Ms.Representation: Sulu's choice
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week it is Tumhari Sulu
It is a role meant for her, written for her it would seem, for, Vidya Balan in Tumhari Sulu (written and directed by Suresh Triveni) lives and breathes as if she and the woman she is playing on screen are one. And I don’t mean this in that serious she-has-given-her-all-to-become-the-role way. I mean it in the, it-all-looks-so-effortless way.
I don’t think Vidya had to, for instance, plumb the depths of her heart to find Sulu. Sulu is everywhere around us. Sulu is the woman who knows she is failing by others’ standards and that they are happy knowing this (for her failures help define their successes—she is 12th fail, while her twin older sisters have respectable bank jobs, for instance). There is also something un-middle-class about her, even though everything around her in designed to remind her of it. She is aware of their gaze and she is trying her best to fight it—to stop internalising the idea that she fails. She is constantly finding things to win at—but what opportunities are there for women from a certain class of a certain educational background to win? So she wins what she can, and she is mighty proud of it—lemon and spoon, fast vegetable cutting, homemaker awards, musical chairs and radio contests.
Sulu is looking for something, that one idea that could lead her to success, not just financially but also on her own terms. Her validation comes from things that have nothing to do with the things her sisters approve of. In fact, they seem most smug when she’s just a 12th fail housewife. She understands her husband and he understands her, for the most part, and that chemistry pulls them through the smugness her sisters and father reserve for her and her husband in turns.
Author-backed roles for women in mainstream Bollywood, where they have uninterrupted screen space and time to showcase the entire gamut of emotions that make them up, are absolutely the best kind—because they are bound to also find a degree of success that can have further ripple effects resulting in more Kahaanis and Tumhari Sulus and Queens. They also help cushion other films that may bomb at the box office like Begum Jaan and Revolver Rani.
A lobbyist at heart, Sulu finds herself as an RJ at a midnight show that requires her to channel her inner ‘sexy’. That her boss, Maria (Neha Dhupia in fine form), sees this in her gives her the drive she needs to step outside her comfort zone. Her ‘main kar sakti hoon’ (I can do it) attitude coupled with her ‘hunger’, as Maria calls it, help her free herself from unnecessary moral quandaries about her job. That and her ability to make everyone go weak in the knees with just one word, ‘Hello.’
Sulochana Dubey is a feminist, let there be no doubt about that, but her situation is far from ideal—the trappings of that same middle class come in the way of her doing anything more radical than this RJ job. It doesn’t spill over to other aspects of her life. For instance, she is guilt-ridden about not packing dabbas for her son and husband and sleeping in late, and makes up for it by waking up early the following day. And since she has chosen a job that her sisters can never approve of, she may never win an argument with them. But our quest for seeing women take the centre-stage on screen is less about seeing the ideal woman, burdened with our expectations of what freedom and liberation means, and more about the internal integrity of the character the makers are bringing to life. And Tumhari Sulu has oodles of that. Yes, we need more feminist cinema, but we need our Sulus, too, to show us how messy and far from ideal life is.