A film about forbidden love in a country struggling with its barbaric caste system kicks off South Asian film festival
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A film about forbidden love in a country struggling with its barbaric caste system kicks off South Asian film festival

Sir is the story of Ratna, an Indian domestic servant working for Ashwin, a well-off, upper-caste young professional in a large unnamed metropolitan Indian city, which could easily be Mumbai. Ashwin is an unusually understanding and encouraging employer in India’s centuries-old system of indentured servitude who even gives time away from her duties to attend a tailoring class so she can fulfill her lifelong dream to break into the fashion industry.

The audience gradually learns that Ashwin’s atypical light, considerate touch, in a world where people like Ratna move like ghosts, unseen and unfelt by their masters, is the result not just of having a heart of gold, but his discrete observations of Ratna as he slowly falls in love with her — a breakdown of unbreakable barriers. For outsiders visiting the country, the disturbing plight of India’s 900-million residents who are systemically marginalized, with medieval scenes of oppression that play out in plain sight thousands of times a day, it’s hard to conceive that such barbaric attitudes have become so normalized, they’re literally part of the only life people on both sides have ever known.

Ashwin’s time in America, where his wedding was cancelled, underlies his liberating attitude that’s out-of-character in a country blinded by the very force holding it back.

A scene from Sir

Unlike mainstream Bollywood cinema, which, like the rest of Indian society, seems oblivious to the injustice, Sir covers highly sensitive ground that many in younger generations are starting to grapple with.

The dark reality is hard to fathom.  

More than 338,000 crimes against women filed in one year, including over 110,000 instances of violence at the hands of husbands and relatives. More than 40,000 crimes in one year against those from “Scheduled Castes” (formerly called the country’s “untouchable” people) under a state-recognized social hierarchy. More than 106,000 cases of violence against children in the same year.

These are just some of the shocking details from India in the latest annual country-reports by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International that each year provide an important view of the nation’s increasingly appalling human rights record.

The movie, released last year and already garnering critical acclaim, highlights the plight of women in India’s rigidly divided society, where class becomes an added obstacle reminding them constantly of their traditional place. It helped kick-off preliminary events of the International Film Festival of South Asia. The largest South Asian Film Festival in North America begins Thursday, with almost 100 short and feature-length movies that will be screened across the GTA. The full schedule and other details can be found here: https://www.iffsatoronto.com/

Films such as Sir, Bulbul Can Sing and Hamid and Bhonsle will be featured in this year’s festival, now in its eighth year. IFFSA founder Sunny Gill says it is not uncommon for the festival to feature messages he believes will have a social impact. “The whole purpose of the festival is giving back to the community and building it as a South Asian institution,” Gill told The Pointer.

“So with that kind of mindset, we also developed this program where we can give back to the community. Usually, people think film is just for entertainment, but we say that a film is actually a great tool for social change.”

While it is conceivable that employers like the fictional Ashwin — kind and generous to their hired help — do exist in India, the reality is that many take unfair advantage of the lower classes in their employ. Many people hired to help keep a rich Indian household in order are migrants moving from the countryside, as Ratna does in the film. While India’s economy rapidly expands, the country’s nouveau riche are scooping up whatever cheap help they can find, a tradition that has existed there for centuries. Attitudes toward menial work in the Indian Subcontinent tend to be more than just negative, they establish a warped socio-religious hierarchy that uses religiosity to justify the order of class, with “priestly” types at the top of the self-serving system. Relationships between employers and domestic help are fraught with inequity and the film penetrates the offscreen dimension that challenges the viewer’s understanding of scenes that unfold unnoticed in their everyday lives.

Ratna, the central character in Sir, aspires to work in the fashion industry

Women, specifically, have been hit hard by the country’s “way of life”. A June 2018 global survey by Thomson Reuters named India the worst country for women — ahead of Afghanistan, Syria and Saudi Arabia. The poll was immediately panned by many in India’s upper-class, but it highlighted the discrimination women face because of cultural traditions and their frequent victimization through sexual violence, human trafficking and caste discrimination.

A character from Sir depicts the general attitude towards the help when she says, “Once you cut a few thousand from their salaries, they are straight,” deliberately within earshot of Ratna. Another, when Ratna asks in Hindi if she should put on a meal for Ashwin and his visitor, the guest replies dismissively, “Can't you see we are talking?”

From the back of a scooter, Ratna looks longingly at a fashion boutique where she wouldn't be welcome because of her low-caste status

Parallels can be seen in Canada. South Asians migrating to Canada and seeking to make a home in fast-growing Brampton are often forced to rely on precarious employment to make ends meet.   

The rigidly organized caste system in India, though illegal, is too culturally ingrained to challenge in any meaningful way. It makes lower classes particularly vulnerable to abuse. Ratna’s character, played by actress Tillotama Shome, most likely belongs to the Shudra caste, which consists of manual laborers, placing her near the bottom of the social pyramid.

There is a large class of people in India who are not even included in the caste system. The Dalits, more commonly known as “Untouchables”, are often relegated to the dirtiest of menial tasks, such as cleaning sewers and sweeping streets, often without pay.

Though India’s constitution banned the practice of untouchability, and there are laws protecting Dalits and even affirmative action programs, ancient attitudes and taboos persist. They have often made their way into headlines as well. In July 2017, the United Kingdom’s The Guardian newspaper reported on the resentment a lot of the lower castes feel towards those holding the whip hand, which has increasingly led to violent protest, as democratizing efforts have stepped up.

That year, hundreds of labourers rioted outside of their employer’s homes for having to endure years of abuse and humiliations which included not being allowed to use the toilet they are tasked to clean, being allowed only one day off per month and locking fridges so the maids and their family cannot steal food.

Gill took the time to sing the praises of the women voices in the film because, afterall, the story is about women by women. “This is a platform for all sorts of South Asians to tell their story through the medium of film. When we spoke about women being more outspoken about their rights, they are also using films to tell their stories and it's a platform for that,” Gill told The Pointer.


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