Film

'Is Love Enough? Sir' Explores the Alchemy of Desire Through the Prism of Class

In a film where the protagonists are separated by an insurmountable barrier, the real charm lies in slow transitions.

The structure of a film is like a moment of hesitation: it reveals more than it hides. A structure is not just a combination of acts – or an arrangement of scenes, subplots, plot turns. A structure is a gateway that satiates our primal curiosity: where will the story open. A structure determines agency: who will start the story. A structure directs our attention: what is the story about. A structure is not just architectural and personal; it is ideological and political.

So, in a drama centred on a live-in maid and an affluent businessman, the structure says reams. Where does the story start? In a village in Maharashtra. Who starts the story? Ratna (Tillotama Shome), packing her bags, leaving for Mumbai. What is the story about? Of stepping outside the shadows, of being something – or someone – you weren’t allowed to be. Rohena Gera’s Is Love Enough? Sir dedicates a part of its title to a man, a moneyed Mumbai builder, but it reserves its heart for Ratna, the film’s hero.

Gera pivots the movie on an unlikely bond, between Ratna and her boss, her “sir”, Ashwin (Vivek Gomber). He’s recently moved from New York to Mumbai to take care of his ailing brother. Ashwin was a magazine journalist in the US, working on his first novel. But after a failed marriage, he finds himself alone in his Mumbai house, with no one but Ratna for company. Even though Ratna and Ashwin belong to opposite ends of the class spectrum, they share some crucial commonalities. Like Ashwin, she doesn’t have a partner – her husband died four months after her marriage, leaving her widowed at the age of 19. Like Ashwin, she sacrificed her aspirations for a sibling, a younger sister – she funds her diploma course. Like Ashwin, she nurtures a precious dream: of being a fashion designer.

Not naive

The film, however, is not naïve about their differences. It knows that a sigh for Ashwin is a storm for Ratna. Yet they both live under the same roof – a function of urban convenience, provincial desperation, and the country’s historic ease with hierarchical relationships. But, at the same time, Ashwin isn’t a typical boss. He’s polite, considerate, kind, prone to saying “thank you”, mindful of respecting space. Ratna, too, is conscientious, sincere, compassionate. But she also knows her most valuable quality: that she’s less of a person and more of a function, a peripheral presence, and she wears her invisibility like a cloak.

But every now and then, she can’t help stitch a few dreams. She joins a local tailor as an apprentice, hoping to learn the trade. She winds down by chatting with an elderly house help, Laxmi Tai (Geetanjali Kulkarni). And on a good day, they go to the terrace of the high-rise, holding cups of chai, talking, laughing, absorbing the city’s unending expanse, which doesn’t look towering and intimidating for the moment — a lie both transient and comforting.

The real charm of a film like this, where the protagonists are separated by an insurmountable barrier, lies in slow transitions: the formal inching towards the informal, the professional accommodating the personal, the incredible dissolving into the credible. Gera’s screenplay burns with a slow relish, as if fire has changed character. There’s no real reason for Ratna and Ashwin to bond, so their initial conversations have the tardiness of an afterthought, unfolding at places where she’s serving or making food: the dining table, the kitchen, the bedroom. Sometimes they take a leap of faith and drop a line of comfort and compliment (“life doesn’t end, sir”; “you’re brave, Ratna”). In most films, those dialogues would have felt weighty and forced; here, they have the lightness of certainty. And once I saw the characters cross that hurdle, it felt as if a weight had been lifted off my chest – partly due to my own conditioning and bias – and I could answer my once “why” with a simple, “Why not?”

Further, their conversations often come to an abrupt halt – a flourish both literal and metaphorical – as they mimic their relationship. They can’t go anywhere, because there is nowhere to go. The drama is also a masterful rumination on space – a comment on the city, the characters, and their relationship. More than once, the camera glides horizontally to contrast the spaces belonging to Ashwin and Ratna: his is flowing and warm, hers is cramped and dim. Yet it’s the same house, much like their city or country, where the only thing common to a vastly unequal population is an address of a different kind, their nationality. Gera uses the notion of space to understand Ratna. When she insists her mentor to give her some work – something he hasn’t done in weeks – he tells her to arrange the clothes in the shop’s attic. She climbs a tiny ladder to find a tinier attic, suffocated with polythene bags, reminding her of who she is, what she deserves. On the other hand, she’s truly happy under an open sky, on the building’s rooftop, liberated from the constrictions of confines – a setting that recurs with increasing significance.

Their separation is also reinforced by linguistic barriers. Ashwin isn’t fluent in Hindi; she can’t speak English. When he calls her “brave”, she holds that moment and later asks the driver its meaning. She watches Hindi serials in her free time, he a French film. Gomber played a similar character in the 2014 drama Court where, as a suave urban lawyer, he juggled different worlds. He was impressive there; he’s impressive here. Gomber makes for an atypical Hindi film protagonist – someone who doesn’t have a natural flair for dramatic Hindi or conventional drama. Gera recognises that limitation, letting her actor play to his strengths.

Shome emerges as the real star

But the film’s real star is Shome, who slips into a layered role as a seamless whole. It’s all in there: hesitance, diffidence, humiliation, determination, overlapping at times in different combinations, and Shome manages to be assured throughout. But she is particularly memorable while portraying Ratna’s desire – when she makes a shirt for Ashwin and hopes that he’ll wear it; when she carefully caresses his gift, a sewing machine; when she enters a high-end store and admires the clothing designs. Shome’s acting, in these scenes, has the conviction of a statement and the finality of a response, for that’s the first thing that our society deems transgressive for people like Ratna: desire.

Shome’s performance reminded me of someone I once used to know. Seven-and-a-half years ago, I was working for an online film magazine. It was a small team, and most of my colleagues worked from home, leaving a domestic help and me in the office. Slowly, we began bonding over cups of chai. She shared her stories; I shared mine. One day, she told me about a man she used to work for. He was in the film industry, probably a producer, definitely a philanderer. Every time she saw a new woman in the house, which was often, it used to sting her hard. One day, it broke her, and she broke down. “I didn’t tell him anything,” she told me, “but isn’t love still… love?” I didn’t know what to say. I kept looking outside the window. Maybe I know now. Maybe because I had seen her as a lot of things – a sincere worker, pleasant company, a skillful cook – but not as someone with desire. And if we don’t think someone is capable of desire, then what do we really think of them?

Gera tackles that question with impressive heft. This isn’t just a love story. This isn’t just about whether Ashwin or Ratna will get together. This isn’t a maudlin introspection, bordering on self-indulgence, either. It is simply a clear-eyed view of someone whom we’ve never really seen. It is a portrait of someone unfamiliar with canvas – and once we see the complete picture, it starts to talk. The film’s title, then, is both a question and an answer: Is love enough?