In this year of disastrously lacklustre blockbuster movies and a few, hidden lower-budget gems, Tumhari Sulu was a delightful 140-minute rollercoaster of laughter, joy and tears. Directed by Suresh Triveni, and starring Vidya Balan as the titular character, the film is a slice-of-life experience, and while it has a very simple premise and plot, it most definitely succeeds in tugging at our heartstrings.
Set in Mumbai, the story is centred on Sulochana aka Sulu: a middle-class housewife living in suburban Virar with her husband, Ashok (Manav Kaul), and son, Pranav (Abhishek Sharma). Sulu is a happy-go-lucky and fun-loving person, a practical joker, quick-tempered but incredibly protective and loving towards her family. Constantly pressured by her parents and elder twin sisters to ‘do something’ with her life, Sulu frequently participates in her contests organised in her housing society, and finds joy in the most mundane things (even a lemon and teaspoon race). While her husband works as a garment sweatshop supervisor, and her son goes to school, Sulu sits idle, listening to the radio, with the company of only a pigeon who shits daily on her balcony and laundry.
The film switches between the two hugely different sides of Mumbai: the quiet, homely and almost stagnating suburbs, and the happening, upbeat, ‘always alive’ side of the corporate and entertainment industry. We see the unabashed (but slightly insecure about her 12th class school failure) Sulu navigate from her small one-bedroom in the Jal Padma Housing Society to the massive office skyscrapers of Bandra Kurla Complex, as she surprises RJs and her glamorous boss, Maria (Neha Dhupia), at the Radio Wow office with her carefree attitude and voice.
The office is filled with some pretty interesting characters, such as the bubbly morning segment host, RJ Albeli Anjali (played by Malishka Mendonsa, who actually is an RJ offscreen as well), and Pankaj (Vijay Maurya), the eccentric resident Indian bohemian self-proclaimed poet, who gives vocal training to Sulu for her own late-night show.
As a character, Sulu is a refreshing presence in the office, and shares an interesting dynamic with everyone, even the receptionist. Sulu quickly wins the hearts of the lonely, lovelorn and often lurid men in Mumbai with her late-night show where she adopts a deep and sultry voice and listens to them. We see Sulu defy Pankaj on more than one occasion, eventually winning his begrudging respect for her work.
We also see Sulu trying to free herself from the same ol’ familial pressures that we are all so familiar with: to get a job, to do something with her life, the stress of being the youngest in the family, and subsequently, over her new job because it is not ‘appropriate’ or ‘decent’ for her and her family.
While Sulu’s husband is shown to be supportive and loving, he hardly ever takes a stand for her. He is very focused on his own workplace problems, even coming off as slightly misogynist when he belittles Sulu for not giving them enough time because of her job. These little elements build up in the film, and every character holds their ground and evolves over the course of the main story. There are little subplots along the way, some of which are just gags, but give us added insight into the characters and their psyche. Thus, Sulu goes through a journey like most of us, with periods of joy and fun, balancing her home and work lives, until it all comes crashing down in a pretty unexpected and heartwrenching climax.
While the film seems to suffer a little because of less-than-ideal editing (and a couple of extra comedic scenes that it could do without), Tumhari Sulu is an honest movie. Vidya Balan is the soul of the film, and engages the viewers with her spellbinding performance throughout, while still retaining her trademark simple, down-to-earth vibe. This rather simple story is beautifully tied up towards the end, with a second half that is even better than its first. It is not overt or cheesy in its feminist portrayal of the characters’ lives, neither is it preachy about the message it wants to convey. All the actors too deliver memorable performances, making it a feel-good film that is definitely worth watching as we near the end of 2017.