Cuaron, who made the film to honour the nanny who looked after him as a child, lays out, with a delicate touch, the complexities of the servant-employer dynamic.
Cleo is a maid, but for the four children she is a beloved angel. She kisses them good night. She wakes them up in the morning with a gentleness that is more a caress than a jolt. She is the calm presence in the house as their parents’ marriage collapses. Cleo is the one who is responsible for their safety when they venture out into the city streets and when they go on holidays – this includes the marvelous scene at the end when she has to wade into the surging ocean, even though she can’t swim.
She is the one who makes sure that the lovely hum and rhythm of this family home runs smoothly. Isn’t this what our maids do every day, too? The mystery is why this rich material hasn’t been mined not just for films, but for sitcoms and TV drama series. Just think of the tragic-comic potential in these situations:
The employer’s righteous indignation when the maid asks for a pay rise equivalent to the price of a latte; the expectation that she must love and comfort your child and stay up at night during their illnesses even though she can be thrown out for one trivial mistake; the expectation of loyalty although she can be packed off back to her village if she contracts TB; the endless expansion of her job description to encompass the massaging of feet, the walking the dog, and looking after the incontinent elderly; the unhappy watchfulness of the plain mistress of the house who cannot bear the gleam in her husband’s gaze when it rests on the pretty maid; the mat given to her to roll out on the floor when she goes to sleep even as the mansion where she works has empty bedrooms.
Food alone offers rich pickings for a film director. Doling out the maid’s dinner – ladling out the dal and counting the chapatis – as though employers have measured her stomach. Or the fridge. India is the only country in the world for which global manufacturers have made an evil model – the fridge with a lock on it. Or the family that goes out to dinner and makes the ayah stand beside their table throughout the meal. Or the separate utensils given to the maid?
Not a single aspect of this fascinating relationship has been examined by Indian directors. A recent film, part of a Netflix anthology film called Lust Stories and directed by Zoya Akhar, depicted a young single man living alone and having sex with his maid while simultaneously checking out prospective brides brought over by Mummy and Daddy.
The film was a ham-handed, glib, shallow effort that failed even to touch the surface of what is often a daily work hazard for some maids. Contrast this with Cuaron’s light touch when he shows the family sprawled on a sofa watching a funny show on TV. Cleo, who has been clearing the dishes, sits down by one of the young sons to watch too and he instinctively puts his arm around her shoulders. Seconds later, the wife tells Cleo, just as she has sat down, to go and get some tea for her husband.
The moment is fleeting but perceptively captured because of Cuaron’s sensibility. This is a classic scene enacted in homes every day in India. The moment a maid sits down, some instruction comes. But more importantly, it is the relationship between the maid and the children – as shown by the boy putting his arms lovingly around Cleo – that generates a grey area where no one is quite sure, neither maid nor employer, of the protocol.
That’s because little Indian children love the maid. If they go somewhere, they want to take her with them. If they order a pizza for dinner, they want to share it with her. But the maid has to almost discourage this affectionate, egalitarian approach of the children because her instinct tells her it does not sit well with the adults.
It is this space – constantly shifting and fluid – that she must negotiate all the time. A space where, one moment she is a loved member of the family, laughing with them and sharing a joy or a sorrow but in another, she can become the outsider who is excluded from a treat or an activity shared by everyone else.
Many talented directors and writers have finally started delving into contemporary Indian society for stories. To mention only a handful, films like Roma, it’s impossible not to feel exasperated that hardly any Indian director has thought of depicting this absolutely pivotal master-servant relationship.
Maybe the subject feels too quotidian. But surely the hallmark of a great director is the ability to make us look at everything that has always surrounded us in a different way?