Delivering a knockout performance as a middle-class housewife whose life changes when she becomes the host of a late night radio show, Vidya Balan is the beating heart of ‘Tumhari Sulu’.
Sulu is a force of nature in a cotton sari, a happy-go-lucky homemaker with a ‘can-do’ spirit; the sort of woman who’s determined to grab more from life. Unwilling to be weighed down by her domestic duties, or shamed for the fact that she’s a ‘12th class fail’, Sulu will take a shot at anything. “Main kar sakti hai,” she says and charges full steam ahead, coming in second in a lemon-and-spoon race for school parents, winning home appliances in random contests, and dreaming up ambitious business plans that she’s convinced she can make a success of.
Vidya imbues Sulu with innocence, naiveté, vulnerability, and an infectious optimism. Sulu loves being a mother and a wife, but that look on her face each time she spots her airhostess neighbors is telling of her dreams and ambitions. She’s complemented nicely by Manav Kaul who plays her loving husband Ashok, himself stuck in a dead-end job, but consistently supportive of her need to fly. It is her unshakable confidence that drives her to badger a radio station boss (Neha Dhupia) into giving her a late night call-in show.
It’s a winning premise, and the film’s writer-director, ad-man Suresh Triveni, creates a world that is instantly recognizable, giving us characters and scenarios that feel authentic. Some of the best scenes involve Sulu’s disapproving older twin sisters who constantly berate her for flitting from one hobby to another, while stressing that they hold ‘respectable’ bank jobs themselves. Just watch how they react in horror to the news that she chats with lonely callers in the night in the name of a job.
Triveni astutely captures the beats of middle-class life in suburban Mumbai through little scenes between Sulu and Ashok. In a lovely throwaway moment she complains that he never puts on the air-conditioning in their car.
Post intermission, however, the script begins to flounder. The conflicts feel forced and manufactured, particularly a subplot involving their son and his troubles at school. There is potential to dig deeper and ask prickly but important questions about patriarchy, ego, equality in a marriage, and male pride. But the makers have little interest in exploring uncomfortable territory, preferring instead to resolve conflicts quickly and painlessly. As a result, “Tumhari Sulu” is warm, and light, and funny, but it’s missing heft.
The supporting cast – including Neha Dhupia, and particularly Vijay Maurya as her producer Pankaj – is in good form. Manav Kaul is especially strong, bringing so many shades to his role as an inherently decent man and encouraging spouse who finds himself in a conflicting situation.
But “Tumhari Sulu” belongs to its leading lady, and Vidya Balan is so good in it, she glosses over many of the script problems and gives us a protagonist so compelling it’s hard not to succumb to her charm.