Quite early in Tumhari Sulu, the film’s lead, Sulochana, or Sulu (Vidya Balan), opens the door of her house and sees two air hostesses entering the opposite flat. She smiles, tries to initiate a conversation, and fails. They have nothing in common. Afterwards she goes to her bedroom, puts a handbag on her shoulder, and imitating the poise of those women, considers herself in the mirror. Sulu – who is in the house all day, cooking, cleaning and waiting – has not stopped dreaming.
Her desires are not grand: wanting to open a business, to do anything she can truly own. She participates in a local egg-and-spoon race, and other competitions that lend identities to those who long for them: Fastest Vegetable Cutter, Best Singer of Lata Mangeshkar Sad Song. Sulu wins these awards, and she’s proud of them. The nameplate of her house reads “Mr and Mrs Ashok”. Sulu doesn’t mind being “Mrs Ashok” but, deep down, she wants to be more.
It’s a story so common that most of us don’t see it as one. At the movies, most stories feature hopefuls, strivers and achievers. But what about those left to applaud from the sidelines? Countless films have been made on ambitious young adults, most of them men, battling adversity. But the muted desire of a housewife – whiling away the time listening to the radio, daydreaming about what her life could have been – is still desire.
Tumhari Sulu isn’t just a slice-of-life drama; it is a corrective measure. It doesn’t present its challenge as a manifesto; the writing is, for the most part, so confident and controlled that it charms you slowly, making you fall first for the innocent lead, and then for what she represents.
Much like Sulu, however, Tumhari Sulu takes a while to find its bearings. It meanders for the first 30 minutes, introducing Sulu, her husband (Manav Kaul), a sales manager in a garment shop, and their 11-year-old son Pranav, who live in Virar, a far-flung Mumbai suburb. Sulu wants to start a business, a cab service, but she changes her plans too often. She’s so bored in the house that she occasionally talks to a pigeon. We don’t really get a sense of what’s at stake yet. Several scenes seem randomly stitched together and fail to establish a mood, keeping you at an arm’s length from the heart of the story. The film only finds its purpose when Sulu finds hers.
Sulu wins a radio contest and goes to collect her prize, a pressure cooker. The radio station is a world she’s never seen before: people at work or playing table tennis, speaking contemporary lingo. Here she learns that Radio Wow is looking for an RJ, and thinks she’d be a perfect fit. Mimicry is her forte, and she has an impressive range; with some luck, she impresses the head of the channel. When Sulu is told that she will be considered for the job, she has only one question: “I failed in class XII. Will that be okay?”
In a country like India, where people are still judged by numbers (boards’ marks, salaries, the built-up area of our homes), and live lives of despair if they fail to attain them, this moment in Tumhari Sulu is not just funny. It is a statement of how we’ve denied second chances to too many Sulus.
Time and again, between two bigger scenes, Suresh Triveni frames Sulu’s building (in a co-operative housing society) from afar, as her voice fades in the background, implying there are many Sulus behind those windows, many dreams held within those walls. Triveni also deflates the hypocrisy of the Indian middle class – its view of independence, especially, as something that is granted (nearly always by a man) with terms, boundaries and conditions.
In recent years, Balan has appeared in either middling (Te3n, Kahaani 2) or downright shoddy films (Hamari Adhuri Kahani, Begum Jaan). She has finally found a role that does justice to her gifts. Few Hindi film actors are as capable of embracing their perceived ‘inadequacies’ – in body type, or skin colour – on screen. Her Sulu is a breath of fresh air; she’s naïve, uncool, and portrayed with just the right amount of hesitation and humour.
For a film that sweats the small stuff quite well, Tumhari Sulu’s hits sporadic false notes. Songs disrupt the story’s tone and momentum, and there are minor contrivances in the writing: Sulu’s success as an RJ parallels Ashok’s professional failures; a subplot is hatched in the final act to reach a happy climax. Some scenes try too hard to be cute. These quibbles don’t dilute the inherent charm of the story, and the simplicity of what Tumhari Sullu is saying: that it is possible to reinvent lives, to give ourselves a second chance even when others are skeptical. These may be basic truths, but we can afford to be reminded. When we worry about finishing the race first, it’s easy to lose the starting line.