In the very first scene of Tumhari Sulu, Sulochana (Vidya Balan) is shown precariously balancing a lemon on a spoon she’s held in her mouth. She takes her first few steps gingerly even as her husband Ashok (Manav Kaul) and son are rooting for her by the side. She wins the lemon and spoon race and is evidently happy to have won the second place as she poses for the winners’ photo. But as the crowd dissolves, she asks her son to click another photo, where she now stands on the number one position.
Do the results of a lemon and spoon race really matter in this world? They do in the world of Sulu, a passionate homemaker, who finds joy in everything she does. Once a homemaker sends her son and husband off in the morning and finishes off her household work, boredom sets in by afternoon. How does Sulu battle with it?
She has a new business idea every other day. She takes pride in compering the programmes of her housing society and participating in ‘Lata Mangeshkar Sad Song Contest.’ Her joy knows no bounds when she walks into the office of Wow FM, after she wins the ‘Sawal Batao Seeti Bajao‘ contest, where she wins a pressure cooker. The TV in their home has been eternally under repair and when she wins yet another radio contest, she asks if she can get a TV instead of a pressure cooker and when she doesn’t get it, she decides to palm off the new cooker to her sister who has to be given a gift for her house warming. Vidya’s Sulu is every other housewife you meet in India. Even as a working woman, her story is not different from any other middle-class woman, who not only puts in a lot of work at office but also comes home to finish her household work.
Tables turn when she applies for the job of an RJ to host a night show. Sulu’s journey becomes all the more interesting as she tries to sound sexy, to the complete disbelief of the radio staff that the woman whom they dismissed as ‘sari wali aunty’ can also be sexy.
Her ‘well-settled’ elder sisters chide her for having a CV where hobbies run into hour pages. She is constantly reminded that she is 12th fail and Sulu has funny reasons for not having cleared it. Her work at home is not less by any means.
Tumhari Sulu is essentially a feminist film, if you really have to bracket it somewhere. But the story of Sulu and the people around her go beyond labels. Her husband presses her feet at night as she come to the bedroom tired after household work and Sulu is not coy when it comes to her sex life. She takes up a job that is seen as taboo by her family, even her otherwise encouraging husband. He listens to the radio show and cannot bear random creepy men calling up his wife to talk sweet nothings to her. The female cab driver who takes Sulu home every night after work knows the challenges of an unconventional career choice made by Sulu. On one particular day, when her husband doesn’t reach home on time, she takes her son to her office, where there is provision for kids to play and spend time.
At many levels the film attacks hypocrisy of both liberal and patriarchal narratives about women’s freedom to choose. When her sisters ask her to quit the disrespectable job, for which she has to leave her son and husband at night and work, she calls out their hypocrisy, pointing out their long absences at home for days when they travel for the bank’s audit work. But for a middle-class family, the bank job brings respect and Sulu’s job as a night-time RJ is nothing to celebrate about. When her son is suspended from school for indiscipline, she is singularly blamed for having neglected her home in her pursuit of career by the very family that looks up to her sisters for their banking job.
While the airhostesses next door come home after work to sleep, Sulu prepares for the next day’s lunch even as she flirts with her callers on air at night. She makes even peeling of green peas a sexy act, much to the amusement of her boss, played wonderfully by Neha Dhupia. She feels guilty when she oversleeps one day and her husband and son do not get a dabba to carry to their work.
It takes time for preset notions of responsibilities and respect to change and her husband is given that time. When Sulu’s husband weeps in the washroom (after his job having hit a roadblock) with the shower on, Sulu knows all is not well in her home. While he rejects the kurta and sunglasses she buys with a lot of excitement with her first salary, he is seen going out the next day wearing them.
In the past, films like Anuradha (1960), Anubhav (1970) and even the recent English Vinglish (2012) have dealt with the topic of homemakers trying to fill the gnawing gaps in their everyday lives. In fact, Sulu’s narrative is closer to that of Shashi of English Vinglish. The similarities in the narratives are quite striking and it is also evident in the tribute given to Hawa Hawai given in the film.
Such a role is brought to life by the sheer genius of Vidya Balan. She lives the character created by Suresh Triveni and makes her journey your journey as well and proves effortlessly that she’s the greatest actress of our time to grace the Hindi silver screen. Tumhari Sulu is one of the best tributes to the unsung heroes of India who seldom get their due. In one scene, her colleague and instructor at work indicates to her to make her voice more sexy. She playfully dismisses the suggestion, quite sure of what she’s up to. You know what she means when she says repeatedly, Main kar sakti hai!