Tumhari Sulu

Suresh Triveni’s film is a lovely, warm, very funny, domestic story about an ordinary middle class housewife who has dreams that take her on an unconventional path. It’s generally a kind and well considered film although it goes off the rails a little towards the end.

Sulochana or Sulu (Vidya Balan) was never academic but she is energetic and curious. She is mocked by her stitched up sisters and father for her trail of hobbies and her relentless participation in school sports events like the lemon and spoon race. Her husband Ashok (Manav Kaul) is the lone voice of sanity at his eccentric workplace but he is soon displaced by a grasping grandson. He has a playful side which he sometimes uses at Sulu’s expense. But they have great rapport and laugh at the same dumb jokes, sing the same old songs. Even if they argue before sleeping they’ll wake up in each other’s arms.

Sulu wins a radio competition and goes to the station to collect. Her morning journey is intercut with a song including guys doing parkour. Her seamless navigation of obstacles is different but equally unique. She sees another competition but this time the winner will be an RJ. Nobody is very interested in helping her but she is politely insistent. The station staff seem equally appalled and enchanted by her unselfconscious repartee and lack of embarrassment at what they see as kitsch or suburban. They decide to let her audition, assisted by people’s poet Pankaj Rai Baaghi (Vijay Maurya). Sulu finds the cheesy lines and the breathy sexy delivery a bit too hilarious and she and RJ Albeli Anjali (RJ Malishka) lose it several times. But station boss Maria sees potential in Sulu. She goes home, full of spark and with a free pressure cooker to give her sister.

As luck has it, Maria decides to give Sulu the job as payback for Pankaj storming out in a hissy fit. Sulu gets the late night agony aunt/love song dedications gig after demonstrating how she would (sexily) berate her husband for his self-pity. Sulu does things her way – proudly wearing her sarees and speaking the way she feels comfortable. Pankaj tries to coach her but he is all cheesy insincerity while Sulu comes from the heart with genuine empathy, a wink, and a laugh.

It seems the greatest tragedy that can befall a man is having his wife get a better job than he has. Ashok is a little snakey about her new job but he wants to support Sulu. His job may be in doubt but his love for Sulu seems solid. But her family mock her, assuming it’s one of her wild ideas again, and Ashok isn’t sure she will make it or stick with it. While Ashok and Pranav get used to getting themselves up and out the door, Sulu’s sisters are adamant that she is on the slippery slope to who knows and she must give up her job. When they say that she’d come running to them if anything goes wrong she agrees saying they’re family after all.

I really loved the way Sulu articulated her feelings, and Vidya’s characterisation is lovely. I laughed with her, and sometimes at her which made me feel a little guilty about being a judgemental snob. The writing is so good and I would catch my own judgement being reflected back by other characters, raising questions about my reaction. And it’s funny, not preachy. Sulu has second thoughts, but Maria says never look down while you are climbing up. She seems to be where she is meant to be and pretty soon everyone is dancing madly to Hawa Hawaii.

The changing dynamic between Sulu and Ashok plays out through domestic responsibility and commitments. He is under pressure at work and transfers that pressure on to Sulu but she is more determined and happier in her work. When she tells him it is OK to quit – as he wants to – and once she gets a pay increase they can set up their own business 50/50 – as he had offered her before – he cracks the sads. He is trying but not coping with the change in breadwinner status. And Sulu is so happy despite knowing that she is not able to be as hands on a mum and housewife as she had been before. Ayushmann Khurrana makes a fun special appearance as himself, highlighting how her world has expanded beyond her own household. Manav Kaul and Vidya Balan are utterly delightful. Their conversations, whether flirty of fiery have a ring of truth and it’s easy to believe they’re an established couple. I had some frustrations with Ashok’s inability to support Sulu when her family went on the attack, but he is an introvert and the pacifist in the marriage so it wasn’t unexpected.

Unfortunately for reasons I cannot fathom, Triveni comes unstuck towards the end of the movie. It’s a pity because the songs, which could have been an unwelcome interruption, are used to perfection. The music is just okay but the lyrics and visuals amplify and extend the drama. He manufactures an incident involving Pranav that tips everyone into overacting crisis mode. As a result Sulu realises she can’t have it all if she has to do it all and be responsible for it all, all by herself. And that is all fair and reasonable and many women come to the same realisation. But in place of the beautifully organic story and character development, things end with another wave of the Happily Ever After wand.

I loved the story, except for the wobble at the end. This is a film that takes you right into the characters world, and the performances bring it to life. 4 stars!

