Cuaron’s film is set in Mexico, but we can all relate to the emotionally charged relationship with domestic workers

Amulya Gopalakrishnan

Roma, the beautiful autobiographical film by Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron, is not only a festival sensation, it is a landmark for its producer Netflix. Set in the 1970s, it is a delicate homage to Cuaron’s “second mother”, a domestic worker at his childhood home, here depicted as Cleo.

For all its poetic gaze, the film doesn’t look away from the cold inequality that holds up this arrangement — the hard work, the social separation, the exploitation inherent in it.

There’s a scene when a child lies flat on his back, sun in his face, saying ‘I’m dead’. Cleo mimics his pose, and then says wonderingly: ‘I like being dead’, while the camera pans across the whole line of dripping laundry she has just done.

Roma is the kind of movie that can suddenly estrange a relatively well-off Indian viewer from her own life, make us see the dark oddities of our own dynamics with domestic workers. Few relationships are so close. Few are more distant. Cleo wakes the children, feeds the family, cleans up after them, and is a quiet witness to their lives. They know little about her circumstances, or even who she is. This is largely true for all of us who employ domestic workers.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild has written about emotional labour — the work that goes into jobs where you have to hide your true feelings or evoke false feelings — like how salespeople or wait staff might feel worn out from smiling. Domestic work is a constant performance, of docility, of efficiency, even of abjection.

In a relationship as tangled as the one between a mother, a child and a nanny, or a domestic worker who lives in, these boundaries often get blurred and re-drawn regularly as natural intimacy struggles against social distance. We all make coldblooded calculations, how much to emotionally invest in each interaction, when to give and when to draw back. Your heart goes out to someone in sympathy and then an alert goes off, and you dial down any expectations they might have of you. With domestic workers, we do this routinely — you don’t want to hear too much about the troubles in their lives, because where does that end, after all? I once met an Indian-American couple in Delhi, where the woman confided: ‘Oh, I gave the driver some money and a week off to go home to his unwell father. My husband was so stern with me, he told me that’s how they take advantage of us.”

While domestic work cultures are different everywhere in the world, there are some constants across them. It’s a transaction, even if it is often cloaked in the rhetoric of love or friendship. The scholars Raka Ray and Seemin Qayyum have written about servitude in Kolkata, in the form of long service to a single household, as well as the freelance model, where a domestic worker lives outside and works in several homes. The language of care and responsibility in the former model has given way to a more contractual, impersonal, privacy-prizing model among younger couples.

And yet, the emotional overhang is similar. There are expectations of affection towards children, a certain loyalty. In both cases, the employer’s misty-eyed vision of the equation is rather different from that of the domestic worker’s. Employers are most comfortable with random acts of charity — payment for the sudden health emergency, or a loan, or tuition for the worker’s child. Often, there is a sense of betrayal in these relationships when the worker demands rights, or overtime payments, or more money rather than castaway clothes or furniture. Ray and Qayyum have a story of a New York couple who bring over an Indian domestic worker, determined to do well by her, but still feel betrayed when she shows too much agency, asks for better pay, and looks for better opportunities in the US.

In other words, love and friendship are just the comforting face that we put on the equation for our own sakes, to ease our lives. It’s not a two-way friendship, or even a fair economic arrangement. It’s a fair bet that few of them get the state-mandated minimum wage. Their only protections are the market and the benevolence of their employers — though there are ongoing attempts to form unions.

Other societies that grapple with this inequality and its psychic burden have expressed it through art, film and books. Nadine Gordimer’s July’s People is about what happens when the roles are reversed, and a black domestic worker has to protect the liberal white family that employed him, after revolutionary violence in South Africa. There have been many Latin American films about unseen aspects of domestic work. I’m not aware of as many contemporary Indian ones, though Zoya Akhtar’s short film in Lust Stories certainly cuts deep. Neel Battey Sannata, about a domestic worker who wants to get her daughter a better life, is almost a fairy tale of social mobility.

For the most part, we inherit our social reflexes. The ideal of ‘seva’ wasn’t just employment, it was caste duty. Household conduct books in north India warned of the mischief wrought by the dai and malin and dhobin, thwarting any sisterhood between dominant-caste middle-class women and domestic workers.

India is not the only country with a culture of domestic work. Despite theories that modernisation or industrialisation would end paid domestic labour, now we know that it arises wherever there is great inequality. There is a global movement of domestic and care workers to Western nations. In India, paid domestic work exploded in the years after liberalisation, as Tripti Lahiri recounts in her book Maid in India. This work has enabled more affluent women to work outside the home (affluent men, of course, have been enabled by both sets of women).

None of us needs to be told these facts, we know and live off them. Some repressed feelings are part of the deal, to carry on with this convenient arrangement.

These artistic efforts are not moralistic — liberal shame doesn’t help very much, and is not a sustainable emotion. We watch a movie, feel bad for a bit, but have to go back to our willed ignorance. Even Cuaron’s or Akhtar’s films, or Gordimer’s book, are the voice of the overclass. And yet, to properly see someone close to you, however flickeringly, is better than nothing at all.