Pune-born Rohena Gera has become the first woman filmmaker to bag Gan Foundation Award at 71st International Cannes Film Festival for her directorial feature film Sir. The Gan Foundation for Cinema is a grant award, within La Semaine de la Critique, to help distribute a first or second feature film in France in the hope of promoting new filmmakers.
Starring Tillotama Shome, Vivek Gomber, Rahul Vohra and others, Sir was selected amongst 7 films out of 1100 entries to compete at the Critics Week at the festival.
An excited Rohena says, “The award supports the distribution of the film so that it can be seen and the story can be discussed. It just shows that the committee believes in the film. Now, it should reach a wider audience and it should validate with the audience.” This year, two Indian films — Sir and Nandita Das’ Manto — were officially competing at the film festival.
Rohena informs that they already had a French distribution company Diaphan in place who had come on board much before their entry at Cannes. “They were happy to distribute the film and are committed to it,” she says.
Describing her experience at Cannes, she says, “To be a part of the Critics Week was really amazing. It was a beautiful feeling because it’s our first feature film and we have got some very positive feedback.” She adds that people were moved after watching Sir. “They found the subject subtle and the characters interesting. They also said it had happy vibes. Despite being an Indian film, it connected with the international committee.”
The film touches upon an unusual love story between a young man and his domestic help, which makes all the appreciation even more special. “It was a high risk project because we did not follow any formula. I believed in the story and trusted myself. There were no Mumbai studios involved. I had discussions with a few studios but realised that I wanted to make it independently so that I do not have any casting pressure or any excuses,” says Rohena who has produced the film along with her husband Brice Poisson. She adds that her focus was on high production values.
She says the reason her husband came on board was to allow her to concentrate completely on directing the film. “He stepped in to run the show and took care of production and budget. Meanwhile, I could completely concentrate on the direction. That way the process was clutter free, simple and we ended up making the film the way we wanted to,” says the young director who has previously directed the critically acclaimed documentary What’s Love Got To Do With It?
Sharing her inspiration behind the story, Rohena says that she too had domestic help during her growing-up years. “We are fairly comfortable with the way we treat them. But after I turned 18, I went to live in the USA and started seeing India from a different perspective. I started questioning our way of living and why we are not respectable to our domestic help. I felt guilty and realised that I am not a good person,” says Rohena who has lived both in Mumbai and Pune.
The whole idea was to show how two different worlds co-exist in an apartment. “My protagonists — Ashwin is an urban man while Ratna represents the village. I thought of the love story because when two people love each other they are equals. I didn’t want to show her as the victim and him as the oppressor,” she says.
Post Cannes, she says, distributors want to send Sir to many other film festivals. “The film has been picked up in seven other territories and there have been several enquiries. We also want to give it a solid theatrical release in India and other countries. We are working on both directions,” she says.
Rohena not only showcased her film at Cannes but also walked the red carpet at the festival along with 82 women from all areas of the industry in protest of gender gap. The intention of the protest was to express how hard it is still to climb the social and professional ladder as women in the film industry. She says that it was inspiring at multiple levels. “It was the first thing I did after landing at Cannes and it was a real privilege being a part of the initiative. Without putting anyone down, it’s important that both men and women realise its importance,” she says before signing off.