I remember sitting in the very first lecture of my Romanticism paper and my professor asking us why all the greatest love stories end with happily ever after, even if it meant that the lovers die, case in point, Romeo and Juliet or Pyramus and Thisbe. Some of the greatest love stories have often found themselves victim to societal disapproval. Why is love so important and why have writers been talking about it or filmmakers been making films about it for centuries? The answer to these questions may differ from person to person but I’ve always felt that love is always threatening to our society because its the greatest equaliser of all. Unconditional love is supposed to break all barriers, especially the ones set up by societal norms that believe in hierarchy and status quo. The romantics at heart thrive on such fairytales and I am sure many get to live them as well, but there is one important question that literature and cinema have avoided for long time and have only recently has begun to ask. Is love enough?
Rohena Gera’s internationally acclaimed debut feature, Is Love Enough? SIR?, asks this question and explores it rivetingly. The film revolves around the story of a Marathi, widowed domestic worker, played by Tillotama Shome, who finds a complicated romantic spark with her employer, Ashwin, played by Vivek Gomber, who’s just returned from the U.S. after breaking off his engagement. What follows is a refreshing love story like no other. Produced by Inkpot Films (Brice Poisson and Rohena Gera), and co-produced by Ciné-Sud Promotion, the film has travelled to nearly 45 film festivals, winning 16 awards and is among the top 5 highest-grossing Indian films ever released theatrically in France. We connected with Rohena to know more about her journey and her film.
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and what led you towards filmmaking?
I came to filmmaking from writing. I studied creative writing at Stanford, and also did my MFA in writing in New York. My first film job was an internship at the Paramount Pictures development office in New York, where they look for books to adapt into films. I realised that film is where my interests converge, telling stories, engaging with society, trying in some small way to make a difference, but through entertainment. I started working as a screenwriter after I returned to Mumbai and It was a lot of fun, but at some point I wrote a script and I just couldn’t think of a director to pitch it to, so I started thinking about making it myself. That film was never made but it helped me in understanding that I want to tell my stories my way.
How would you define your filmmaking sensibility and which filmmakers or movies have influenced it?
I like lots of types of films actually, but I really love films that feel so effortless that you can’t see the artifice. Like Entre Les Murs by Laurent Cantet, Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird and Boyhood, that’s just special. I also love stylised high romances, like In The Mood For Love, and Moulin Rouge. I also admire films that take a stand, or raise questions, like Black KKKlansman, The Square, Detroit, et cetera. Since I am a writer first, I am attracted to characters and their evolution, and to the tenderness that a filmmaker can have towards them — like Klapisch — more than to the craft of elaborate shot-taking et cetera. For me the latter needs to be in the service of the former.
What inspired the making of Is Love Enough? SIR?
I grew up, like many people in India, with domestic help. When I was little, we had live in help and I was very close to the woman who took care of me, but I was also very aware of the chasm between us. Even as a child I found this difficult to accept, but when I went away to study abroad , it became even more flagrant. I didn’t know what to do about it. The film is really a reflection of that struggle, what can we do about something we don’t agree with in our society. It’s not a simple issue, it’s not about good guys and bad guys, and frankly I am very bored of Manichaean portrayals of victims and oppressors. Which is why it took me so long to find a way to tackle this conflict, and that is why I chose to tell it as a love story. When you are in love you, see the other person’s point of view almost automatically, and it is seeing another’s view of the world that I feel is important. I also wanted to portray the character Ratna as someone dynamic, full of hope and optimism. She’s not a victim. She has a dream and she goes for it. She is inspiring. I really feel that Indian women make the best of their situations and find a way to thrive, to rise above the most difficult circumstances.
Can you take us behind your creative process of making this film?
I tried to be as honest as possible to the characters and the world of the film. We workshopped with the actors, where Pushpendra Singh helped us all get on the same page. It’s my first fiction feature, and I was very lucky to be supported by a fantastic crew. The producer, Brice Poisson and I decided that on my first film, we had to be the only first timers! Dominique Colin, the DoP, really hand held me throughout the film. I really enjoyed the process of collaborating with such a talented crew. Parul Sondh brought her beautiful aesthetic to the production design, Jacques Comets his precision and ruthlessness to the edit. Chetna Rawat and Kim Kipgen made the cinematic world seem real through the authentic costumes, and the music was a real joy. Pierre Avia and I, went back and forth sharing all sorts of music, so that he could create a background score that belongs to these characters and this film. Also, it was great fun to make original songs too with Ragav and Mohit!
The theme of love and class based prejudices around it is central to this film. How challenging was it to tackles these themes?
The challenge for me was to not fall into clichés and to not fall into the trap of being clever in my writing. Every time I found myself writing a clever plot point, I would have to go back and take it out, and try to come back to what was true. That was my guiding principle, because if I lost the truth, it would become just another fantasy and easily dismissible. I wanted it to get deep under the skin of the characters, and therefore of the audience.
The film has had a fantastic run in the international film festival circuit. What has been your experience like?
It has been a a wonderful surprise! The film emphasises the importance of believing in one’s dreams and somehow the film itself has become a dream come true. I’m not just talking about the success of the film. The making of it, the collaborations, the whole journey, it is what one hopes for and works for. Then, to have it be appreciated around the world, to see audiences moved by and inspired by the story in so many countries, that has been quite overwhelming. None of this made any sense when we set out to make it, and yet here we are. So it gives you the courage to keep believing in yourself.
Lastly, what’s next for you?
I’m in the early stages of writing my next film. It’s exciting to be back to the very beginning. Writing is something I love, but it can also be excruciating. It’s the early days of alternately loving and hating the words on a page! I’m pretty ruthless with my own work but as they say, writing is rewriting, so I just have to trust my instincts and keep going.