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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Gully Boy

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While there are similarities between Zoya Aktar’s Gully Boy and the 2002 Curtis Hanson film 8 Mile, that’s probably inevitable given the subject matter. Gully Boy tells the tale of a rapper from the wrong side of the tracks who finds fame and fortune after stepping up to the mike and battling his way to the top. Overall it’s a softer and cleaner tale than 8 Mile, but Ranveer Singh is remarkably good as a struggling student from Area 17 in Dharavai, while Alia Bhatt is equally impressive as his love interest, Safeena. The film is reportedly a loose biography of Mumbai rappers Vivian Fernandes aka Divine and Naved Shaikh aka Naezy, who both appear on the soundtrack along with a host of other local rappers. Even if you’re not a fan of rap music, this is a good story that effectively shows the class/caste divide in Mumbai and the barriers that make it difficult for anyone to cross that line.

Ranveer plays Murad, aka Gully Boy, a management student who lives with his father Aftab (Vijay Raaz), mother Razia (Amruta Subhash), younger brother and grandmother in Dharavi. Into this already crowded household, Murad’s father brings a new, younger wife, and this deepens the antagonism between Aftab and Razia and ups the constraint between father and son. Zoya paints an effective picture here of a divided family and escalating tension that puts even more pressure on Murad and leads to him trying to find avenues of escape. One of these is his relationship with Safeena (Alia Bhatt), a medical student who is trying to escape her mother’s (Sheeba Chaddha) strict ideas about her daughter’s behaviour. Safeena’s father (Ikhlaque Khan) is a doctor and Safeena is therefore in a different social class than Murad, but Safeena is determined to be with her long-term boyfriend and is resourceful enough to manage brief meetings and keep their romance hidden.

Murad also hangs out with his friends, but these relationships seem likely to get him into more trouble. Moeen (Vijay Varma) involves both Murad and Salman (Nakul Sahdev) when he steals cars, but Murad draws the line when he discovers Moeen is also dealing drugs using orphaned children as the couriers. Luckily for Murad he meets MC Sher (Siddhant Chaturvedi) after seeing him perform at a college festival. Murad becomes friends with the rapper and slowly is encouraged to put his own words to music.

Murad is shy and finds it difficult to respond with the instant come-backs needed for rap battles, so it seems as if his career may be over before it’s truly begun. However, a meeting with an overseas student Sky (Kalki Koechlin), looking to make a video in Dharavi helps boost his image and his confidence when the music video goes viral. The addition of Sky is interesting as it didn’t seem that MC Sher and Gully Boy really needed the boost, but the video is sensibly made to reflect what would be possible in this situation, and I loved the scene in Sky’s apartment where Murad paces out the bathroom which is bigger than his entire house in Dharavi. I wondered if the character of Sky was a nod to Zoya herself and her own outsider status in Dharavi given that her previous films (Dil Dhadakne Do etc) deal with the ultra-rich. Gully Boy is almost the total opposite of these films, with nearly every character having a very ‘ordinary’ background with everyday problems of how to pay the rent, or have enough money to put food on the table. The revelation here is that Zoya does this so well and with restrained empathy that lets the lives of her characters talk for them by using their living spaces, clothes and transport as part of the development of the story. There is an authenticity to the film that draws the audience in and allows the characters to develop naturally without any of the usual Bollywood theatricality.

Although the basic story is predictable, it’s the journey that is important and Gully Boy is as much about class division as it is about music and relationships. Near the start of the film, a tourist group comes into Dharavi, trampling through Murad’s house, taking pictures and making insensitive comments about their house and living arrangements as if they’re looking at animals in a zoo. I guess this is part of the reality of living in one of the most famous slum areas of the world, but Murad and his family seem totally unfazed by the invasion and it really brings home the limitations of Murad’s world. Later scenes are even more telling. When his father is injured and unable to work as a driver, Murad takes over his job driving a rich family around the city. In this role he’s essentially invisible and is treated as an extension of the car he is driving. When the daughter wants to take a break from studying, her father uses Murad as an example of where she doesn’t want to end up, even though Murad is a final year student himself. What seems most odd to my Australian eyes is Murad’s calm acceptance of the situation. When he’s moved on from trying to listen to the music outside a venue simply because he’s a driver, his acquiescence without any words or emotion is truly shocking, even though he vents his emotions in the car as he raps along to a track on the radio. Partly this is because Murad is shy, but mainly it’s an ingrained acceptance that this is the way the world is, and nothing can ever change it. As Murad’s uncle states, he comes from a family of servants, so that is what he will be too.

The film has a number of these ‘divides’. Murad and Safeena meet on a bridge that spans a sea of rubbish, and eventually it just becomes part of the background and not even noteworthy. On a smaller scale, Aftab and his new wife keep a door between the rest of the family and their relationship, ensuring Razia and her children have no ability to raise their issues or even develop any kind of relationship with Aftab’s new wife. It’s these minor character that are essential in keeping the film realistic and genuine, particularly since all of these interactions have an effect on Murad, his behaviour and ultimately, on his music. Siddhant Chaturvedi is outstanding as MC Sher, and his confidence and love of music is infectious. Both Vijay Raaz and Vijay Varma also excel in their roles, giving them depth and a reason for their actions beyond the usual ‘Bollywood villain’ trope.

Although the story is Murad’s, it’s one that has been told before, and I found the character of Safeena more interesting. While Murad dreams of making it big in the rap world, Safeena want to be a doctor and will do almost anything to make that happen. She is constrained by societal expectations that she will marry and stop her studies, which makes Safeena constantly rebellious and determined to live her life as she wishes. She is also passionately in love with Murad, to the extent to beating up her rivals, including smashing a bottle over Sky’s head when she believes that Sky and Murad are having an affair. But despite her love of Murad, her devotion for her studies is even more intense and I thought it completely reasonable that she is prepared to adhere to her mother’s rules if she can just keep studying and not get married. Alia’s Safeena has all the passion and fire that seems to be missing at times from Ranveer’s safer and more considered performance as Murad. This is an terrific performance from Alia who gives Safeena a mix of seriousness and spontaneous episodes of violence as well as a passionate devotion to Murad in an interesting mix for a young Muslim woman.

Ranveer Singh is excellent as the shy and rather self-effacing Murad, which is even more amazing when contrasted with his last film. There is none of Simmba’s brashness and Ranveer does a superb job of bringing Murad’s helplessness and vulnerability to life. His gradual transformation from shy wannabe to confident performer is perfectly nuanced and he gets the interactions between his mother and father just right. He’s also incredibly good in the songs which are arguably the best thing about the film. The music here is is powerful and effective with lyrics that burst off the screen, even through the subtitles. Vijay Maurya’s dialogues complement the songs perfectly and it’s this combination that is an essential part of the film’s authenticity. I love the soundtrack – both the songs and Karsh Kale’s background score and it’s such a relief that a film about music gets that part of the story so right.

Although Gully Boy is a Bollywoodised version of hip hop in Mumbai, the music still sounds real and true and while the language has been cleaned up, the rest of the story still has a street vibe and an edginess that’s not usually present in mainstream Hindi films. I loved this film, along with the rest of the audience in an almost full screening in Melbourne – and it’s a long time since I’ve seen that for a Hindi release. Great songs, excellent support characters and impressive performances from all make this one to catch in the cinema. Highly recommended.