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Tumhari Sulu review: Vidya Balan's tour de force lights up this wonderful, heartwarming film

Release Date: 17 Nov 2017 / Rated: U / 02hr 03min

Cinestaan Rating

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Shriram Iyengar

Suresh Triveni's directorial debut is flawed, but packed with magical performances by Vidya Balan and Manav Kaul.

On Sulochana's first journey to the radio station, she dresses up and rides a bus, along with some out-of-the-box characters. While the rest of the commuters stare at them with snooty looks, Sulu is enchanted. She smiles and offers a seat to a hesitant transgender, and shares a laugh with the rest of them. She laughs with them, not at them. 

That, in a nutshell, is Sulochana Dubey a.k.a Sulu (Vidya Balan). She is the chatterbox who can narrate a tale for 20 minutes, that anyone else would have ended in three. She is uninhibited, mischievous, and free. She smiles with her eyes and laughs with her heart. And Vidya slips into Sulu's skin with effortless ease. 

The film begins with the colony's sports day, where Sulu displays her talents. She is a 'trier', who participates in every competition she comes across (a list of which she happily rattles off at her interview at the radio station). Her sisters and father don't share this satisfaction. They pride in increased salaries, bigger homes, and a higher status. They chide the '12th fail' Sulu for her failed 'ideas' like chit funds and taxi business. Except, Sulu remains unfazed. 

Sulu and her husband Ashok's (Manav Kaul) lives are built around this nonchalant attitude. They do not know English, drive an old Maruti Alto, and live in a crammed 1-bedroom-kitchen flat in the surburbs. Yet, they dream of escaping to bigger spaces. Their jokes and plans are escapes from their daily life. They send their son to a convent school and keep whipping up new schemes to start a business of their own. 

When she wins a prize for her answers on the radio, she lands up at the radio station in all her finery. As usual, she cannily spots an opening for an RJ and says 'Main kar sakti hai' (I can do it).

Soon, she takes on an alter-ego as a super-sexy, disembodied voice at night, while trying to keep up with the pressures on her family. Yet, her fears don't leave her. At the interview, she innocently declares 'Lekin main 12th fail hai' (But I failed in 12th standard). 

Vidya's innocence and spontaneity make Sulu a memorable character. The actress is a delight and rules the screen. Her whimsy, giggles, and spontaneous loquacious bursts are adorable. At no point does Sulu become unbelievable. The comfort with which a star like Vidya wears her normalcy is refreshing. It becomes difficult after a time to predict where Sulu ends and Vidya begins. Her entry into the radio station and the eventual recording is a surreal experience. 

Yet, Tumhari Sulu is not all sugar. Her turn as a seductive late-night RJ takes a toll on Ashok, whose insecurities and pressures at work burst out as domestic tiffs.

But, these fights do not deviate into the predictable assuaging of the male ego. The restrained and conflicted nature of Ashok's character is very well written. These are struggles that ebb and flow with an ordinariness that is real. Ashok struggles to keep his family together, while battling his own envy. Sulu is suddenly alienated from the family that was at the centre of her universe. Both actors display the kind of performance that is delightful to watch.

Triveni's film also benefits from a superb supporting cast. Neha Dhupia as the empowered boss who has a soft spot for the enthusiasm of Sulu is a revelation.

Vijay Maurya plays the exasperated, idealistic poet/show producer Pankaj 'Baaghi' who can't keep up with the eccentricities of his new RJ. He goes toe-to-toe with Vidya in their scenes together. The scenes between Maurya and Vidya serve some of the more hilarious moments of the film.

The greatest praise to accord to Triveni's characters is that they are utterly normal in their behaviours and reactions to situations. 

The aural and visual topography of the film is another wonderful motif. From sleepy colonies to cramped apartments and offices, the cinematography and production design are utterly realistic.

The film takes us through parts of the city where people nap in the afternoon, have 'Koyal Si Teri Boli' as their ringtone. They use phrases like 'dandi gull' and sing SP Balasubrahmanyam's 'Batata Vada' in their bedrooms.

This is a part of the city your reviewer grew up in and enjoyed every bit of.

Triveni manages to create montages that are endearing and memorable. Fortified by witty dialogues and great humour, the film also has a complex emotional heart that deals with issues such as societal pressures, family prejudices, and relationships, sensibly. 

However, the 2.5 hour runtime does seem a bit long. The film takes a while to kick in, and the build-up does not add to the plot in the end.

There are moments in the second half when the screenplay feels stretched. The conclusion of the film is also something of a dampener. There is no reasoning to Sulu's final decision regarding her career, even though we surmise that Ashok has come to terms with her ambition. Despite Vidya's superb emotive burst, the scene remained a little difficult for the reviewer to accept.  

The film's flaws, though, are not glaring missteps, but missed opportunities.

In the end, Tumhari Sulu is a film worth watching for its portrayal of the ordinary dreams of some extraordinary people. Above all, it needs to be watched to experience the joy Vidya Balan can spread by just smiling, or breathing into a microphone. 

Vidya Balan's very arrival lights up the sets: Tumhari Sulu director Suresh Triveni