Sulu (Vidya Balan) has an English-Vinglish moment in Tumhari Sulu. Come to think of it, she has several of them in the film. Draped in a printed synthetic saree, buoyed by the confidence of just winning a pressure cooker in a dial-in competition, Sulu walks into the reception of a radio channel, only to be given the short shrift by the receptionist.
Except that Sulu, like countless women I know, won’t be talked down to by people in the service industry. In a casual altercation that rapidly becomes about her own insecurities, Sulu demands to speak with the boss. Eventually, she has her way.
Sulu is like that only.
Unlike Shashi in English Vinglish, Sulu isn’t defined by her insecurities. They do form a large part of her personality though. On surface, she is a steady source of optimism and cheerfulness but a little scratching reveals scars. Sulu, the 12th fail, was bullied by her twin sisters as a child. A formidable duo, they still push her around. The fact that they are staunch proponents of middle-class Maharashrian morality, doesn’t help. Sulu is like a sulking little girl around her sisters. She never has sharp retorts for their jibes, she chooses to react to them with exasperated declarations. If all fails, she looks at her husband Ashok (a brilliant Manav Kaul) accusingly. A heartbreaking are-you-siding-with-them look, almost melts him. But little comes out of it.
Caught in the crossfire, Ashok is hapless, almost comically so.
As a mother, Sullu’s instinct is driven by love and irritation. She likes her prepubescent son always a whack’s distance away from her. Every ounce of her body is wired to tend to his needs. She is yet to loosen the apron strings but is not entirely averse to the idea either, as is evident in a number of scenes.
In fact, Sulu is a constant sea of contradictions. Balan is just about weathered enough as an actor to bring that essential aspect of the character in her interpretation.
You see, Tumhari Sullu, like English Vinglish or its spirit sister, Queen, might have all the makings of a coming-of-age tale, but it is a film that also obstinately celebrates status quo too. Suresh Triveni deliberately surrounds Sulu with strong career women, her boss (Neha Dhupia) , her sisters, her air-hostess neighbours, but never really presents them with the shiny badge of being Sullu’s role model. Even when she is caught looking at them dreamily, it’s a gaze of detached, un-invested admiration.
Sullu has spread her own sky and is content limiting her flight to it. Tumhari Sulu may trace Sulu’s journey to being a celebrated RJ, but Triveni almost doggedly ensures that Sulu’s inner world is never yanked away from us. Her mid-afternoon naps, her own personal jokes, her little exchanges with her female Ola driver, all add up to be the chiaroscuro of her life.
Indeed, Triveni’s Sullu is probably one of the most odd female protagonists of our times, but is also a rare feminist triumph that we should all celebrate.