Tumhari Sulu movie review: Vidya Balan is heart-stoppingly good in a funny, funny film
Director: Suresh Triveni
A middle-aged housewife named Sulochana Dubey lives happily ever after with her husband Ashok and son Pranav in a middle-class locality in Mumbai. She failed in Class 12 and ever since, like a butterfly flitting from bloom to bloom, she has flitted from interest to interest, forever coming up with ideas for hobbies and a career for herself. The only constant in her line of vision is her happy home. She is as fixated on her family as she is on ensuring that the lemon does not fall out of the spoon in the lemon-and-spoon race in a local housing society, and though she comes second in that race, she has aced her equation with Ashok and Pranav so far.
Then one day on a whim, Sulochana decides to become a radio jockey, and circumstances provide her with an opportunity. RJ Sulu with her “sari-waali aunty” persona — as the station head puts it — and seductive voice becomes popular with her late-night talk show. And of course life changes from then on.
Tumhari Sulu busts the myth prevailing for about three decades in Bollywood, that all comedies must inevitably be mindless (and male-centric). The first half of director Suresh Triveni’s film is an absolute laughathon, yet it is at no point stupid. Sulu herself is often silly, but her story is not. And — you will not believe this Team Golmaal — not a single character speaks in rhyme.
In fact, there is such realness to Sulu’s extended family, including her over-bearing though well-meaning twin sisters, that they bring back memories of the homes occupied by the likes of Amol Palekar, Vidya Sinha, Bindiya Goswami, Tina Munim, Zarina Wahab, Pearl Padamsee and Utpal Dutt, back in the 1970s when the aam aadmi (common man) was a pre-occupation in a section of Bollywood. The spotlight in Tumhari Sulu is back on the common people, except this time it falls on an aam aurat (woman), a person this industry usually neglects.
After a four-year drought following Kahaani (2012), Vidya Balan finally gets a film that, though not flawless, gives her a character who remains substantial from start to finish. Tumhari Sulu also takes her into territory that she has not so far explored: the all-out comedy. It allows her to be funny while giving us food for thought, and Balan pulls off the role of Sulu with the skill of a tightrope walker. She and the film as a whole are so funny, that I choked in the first half and had to take a Vicks ki goli to soothe my throat. How come it has taken Bollywood so long to discover the comedian in this fine artiste?
Sulu could have easily been performed with condescension — after all being daft is second nature to her. But Triveni’s writing never lets us forget that behind the inane schemes and narrow worldview is a living, breathing human being with relatable emotions and, surprisingly, a head on her shoulders that usually goes unnoticed because of her in-your-face frivolity.
Balan matches the writing by giving us enough space to ridicule Sulu, but ensuring at all times that she is a person and not a parody. I laughed at the woman, but the truth is that I also occasionally felt guilty about my laughter.
The sensitivity in the characterisation of Sulu is paralleled by the writing of her response to the men who call in to her radio show: she makes no blanket assumptions about them, she cleverly and smoothly snubs the ones who try to take her for a ride, but is humane with those who do not.
Triveni also does not trivialise or stereotype those around Sulu: the young airhostesses living across the corridor do not visit her, not because they think they are too good for her, but because they are genuinely always exhausted; Radio Wow’s Maria Madam (Neha Dhupia) and RJ Albeli Anjali (Malishka Mendonsa) are justified in being amused by her, but they are never mean; and her siblings are conventional, but it is also clear that they love her to bits. That said, Maria’s patience towards Anjali when she screws up really badly one night defies believability. This is a weak point in the screenplay, and in that sense, the scenario at Ashok’s office is far more credible.
Comedies sometimes ruin themselves when they enter emotional terrain, but Tumhari Sulu stays the course. Even when Sulu, Ashok and Pranav draw tears from us in the second half, the film does not become so weepy as to get sidetracked.
The nicest thing about Triveni’s work here is that while he keeps his gaze firmly and unapologetically on Sulu, he does not marginalise Ashok or Pranav. The husband and son are well-fleshed out, well-acted parts. Manav Kaul is excellent as Ashok, delivering a performance that is touching and comical by turns. Thankfully, he shares great chemistry with Balan who has struggled for a while now to find a co-star with charisma to match her own. Kaul is a charmer, so is his character.
Abhishek Sharrma as young Pranav has screen presence and talent enough to ensure that he is not overshadowed by his seniors. He even pulls off a scene in which he has to read a slightly awkwardly written letter, a scene that is another passing weak patch in the screenplay.
The only inexplicable casting decision in Tumhari Sulu involves Malishka Mendonsa who plays RJ Albeli Anjali. Mendonsa is a popular radio jockey in Mumbai. Why rope in a well-known personality if you plan to reduce her to an extra, especially considering that her character starts off with promise?
Tumhari Sulu has a light touch, but it is not a non-serious film. The comedic tone, in fact, allows it to make several important observations about how a household gets disrupted when a woman, who has been —conveniently for the rest of the family — home-bound all these years, decides to have a career. As Ashok learns, it is much easier to be an understanding husband when you know you can take your wife for granted than when she comes into her own and establishes an identity independent of her relationship with you.
Having said that, Tumhari Sulu almost ruins the points it makes — it certainly vastly dilutes them — in a bid to serve up a needless plot twist in the end. The effort to surprise the audience in an extended pre-climactic scene at the radio station is both laboured and transparent. It was an irritating passage, and as I left the hall, at first I wondered if Triveni was trying to soften up his position on Sulu in that scene to cater to misogynists in the audience. But no, his goal appears to have been merely to draw gasps of astonishment and relief. Why, Mr Triveni, why? It is a measure of the effectiveness of everything that went before this, that Tumhari Sulu remains worthwhile.
In any case, it is hard to stay angry for long with a film in which a plump, sexy heroine and her horny husband jump around on their bed in their tiny bedroom in their congested lower-middle-class house as he sings, “Bann meri mehbooba / Main tenu Taj pava doonga…/ Shahjahaan main tera / Tenu Mumtaz bana doonga / Bann ja tu meri rani / Tenu mahal dava doonga.”
And which has this to say about its pretty heroine played by Vidya Balan in the song Farrata: “Chhoti si packing mein aayi / Guddi yeh dhamaka hai.” That’s the other thing about Tumhari Sulu: the songs and the way they are woven into the narrative are hilarious. (Bann ja rani is written and composed by Guru Randhawa, who has also sung it, and Rajat Nagpal is a co-composer. Farrata’s music is by Amartya Rahut and lyrics by Siddhanth Kaushal.)
This is a story about finding the extraordinary within the seemingly ordinary. Every human being is good at at least something, and if you are among those lucky few who find out what your special gift is, hold on to it for dear life. Until then, you can laugh your heart out at Sulu’s shenanigans and feel a tug at the heart as you watch her with her Ashok and Pranav.
Vidya Balan and Manav Kaul are wonderful in Tumhari Sulu. And despite its exasperating folly as it draws to a close, Tumhari Sulu is a throat-achingly, side-splittingly hysterical entertainer.