Middle-class Indian movie-goers are set to squirm in their seats this week as a new film explores how wealthier families treat the household staff who answer to their every whim.
“Delhi in a Day” tells the story of an idealistic British traveller who finds he is stuck in a stifling and snobbish home where poorly-paid and vulnerable domestic workers are taken for granted and casually humiliated.
The family taunt and bully their staff, who – in a scenario familiar to millions of urban Indian homes – work around the clock cooking, cleaning and completing an endless list of other duties expected of modern-day servants.
Director Prashant Nair says his film uses flashes of comedy to shine a light on the uncomfortable realities of contemporary life in a country that has been transformed in many ways by two decades of economic growth.
“The rich hire the workers and expect them to do everything,” he told AFP. “They enjoy the right to insult, abuse them and even accuse them of stealing. Domestic workers are always the first suspect.
“I wanted to show how the sole aim of the worker is to appease their masters as they cope with a constant sense of insecurity and live with the fear of being fired for the smallest error.”
Nair, 34, said the divide between servant and employer was getting wider as traditional bonds have been broken by mass migration to Indian cities and the growing trend against extended families living together.
Many Indian servants are youths from poverty-stricken states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and can be paid as little as 1,200 rupees ($20) a month if they are given spartan accommodation in the house.
Set in a sprawling bungalow in the leafy part of New Delhi, Nair’s film relates how the British visitor – played by Lee Williams – has his dreams of a “spiritual journey” in India dashed by a scandal over stolen money.
Activist Ramendra Kumar, who heads domestic workers’ union Delhi Shramik Sangathan, hopes the movie will boost the campaign for better legal protection when it is released in 65 cinemas nationwide on Friday.
“A factory worker can file a court case against the employer to claim a pension and other benefits but a domestic worker cannot make any such claims,” he said.
“There is no legislation in place to define their rights, there is not a single law to protect the rights of domestic workers. They have to live on the mercy of their masters – and many employers miss no chance to exploit them.”
Since 2010, his union has registered more than 400 complaints by domestic workers in New Delhi who say they were beaten or abused for overcooking vegetables, forgetting to wash dishes or over-sleeping.
In one recent example that made headlines in the capital, a doctor and his wife were arrested for allegedly locking up their 13-year-old maid in their house when they went on holiday to Thailand.
Nair says such attitudes exist widely across India, and that many families live lives of luxury that depend on the exploitation of household staff.
“At one level the rich try to be so polite and display all their etiquette at high society parties in New Delhi, but at home their entire tone changes,” he said.