Sharat Katariya’s Sui Dhaaga, starring Anushka Sharma, Varun Dhawan and Raghuvir Yadav, is a busy film. It opens with Dhawan’s voiceover, talking about his family, as he gets ready for work. As his urgent, excited voice is setting up the film, we simultaneously see other muted stories in the frame: the benign frustration of a father about to retire, his wife doing the routine household work – another day her job goes unacknowledged. But more importantly, we see the relationship that Mauji (Dhawan) and Mamta (Sharma) share, a couple that hasn’t gone beyond the basic formalities – still negotiating moments of awkwardness, talking through the window in the wall.
Sui Dhaaga, like Katariya’s Dum Laga Ke Haisha, is set in a small Uttar Pradesh town. Both films share other vital commonalities: the hero is a directionless figure; his wife is a quiet presence (but not devoid of opinion or ambition); there’s a pleasant comic strain throughout, lightening the tense scenes. Katariya, who has made two films under the Yash Raj banner, is very much a mainstream director – his movies feature well-known actors, contain songs, beat alongside the gentle hearts of their love stories – but he’s such a refreshing, distinct voice that he makes you wonder about the true powers of popular Hindi cinema.
That is so because Katariya, in sharp contrast to many Bollywood directors, hasn’t forgotten his fundamental joys – joys that may be embarrassing to own in public. Dum Laga Ke Haisha paid sweet homage to the ’90s: the world of Kumar Sanu and Anu Malik (the former sang in the movie; the latter composed music, as he has done for this film as well). More importantly, it was done without the patronising, know-it-all tone – there was no kitsch, just recognition of fondness. Katariya whole-heartedly accepts his world and presents it unadorned – it is difficult to remain indifferent to that candour.
Similarly, nothing in Sui Dhaaga is ‘small’ or unworthy of attention or grace or dignity. The film finds its purpose when Mauji, a pushover in a tailor’s shop, is encouraged by Mamta to quit his job. Theirs is a family where a monthly salary of Rs 6,000 is a big deal, yet at the same time, freedom and dignity are as important. It’s a straightforward set-up: the hero is cornered and needs to fight. There are circumstances – mother’s ill health, father’s retirement and urgent need of money – that act as roadblocks.
Nothing about this signals novel; we’ve seen such first acts before. But Katariya isn’t immediately concerned about the larger picture. He wants to take us through this journey scene by scene and he respects the details with remarkable persistence. So we get a small scene centered on Mauji’s new shop. Where should that be? On the road, alongside other hawkers, is the simple answer.
We get a small segment about Mauji and Mamta’s burgeoning love story – a bond that, again, solidifies over ordinary things: sipping cups of chai, ordering a packet of biscuit, accidently leaning close to each other on a jumpy bus. Sharma, an assured presence throughout the film, especially stands out in these scenes (wonderfully balancing her stoic, matter-of-fact self with the crying mess she becomes at times). Dhawan who, with films like Badlapur and October, seems to be choosing meaty parts, adequately compliments Sharma. His agitated, nervous energy serves the film well and his performance suffers from only sporadic false notes.
Sui Dhaaga revolves around the financial challenges of a lower-middle class couple – a conceit that could have fallen flat because mainstream films, through the use of songs and montage, often simplify the struggles of subalterns. Here too, there are a few scenes that may look facile to a hardened eye, but the film’s conviction makes even the melodramatic rooted, gently bypassing the mind to tug at the heart. Katariya’s keen understanding of the setting and its people – freeloading neighbours, disapproving extended family members, a dejected father scared to hope – helps you trust his storytelling.
But above all, what is really refreshing about Sui Dhaaga is that it tells a uniquely Indian story, without sacrificing the nuances and details, in a mainstream idiom. Centered on a small town couple wanting to float a start-up (the kinds who spell “Made in India” as “Mad in India”), the film is aware of the challenges and pitfalls of following one’s dream, especially in a set-up where the basic means of livelihood are uncertain. But unlike many Bollywood films, it doesn’t use its conceit as a crutch to sell an ‘inspirational’ story, using cheap sentimentality in the process to cover its artistic missteps, misleading the audiences by making them believe they’ve seen something ‘important’.
The vocabulary of Hindi mainstream cinema has been abused so much, so often, that your default setting is cynicism and distrust. It needn’t be like that. Simple films – with neat, predictable arcs and happy climaxes – can be good too. Among the numerous hacks in the Hindi film industry – in both mainstream and independent cinema – Katariya’s work is a reason for hope. And that is so because he has perhaps not let gone of a quality so central to creating good, lasting art: he remembers how it used to feel.