Netflix's Sir: Is Love Enough? is a niche kind of film, built upon a theme that has been a time-tasted trope in Bollywood. It is niche because the plot hardly contains any sensationalizing twist or turn to rattle the senses of the viewers. To show lovers pining for each other across the barriers of caste and class, is a frequently deployed trope in Bollywood. What’s fresh and striking about the film though, is that it is raw in its depiction, and attempts to navigate the socio-political contours of class-based realities within a sensitive and realistic undertone.
Instead of gushing the plot with ladles of fantasy to satiate the dreamy appetites of the viewers, it stays true to what it’s depicting; lives of two characters inhabiting completely different social worlds and sensibilities, which are intersecting at mentally imagined zones, beyond the purview of the public gaze.
Ratna is a domestic servant in Ashwin’s house. She hails from a remote rural location, eager to escape the burden of orthodox rituals and attain some degree of independence and individuality, within the anonymity of city-life. As somebody who was widowed at a young age, she is well-aware of the fact that the obliviousness prevalent within the public life of an urban culture is a route that she needs to grab and optimize, to step closer to her dream of learning to tailor, and become a fashion designer someday.
The film is a very accurate and telling depiction of two different social worlds within the same physical space. It goes beyond the binary of employer v/s employee, and rich v/s poor, to touch the ripple of anxieties within the psyche of both the protagonists, whose ability to exercise agency over their life-circumstances, although resilient, has its limits.
Ratna’s fortitude and desire to make the most out of the limited windows of opportunities that she harnesses for herself with her sheer will, is commendable, for it reveals the drudgery of her existence, and yet essays her hopes about reaping possibilities that would have seemed to not exist within her world, upon the first glance. While the class dimension has been accurately portrayed, a closer peak into the mundane and habitual affairs of Ashwin and Ratna’s everyday lives also reveals the underpinnings of mental health that haunts the screen-space throughout the plot.
Mumbai, as a city, is more accessible to some than others, but the dreadful feeling of isolation and alienation that it fosters within its residents is perhaps a looming threat that pervades across the barriers of class.
Both Ratna and Ashwin are treading a difficult thread of existence. Ashwin’s history is not directly shown, but the eminent facts that emanate out of the conversations in hushed whispers reveal that he had a brother who died due to a fatal disease, his marriage with a girl he thought he loved failed, and he was once a writer in New York with very different set of ambitions, than what he is actually doing in Mumbai, compelled by circumstances as he is.
Material comfort scarcely compensates for the dreadful feeling of isolation that a person might feel within an urban, capitalistic environment where time for one’s own self is reduced to a bargain that one has to negotiate within the demands of a tiring job, and Ashwin surely does not seem to be an architect by choice.
The fact that Ratna seldom moans or wallows in gloom about the circumstances of her life in the manner that Ashwin does, is perhaps an indication of the harsh truth that the inequalities engendered by exclusionary social structures have rendered grief and sadness, as indulgences of luxury. For someone like Ratna who has to juggle across the daily responsibilities of toiling to secure a livelihood, and wreak out some time to fulfill her yearning and passion in ways that are honest and genuine, albeit small; to contemplate about her loneliness or lost life-chances could pull her into a mental halo of doom that she needs to probably escape, at any cost.
The story progresses in a very slow and tender fashion, leaving it up to the viewer to decipher that the two individuals inhabiting divergent social landscapes within the same physical space are perhaps struggling with the same tightrope of unfulfilled dreams, tiring compulsions and negotiated amounts of freedom that they must learn to live with.
Within the barriers and limits of their positions in the social hierarchy, the two communicate in subtle and hesitant ways to express their interest and concern for the well-being of the other, such that the film conveys more in its moments of silences, than the dialogues.
That Ashwin tends to stay blind to Ratna’s difficult social realities and hopes that she would yield to his feeling and affection without worrying about the consequences that it would imprint upon her reputation in society, can be read as a limitation of the potential for critique of social norms and radical cry for change, that the film would be expected to embody.
But the flaw also reveals Ashwin’s innocence. He sees Ratna only as who she is, and the unspoken diktats of society do not inhibit him from expressing his regard for her through gestures, such as buying a sewing machine or designer magazine for her, and wearing the shirt that she gifted him, while stepping outside home.
Within the limitations of the social matrix that she is embedded in, Ratna also expressed her desire in a slim, subtle, tender fashion when she sews a shirt for him. The burden of abiding by social norms governs her life more stringently, which is why she attempts to balance her action with the self-inflicted gaze of public morality, that drives her to guard a simple act such as gifting him a shirt, as a private mutual secret shared by the two.
Ashwin, due to his advantageous positioning on the social ladder, has the privilege and freedom to enter Ratna’s room as per his will, and make a move towards her at sensitive moments to express his desire and feelings. Ratna’s primary instinct, despite her suppressed feelings of love for him that are not revealed to the viewer until the last moment, is self-preservation, as she has everything to lose in the bargain. Ashwin’s world is accessible to her, only up to the extent that he would have allowed her. Her choice to discard his proposal and sever ties with him could be read as her vulnerability and helplessness. She seems to be exercising her agency at the moment when she chooses to abandon his abode, but our agency is also severely limited by the constraints of our socio-political realities. Ratna, unlike Ashwin, has to choose among alternatives that are ridden with far graver precarities than what he, with his innocence and love for her, could fathom.
When she asks him to not contact her again, he chose to respect her decision and still aided her in getting the job that would bring her closer to her dream of becoming a designer, and tried to deal with his feeling of hurt on his own.
That he ended up calling her one last time, and she yielded, reveals the uncertainties within which tender inklings of desire blooms at times, despite the precarious throes of oppressive cultural and socio-economic norms that hinder its very existence.
Whether the film offers a radical possibility of change and hope, or is disappointing due to its reluctance in critiquing the class-based socio-economic structure directly, is a question that is left in the end for the viewer to ponder upon.
What the film definitely does though, is to render an honest, and true depiction of the tender inklings of desire that innocently permeated across the boundaries of social norms and values.
Perhaps love is enough, or not; but the moment when Ratna amasses the courage to drop the symbolically heavy and loaded epithet of ‘Sir’, to address Ashwin directly by his first name, perhaps a moment of radical possibility does appear for a fleeting moment.