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CityLights (2014)

CityLights

In his reworking of Sean Ellis’s award winning social drama Metro Manila, Hansal Mehta moves the story from the slum areas of Manila to the seedy streets of Mumbai. It’s a tale of grinding, remorseless poverty and the desperation such hardship brings, but there are some lighter moments too and the film morphs into a crime drama about half way through. City Lights is perhaps not quite as effective as the original in telling the story of a young naïve family and their move from the country to the city in search of a better life, but what the story has lost in adaptation is more than made up by the strong performances from the lead actors Rajkummar Rao, Patralekha and Manav Kaul.

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The story opens in Rajasthan where Deepak Singh (Rajkummar Rao) has a clothing shop in a small town that he is forced to close when he cannot afford to pay off his debts.  Since there appears to be no hope for any work in his village, he sets off for Mumbai with his wife Rakhi (Patralekha) and small daughter Mahi. Rakhi is reluctant to move, once in the city she seems less naïve than Deepak so perhaps she is well aware of the difficulties of trying to live in Mumbai, but ultimately she has no say in the decision. These first few scenes are full of light and laughter, and in just a few brief moments Hansal Mehta paints a picture of a happy family where there is a lot of love and hope that better days will come.

Deepak plans to meet a friend from his army days in Mumbai, but when Omkar fails to turn up at the railway station the family has to find their way in the big city alone. After being swindled out of what meagre funds they have, a chance meeting with a bar dancer leads them to a temporary refuge in a half constructed building.  While Deepak spends his days trying to find any kind of a job anywhere, Rakhi manages to get employment as a dancer in a bar. However this is not work she finds easy to reconcile with her conscience and she continually struggles with the leers of the men and their attempts to get more from her than she is willing to give. Deepak too is not happy about his wife’s job either, but the family is in such desperate straits that he has no other option but to let Rakhi work. Both actors do a fantastic job here of getting the depth of their emotions across using facial expressions with excellent body language and minimal dialogue.

Although their situation seems unlikely to improve, the couple never give up hope, even if it’s a very compliant and resigned kind of hope. There are no impassioned speeches or battles against authority here, but rather calm acceptance of their place in society and the belief if they just keep trying then eventually God will provide a solution for them. It’s frustrating viewing at times when Deepak is unable to push himself forward when looking for work and Rakhi cannot put aside her inhibitions to make more money when she is dancing, but they are simple everyday people and Hansal Mehta portrays them just the way they are. No more, and no less.

Their blind faith appears to work and things start to look up when Deepak gets a job as the driver for a security firm. The money seems good, and Deepak’s new partner Vishnu (Manav Kaul) even offers the family a place to stay. However Deepak comes to realise that his new partner had an ulterior motive for recommending him, and it is Deepak’s innocence and naiveté that got him the job rather than his previous army experience. Vishnu has a plan which needs the co-operation of his partner, and he’s been waiting for an innocent like Deepak to manipulate into following his commands. Deepak is reluctant, but when Rakhi loses her job in the bar it seems as if he has no other option but to go ahead with Vishnu’s plan if he wants to make sure his family survives.

Rajkummar Rao and Patralekha both suit the role of poor immigrants to the city. They both look skinny and malnourished with beaten down postures and downcast eyes, and both achieve that calm acceptance that extreme poverty seems to bring. It’s only with each other that they seem able to look straight ahead and even then Rakhi rarely looks her husband in the eyes. Both exude innocence effortlessly, even in the rather ham-handed treatment of their love scenes, and Rajkummar Rao in particular never puts a foot wrong. Manav Kaul is also excellent in a role that gives him plenty of opportunity to develop his character. He’s the man who knows the ways of the city, and is patently more sophisticated and knowledgeable than his partner from the country. He has a wife and a mistress, but despite his city veneer he also deeply resents the people whose money he delivers every day and despises his own circumstances. In his way, Vishnu is just as desperate and defined by his poverty, even if it’s not as extreme as that experienced by Deepak and Rakhi, and Manav Kaul does an excellent job with the characterisation.

The film does have a couple of songs which are either used over montages of the couple’s life in the city, or to highlight certain moments in their lives. The problem is that the music and lyrics are overly dramatic, particularly in scenes where the actors have already displayed plenty of genuine emotion and the music ends up detracting from rather than enhancing their performances.  The track below which plays over Rakhi’s dancing and Deepak’s drinking in a bar does work better, but most of the other songs are too loud and intrusive to suit the action. The film is also very dark at times; to the point where it is difficult to see what is happening let alone the actors expressions, while the final climax seems rushed and too contrived compared to the rest of the story.

These small issues aside, the film is an insightful look at the dark side of Mumbai and the realities of living in unrelenting poverty as Hansal Mehta successfully translates Sean Ellis’s story from the Philippines to Indian soil. Rajkummar Rao is definitely the standout as he once again completely immerses himself in his character and delivers an amazingly realistic and believable performance as he did in Shahid. Manav Kaul and newcomer Patralekha are also impressive in a film that raises questions about morality, ethics and poverty even if it does turn a tad Bollywood at the end. 3½ stars.