Domestic workers

Movies Wronged Servants—Hum Aapke Hain Koun to Kal Ho Naa Ho. The Script Changes

FFor a long time, South Asian films have resorted to portraying domestic help characters as unhinged and stilted. From Kantaben in the 2003 blockbuster Kal Ho Naa Ho to the 1994 film by Sooraj Barjatya Hum Aapke Hain Koun!, domestic workers served only as agents of slapstick comedy. Seen as helpless vassals, they have been deprived of the strength and agency to carry on a story – their story – with their circumstances fetishized and their struggles ignored.

Although there is a considerable shift in the portrayal of modern Indian women in Bollywood, from powerless housewives to tequila-drinking privileged women with personal autonomy, marginalized women are still approached in a superficial and stereotypical way. Movies like Prashant Nair delhi in a day (2011), while trying to shed light on the condition of domestic help in India, still victimizes them.

But lately there has been a change. At Suresh Triveni jalsaZoya Akhtar’s segment in Lust stories (2018) and Rohena Gera Sir (2018) brought to screens a different interpretation of the domestic worker character. They are resolutely human, take center stage, and shatter the “norms” that once held them back.

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Bollywood films and domestic workers

movies like jalsa posed an interesting extension of the trope of the “dedicated” domestic worker. Shefali Shah’s Ruksana is not your Karan Johar ‘Daijaan’ token Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). His connection to Ayush, the son of Maya, the character of Vidya Balan, is an important vehicle that drives the narrative forward.

Ruksana’s silent obedience and love for Ayush forces Maya to confront her inner demons. Writer Prajwal Chandrashekar’s conception of Ruksana is such that it allows the audience to support and understand her struggle for dignity and justice instead of feeling sorry for her. Maya is lost without Ruksana’s forgiveness, and it shows just how important and powerful the character is.

Even Akhtar redeems himself with his shorts in Lust stories. Bhumi Pednekar tries out the role of a domestic worker who falls in love with her employer – which is clearly reflected in the way she takes care of him in her home. There’s something cathartic about watching her go about her daily chores, mostly because the process reflects so much of her love for Ajit (Neil Bhoopalam).

At Rohena Gera Sir is perhaps the most powerful reimagining of the character of a domestic worker. The revolutionary film by Tilotamma Shome, Sir explores the theme of love between a Maharashtrian domestic worker, Ratna, and her employer, Ashwin (Vivek Gomber). How refreshing is it Sir is her focus on Ratna and the milestones she achieves – everyone is an act of support. Ratna is more than a caregiver – a woman with real, tangible dreams and ambitions that she continues to work on. As the two communicate in few words, the viewer feels a myriad of emotions.

Although the theme of class division and poverty is obvious, Sir does more than dwell on these aspects – it explores the human individualism of its main characters and focuses on Ratna’s right to love, that too her employer.

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Representation of Southeast Asia

When we delve deeper into Southeast Asia, it’s impossible not to mention underrated gems like Ilo Ilo, a 2013 slice-of-life film by Anthony Chen. Set in 1990s Singapore, the film tells the story of Terry (Angeli Bayani), a Filipino domestic worker who is hired by an inherently dysfunctional working-class family. She is also left in charge of their 10-year-old son, Jiale.

The film could have gone in any direction – a possible affair between Terry and the husband (Tian Wen Chen), or a deep focus on Terry’s tryst with poverty. Instead, he chooses to focus on the endearing bond between Terry and Jiale, and her never say never attitude – she smiles despite the struggles and jostling to make ends meet. She finds strength and purpose in managing Jiale, but refuses to be bullied by him or his hypocritical family.

Why are you doing this to me, huh? Why are you doing this to me ? I don’t care if you like me or not. You don’t like it, I don’t care. But your mother, she employed me. I am here to do my job well. I’m your maid, but I didn’t come here to be bulliedshe said at one point.

It’s refreshing to see a small canon of films challenge an elitist and outdated perception of feminism in film. They portray domestic workers as human beings with power, agency, and strength instead of “altering” them or overplaying their poverty to please a blank stare. This remarkable shift towards realistic and inclusive cinema seems to be the need of the hour. It is hoped that more filmmakers will explore different facets of the life of a domestic helper, instead of regurgitating the same old tropes.

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(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)