily Ramachandran: Were you expecting this kind of response on Netflix?

Rohena Gera: It’s been quite surprising. You never know what to expect with this kind of a film. At Cannes it did really well. When I made the film, it was for an Indian audience, though people said the Indian audience may not accept the story. It has been better than what I hoped. People appreciated the honesty of the story and the characters. The Indian audience is connecting to the little details. For me it was about raising questions to ask ourselves through a love story.

There was a lot of awareness of the film because of Cannes. The theatrical release last year brought in amazing reviews and buzz around the film, before Netflix. With Netflix, there was no formal announcement. We were not a film they decided to promote. It’s the audience who drove the film after its Netflix release. I was quite shocked to see it being in the top ten in India and then it became number two within a day. The next day it was on top one. I had tears in my eyes. It’s lovely to hear from people writing to me asking for a sequel, which means they think there is a future. The film leaves with a question and the answers are within us for each person.

MR: What triggered you to write this story and why did you decide to produce it yourself?

RG: Growing up in India, there is a level of dependence on the household help. But I did not want to get into a preachy film. I started writing towards the end of 2014 and the script was ready by 2016 when we began preproduction. I pitched it to a few in Mumbai and realised quickly it would destroy the film if I followed what they wanted me to do. One producer asked me to pitch it to a big star. Obviously the money will come, but it will not be the film I envisioned anymore. So I made it independently. My husband Brice Poissen helped me in managing the nitty-gritty and my family supported me. I had a good crew too.

MR: How did you choose your leading actors?

RG: I did not have them in mind during the scripting stage. My producer suggested Thillotama- she can portray complexity. My character Ratna is optimistic with many layers in her personality. She is a joyful person despite a difficult life. Her defining aspect is work- she is proud of working and is committed to her job. She has a dream too. And though her circumstances are humiliating she maintains her dignity through that. I did not want to humiliate Ratna even while writing her story. Thillotama was the obvious choice, having watched her in Monsoon Wedding. I was hoping she would do it. For Ashwin’s role, I had auditions. Small characters were difficult to cast- like the girl Ashwin meets in the bar. And, the actress who played this role made her presence felt.

MR: How was it working with Thillotama and Vivek?

RG: For a first time director and more as a woman, it is challenging and you have to earn your place. I did a micro-budget documentary before this film, What’s Love Got to do With It. Sir is a completely independent film. Fortunately Vivek and Tillotama were respectful to the script. Being friends they felt a sense of security and it evolved smoothly. I am grateful to what they brought to the screen. It’s their sincerity and hard work. We did workshops with director Pushpendra Singh.

In the film all the little moments were well detailed on paper- the one glance one look. They don’t have long chats and their bonding occurs with tiny steps in their interaction. Every artist brings their own layer, keeping my vision, and adding theirs. It is a collaborative work. I was fortunate to have an amazing DOP, actors and a talented crew. Everything came together and beyond what I hoped for alone. They all lifted and took my vision further.

MR: What drove you into a cinema career?

RG: I never studied film, but have always been inclined towards poetry and writing since school days. Stories always interested me. Social justice interested me too. I was in mid twenties and doing Masters of Fine Arts at New York. At Stanford I studied fiction writing and loved it.

One of the films that made me think about cinema was Robin Williams’ Bird Cage. My mother came down to the USA then –in 1997 and we watched together Bird Cage is a comedy that makes you root for the gay characters. My mother was then clueless about gay people but after watching this film she was touched by the challenges they faced. There was a change in her in her behaviour and she was kind to my gay friends. I realised then that films while telling a story can raise questions. We can have fun without being preachy.

MR: After working in mainstream films in Bollywood ‘Sir’ is a different cup of tea completely. Did you have to unlearn things?

RG: In Mumbai as an outsider, initially I met people and did a lot of work for free though writers are told that they will pay when the film is made. What’s fun about mainstream work like Jassi Jaise Koi Nahin,’is that its fast structured and a craft. You have the commercial break. Working there was a good training. Though it does not give space for your personal angst, the positive side is to respect the audience. That’s my learning.

In India people want films to entertain them unlike in France, where the approach is very different. In NY you are likely to watch harder films, when you have a privileged life. But after a tiring day, you want something to chill. ‘Sir’ is in the middle- not completely art house nor commercial. It is entertaining without being frivolous and stupid. I am extremely lucky as we managed to survive.

MR: How easy is it as a women director?

RG: I have so far directed only independent films. Some years ago when I pitched a story and I started my narration with ‘She does,’ the producer told me he was not interested in a lady protagonist. That is not the case now. Things have evolved now and I hope it will get easy for women.

MR: What’s next?

RG: I have started working on my next but it’s to early in the writing stage to talk about.

mithilyMythily Ramachandran,Mythily Ramachandran is an independent journalist from Chennai, India with over two decades of reporting experience in leading Indian and international publications, including Gulf News, (UAE), South Morning China Post, Lifestyle Asia and Another Gaze (UK). When this crazy film buff is not watching films, she is snooping around for those little-known stories of human interest, which eventually find a place in well known publications.

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