Tumhari Sulu: A delightful film with Vidya Balan in fine form
No other current actress could have played Sulu with the degree of inch-perfect pitch that Vidya Balan does, in this film that is easily one of 2017's better films
There is a middle-class mise en scène that wafts over the whole of Suresh Triveni's Tumhari Sulu. Sulochana aka Sulu (Vidya Balan) lives with her family - husband Ashok (Manav Kaul) and her son Pranav - in Virar, where she has to coax the local grocery store guy to deliver groceries home, something he maintains a priority list for. Mosquito repellents are a dime a dozen, taking over plug points as soon as the phone chargers renounce them. She lives in a neighbourhood where, at night, everyone's lights go off at the same time. Mostly because everyone lives a life governed by certain rules and regulations, not of their personal making, but born out of their position and circumstance. They drive a Maruti and they don't switch on the air conditioner during some trips because the driver - Ashok - complains of losing acceleration (pick-up is the word used, instantly recognizable if you grew up in 90s India with a Maruti 800). The new TV is broken, and it is so painful to engage with the customer service that consumer court threats are made. The popular sport in apartment complex functions is lemon & spoon, and Sulu is a champion.
Sulu, given a chance, would champion several things. She likes to come up with business ideas at the drop of a hat. The first time we see her indulging in it is when she talks about buying taxis and running a cab business. She gets that idea while looking at a cab, but we also get something else from the cab - the radio on and an RJ talking aloud. Triveni, who has also written the script, likes to foreshadow events this way (like a job in the radio for the housewife without TV in her house). Tumhari Sulu takes its time in building up character and it focuses not just on Sulu. It focuses on the family because the idea of family is at the centre of this film. We see Sulu and Ashok's silly business on the bed, dramatically singing like SP Balasubramaniam, the song being Batata Vada from Anil Kapoor-Madhuri Dixit starer Hifazat (she seems to be an Anil Kapoor-Madhuri Dixit fan, her ringtone is Beta's Koyal Si Teri Boli. In contrast Ashok has the Gayatri mantra). We get scenes of Pranav in school and we also get Ashok's issues and his position as an unofficial handyman at his workplace, handling things above and, at times, below his position. We learn about Sulu's current life and the kind of diet she's been brought up on - she loves to act out like Hema Malini and Sridevi, which rings true in many ways considering it is Balan doing it in a Hindi film. If you've been brought up on a steady diet of Hindi films, you'd laugh out loud at Sulu looking at kabootar (pigeons) and going "O Bhagyashreekibachhi!"
Cast:Vidya Balan, Manav Kaul, Neha Dhupia, Vijay Maurya
Director: Suresh Triveni
Tumhari's Sulu's universe is populated by women. Sulu's career dreams are often rekindled when she notices the air hostesses who live across her door, returning home in the mornings just as her husband and son leave. Her boss, the Head of Radio Wow is a woman, Maria Sood (Neha Dhupia). When she goes to inquire about the receptionist job at a gym brimming with testosterone, she is interviewed by a pregnant woman. Her favourite RJ, and the one she is in contact with first at Radio Wow, is Anjali (RJ Malishka). Her radio program is a late night one, therefore she is offered conveyance - a cab to and from the office. The driver of that cab, armed with a pepper spray, is a woman, the prejudiced incongruity of which does not register at all because Triveni's world building is such. His world is that rare one where a housewife's travails are represented in a matter-of-fact manner, like any other career woman with a fidget spinner (we see Maria with one), busting stress. Triveni stages this sequence beautifully, showing the housewife's daily life side by side with young men in the middle of parkour, jumping hoops, scaling walls, showing off stunts. For what it's worth, we get a glimpse of the statue of RK Laxman's Common Man in the middle of it all.
There are only two men worthy of any note in Tumhari Sulu. One is Ashok, and when we see him for the first time, he is running with his wife's handbag as she's taking part in a competition. Ashok is one of those rare species of men, on screen or off, who is empathetic, understanding and incredibly supportive of his wife - in real life and in her fantasies. When Sulu's job and career lift off, it so happens that his woes at work multiply. He is frustrated and out of his real self, not because his manhood is questioned, but because a mechanical life governed by some rules is suddenly thrown into chaos. One fine day in the neighborhood, lights are on later than usual in Sulu's house. This is one of Triveni's greatest conceits, in recognizing how this family is introduced to randomness, due to completely unrelated events and not because of Sulu's liberation. The other man is Pankaj (Vijay Maurya), Sulu's colleague whose introduction is one of Tumhari Sulu's best scenes. He is the quintessential hypocritical poet-activist who finds it difficult to walk his talk in life and in his art. It is to Triveni's credit that he reserves comeuppance for Pankaj while Ashok's office woes don't get a resolution with a ribbon on top. Because the latter is just life.
It is hard to think of a current actress who would have played Sulu with this degree of inch-perfect pitch. The top stars we have, as talented as they are, would come across too young while Sulu requires someone with a visible, easy maturity who would also feel at home in a middle-class household. What Maria and Anjali (and Pankaj, in denial, and later reluctantly) recognise in Sulu is the disproportionate confidence she possesses, that doesn't originate from her upbringing, position or maybe even her abilities. Vidya Balan lets this confidence sparkle, vivifying the proceedings in the most delightful manner and making us believe that there cannot be another Sulu. With 2017 at close and only little over a month left, bidding adieu to one of Bollywood's most terrible years, it will be a shocker if there is another film just as good.