There is a middle-class mise en scene 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. The popular sport in apartment complex functions is lemon and 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 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.
The film’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 those of any other career woman. 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.
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 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 year, it will be a shocker if there is another film just as good.
Film: Tumhari Sulu
Director: Suresh Triveni
Cast: Vidya Balan, Manav Kaul, Neha Dhupia, Vijay Maurya