Tumhari Sulu: A subtle depiction of feminism in Bollywood

Vidya Balan plays a suburban Mumbai dwelling middle-class housewife, Sulochana Dubey, aka the titular Sulu, in Suresh Triveni’s Tumhari Sulu. Sulu is a baaravi fail (12th failed) woman who constantly has the need to do something to prove herself. Sulu confirms to her gender role as a home-maker, but that is confined to her private sphere and hardly formulates her identity as a person. Second place in lemon and spoon competition, first in her society’s Best Mummy Competition, first in antakshari which she played with other moms while waiting in line to participate in a reality show (which she ended up not going through with, because it was time for her son to return from school), winner of Lata Mangeshkar Sad Song Contest on the radio, are just a few of her achievements, which she fervently declares while speaking about herself. Right  in the beginning of the film, you know that this woman is not the one to be tied down by labels.

Just like any other middle-class housewife, Sulu’s life isn’t devoid of challenges. She is constantly riddled by her two elder sisters, who happen to be twins, but address each other as didi (elder sister). Her sisters are always pushing her around, challenging most of her life choices, ridiculing her, and making it seem as though she is extremely incompetent in doing anything; while they, with their precious bank jobs, are essentially the authority on everything. This facet of the movie slyly points towards women putting other women down, and shaming them for supposed incompetencies, and assuming themselves to be authorities on behavioral norms. This is only aggravated by her father siding with the sisters, leaving a defeated Sulu to look to her husband for some support.

As the movie progresses, Sulu adds another feather to her hat by winning a pressure cooker in a radio contest. When she makes her way down to the radio station to collect her prize, she sees a poster for an interview to become an RJ (radio jockey) on a new show, and mistakes it for another competition. Naturally, Sulu wants to participate in this as well because mein kar sakti hai (I can do it). As someone who prides her ability to mimic Sridevi and Hema Malini, and being the host for all events held in her society, she naturally concludes that she is qualified to do this. When the receptionist of the radio station is apprehensive about letting her in, she demands to speak to somebody in charge. The RJ, Albeli Anjali, on whose show Sulu has won the contest (played by real life RJ Malishka Mendonsa), chances upon this commotion, and takes her to speak to the station head, Maria (played by Neha Dhupia).

Maria, Anjali, and the creator of the show, Pankaj, are set to take Sulu’s audition only to humor her and themselves. Sulu spends a good chunk of her audition laughing at Pankaj’s comical attempt to perform the script in a sensual manner. The script begins with a sensual ‘hello’, and goes on to ask the callers about themselves. Sulu channels her voice just as sensually as the script requires her to, and stuns all three with a perfect ‘hello’, and flawlessly goes on to continue with the script. In this moment she proves to them, that she isn’t going to be your stereotypical housewife who is shy and afraid to bare her soul. Sulu has found her voice in literal sense. An impressed Maria hands over her card to Sulu and asks her to get in touch for a follow up.

A determined Sulu follows up with Maria relentlessly, and scores the job. Late night show with sadi wali bhabhi (saree clad middle-aged woman) is the USP of the show. The format requires her to speak to callers, and make them feel as though she is genuinely interested in their issues, and she is somebody they can confide in, while maintaining the sensual aspect of her character. She is guided by Pankaj’s prompts in her very first show, but uses her own creativity in speaking to people, rather than relying on the prompts. Further, when she gets a call from a rickshaw driver, which is riddled with innuendos, Sulu plays along, but quickly turns the conversation in her favor such that all the supposed sexual undertones of conversation are defused. These instances point toward the feminist theories that often speak about the agency of a woman in response to the incidences happening in her life, where a woman gets to act and react on her own accord, without any external influences (particularly males) compelling her to do so. There is another simplistic scene, where Sulu is forcibly offered champagne at a party. However, being a teetotaler, she just dunks the liquid behind her, and asks Pankaj, who sees this, to not say a word about the incident. She could have easily gotten carried away by the glamour of her new job, but Sulu stays her ground. Sulu evidently calls the shots in her show, and would not get led by a man regarding her dealings and conduct. With a starting salary almost equal to what her husband earns, Sulu is now an equal contributor to her household’s expenses.

While Sulu basks in her newfound success, her husband Ashok is having a hard time coping with his new boss, who is making his work life (and consequently private life) miserable. Both become so engrossed in the shifts in their lives, that they unintentionally end up neglecting their only son, who starts getting bullied in school, and is involved in exchange of magazines and CDs with sexual content. Sulu gets zapped back to reality when she and Ashok are called in by her son’s school principal, to make them aware of the circumstances. Everybody, including her husband, ends up blaming her for this state of her son. Here again, her sisters walk in with their holier-than-thou attitude, and demand for her son to be sent to one of their houses to be disciplined, and start pressurizing her to quit her ‘humiliating job’. Here again Sulu puts her foot down, explaining to them that everything she says on her show is just made up, and she is not going to quit her job under any circumstance, just to appease them. All her life, Sulu has been taunted for not really amounting to much and being impulsive and having short-lived business ideas. For someone who has always put her family before herself, Sulu finally takes a stand to be in the limelight for once.

The incident, however, shakes up the decorum of her house, and leads to a quarrel between Sulu and Ashok. A distraught Sulu goes into work, but partially blaming herself for her son’s state, impulsively leaves her job and goes back home crying. On her way back, her husband calls her up to inform that their son is missing from the house. Both spend the night searching for him along with help from the police, and ultimately track him down. The son, blaming himself for the situation in their house, had planned to distance himself from the parents by eloping. After realizing the magnitude of the fiasco caused, Sulu has Ashok drive her down to the radio station, with the view of stepping down from her job. While doing this, she chances upon the receptionist bickering with the station’s lunch provider about the quality of the food, and gets another business idea. This time it is to deliver quality tiffins to the station. Ashok instantly recognizes the look on her face when she walks back to the car, but is open to the idea. They start a tiffin providing service in partnership, thereby sharing the responsibilities of being homemakers and providers.

The movie ends with Sulu driving the car down to the radio station, with her husband and son in it. This is the first time we see her take the wheel. Later, she goes to drop off the tiffins, while her husband takes the wheels to drive her son to school. The movie, in its 70s Amol Palekaresque flick tone, subtly drives home the point of what feminism truly entails. It establishes the concept of a woman’s agency, the right of a woman to portray herself as she is and not how society wants her to be, the right to not be tied down by labels. It also reinforces  the belief that women should be there for other women and not undermine or shun them (like Maria does for Sulu once she recognizes her potential). Most importantly, the movie asserts that feminism is not about superiority of one gender over other, but about finding an equilibrium in the societal expectations from all genders. Tumhari Sulu manages to do all this without making a big deal out of it.

Sampada Karandikar