Tumhari Sulu: Vidya Balan paves way for honest portrayal of women on screen, but how real is too real?
With Tumhari Sulu winning love and accolades across all quarters, the breezy romcom with ‘real’ women at its helm is on fire. But even with the best of intentions, portraying realistic women has been a rarity in Bollywood, with many adorable, virtuous ladies with superficial quirks. The intrinsically flawed heroine is still hard to come by.
We all know those women — often hardworking homemakers and supermoms, entrepreneurs, cookery-show hosts, sweet and funny ladies who light up the screen. You ask them what their biggest failing or flaw is. They’ll smile, think and respond like a Miss World finalist, “It’s probably that I care too much, you know...?”
“No, I don’t!” you bellow silently. That’s not a flaw, that’s a virtue on steroids trying hard to play cool.
The core of the lovable leading lady on screen – however real and riddled with cellulite and love handles, swearing and chain smoking — remains virtuous, morally upstanding. Even bindaas Sunshine Sulu’s. All her little foibles and ‘wrong doings’ are anchored by the fact that she is a devoted wife and mother. Especially in the second half of the film, where her mischief and refreshing ditziness morphs into real time dutiful Indian wife and mother.
It is entirely to Vidya Balan’s credit that she powers through the film infusing its simplistic screenplay with her powerhouse personality. (The actress, who I personally enjoy watching in dramatic roles instead of giggle-thons, is terrific in that post-interval scene after her son is suspended from school) Without Balan, Sulochana may just have become a cutesy character, a contemporary Disney princess from Virar.
Here are a few other female character prototypes in Bollywood :
Over the past few years, the rom-com heroine has treaded unfamiliar ground to universal success. Stories of small town women coming into their own have become cult classics, notably English Vinglish and Queen. Both films gave us memorable protagonists, Shashi and Rani — wonderfully real women grappling with issues of identity. But even before they begin their journeys to self-awareness – physical and metaphorical - their credentials as bonafide sweethearts are firmly established. These are vanilla girls who’re otherwise quite lovely, but people treat them badly.
Shashi, the gentle dutiful wife and mother treated shabbily by her family and Rani, the devoted girlfriend jilted by her pompous ass of a fiancé, are nice, blameless women. There are no inherent flaws in these characters, except, like the above, indulging in their virtues. In real life, plenty of middle-class Indian housewives would slap the living daylights out of their children if they spoke back rudely, never mind if they know English or not. Mousey girlfriends would turn ballistic if jilted. But Shashi and Rani are uniformly adorable, good people who win friends and influence people from Manhattan to Amsterdam. Which is completely fine, because that is exactly what mainstream rom-com leads are and what endears them instantly to a mass audience.
They may have ‘real women’ problems and genuinely grapple with issues of identity, but it’s clear they’ll never stray too from from the vanilla path; while remaining honourable at the core, and appealing to a giant demographic of women. Rani breaking off her engagement is hardly a revolutionary step for girls, as is Shashi’s rude spurning of a lovely French love interest to return home triumphantly, and just the teeniest bit smug. Touché, moral high ground conquered!
One isn’t suggesting that a rom com princess tumble into an Anurag Kashyap debauched universe or the gristly premise of a Monster which won Charlize Theron a Golden Globe and Oscar for playing a gay, mentally disturbed serial killer. (Tejaswini’s Kolhapure’s alcoholic, depressed housewife in Kashyap’s Ugly feels so much more like contemporary Mumbai and would make for a sterling, subverted rom-com lead).
Even the jobless, wasted, zero-filter Annie from the cult Bridesmaid – a Netflix hit with Indian millennials – eventually lands up at her bestie’s wedding, doting boyfriend in tow.
The rare exception – a legitimate super hit case of damaged goods – is the female lead of Tanu Weds Manu. Rangana’s Tanuja Trivedi is an unapologetic, selfish, manipulative b****, a tempestuous drama queen with plenty style and not much substance. She begins with the usual suspects, the trapping of a Bollywood ‘bad girl’, smoking, loud loose talk and random love affairs. But unlike the atypical ‘bold and bubbly’ heroine - armed with attention grabbing surface flaws – her drama isn’t a foil or a cry for help/love and atonement. If anything, this wild child returns in a sequel, even more self-absorbed, having driven her husband bananas with taunts, and juggling two other men on the side. Tanu’s complete lack of any redemptive qualities is highlighted by the sequel’s standout character – Datto, a.k.a Kusum.
Girl on girl
With great poetic justice, it takes her lookalike, Haryanvi Datto – one of contemporary Bollywood’s most memorable feminists, who wears her independence and gumption very lightly on her lean, athletic frame – to show Tanu her place, in the sequel’s most terrific scene in the second half.
When chided for her looks, the state-level champ calmly retorts, “Don’t laugh at me; what have you got going on for yourself? What have you done in your life? First your father took care of you, then your husband. You roam the world, shop and do fashion on his credit card. You can’t even buy your own underwear."
The dressing down would faze another girl, flooding her with guilt and shame, but Tanu rallies forth, a whiskey glass in hand, wandering the a deserted town at midnight in a sable overcoat, whiskey in hand, a female Devdas mourning for her ‘lost love’. It takes an actress like Kangana Ranaut to take on this colourful, but pompous and emotionally volatile character, with no inherent moral core. Ranaut takes the flawed girl to another level in Simran, though with more risk and consequently lesser success.
It’s an inner bravado that one wishes other talented actresses exhibit soon; Bhumi Pednekar – who seems to be getting stuck playing smart, strong independent women – being a classic case in point. From the superficially cool heroine who smokes, cheats on her lover and rebels against society only to allow love to awaken her moral core, the inherently flawed woman is waiting for her moment on Indian screens.