Tumhari Sulu and the Real Housewives of India

Pop Culture

Tumhari Sulu and the Real Housewives of India

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

I

n Suresh Triveni’s Tumhari Sulu, Vidya Balan’s eponymous Sulochana Dubey, a middle-aged suburban homemaker plays an iteration of the Indian Everywoman. Like millions of married women across the country, she starts her day early in the morning, waking up hurriedly to cook breakfast, pack her husband’s and son’s lunch, while simultaneously doubling up as their alarm clocks and forcing them out of bed, and into the bathroom before readying them up for the day ahead. Once they’re safely out of the house, her me time begins. She’s no longer a mother, or a wife.

She is Sulu.

This solitary afternoon of the homemaker is a deeply interesting space. Most films with a married woman as their protagonist have a tendency to dwell on the start and the end of the days of these women; the period of time that sum up their identity as the caregiver. No one ponders much on the middle the part where the homemaker is the only one to be left behind at home. Tumhari Sulu refreshingly gives us a glimpse into Sulu’s afternoons, where she is in the kitchen prepping for dinner while listening to her favourite radio channel or unknowingly ending up taking a harmless nap.

It’s only at this time of the day a little after the exhaustion of the morning duties has waned, and slightly before the madness of the night-time duties begins that it is feasible to disassociate the caregiver trait from a married woman’s identity. In the afternoons, it’s manageable to think of Sulu as an individual yearning for some company, freedom (like her high-flying neighbours), and acknowledge the extreme loneliness that she harbours as a result of the physically and emotionally grueling labour that is her everyday life.

Tumhari Sulu

Sulu’s loneliness makes itself visible in small ways: She is seen whiling away time talking to a pigeon parked at her window sill and participating in umpteen radio contests.

T-Series/Ellipsis Entertainment

Sulu’s loneliness makes itself visible in small ways: She is seen whiling away time talking to a pigeon parked at her window sill and participating in umpteen radio contests (including a Lata Mangeshkar Sad Song contest) and winning them. In one scene, when she gets a call from her favourite radio channel telling her that she has won the “Sawaal Batao, Seeti Bajao” contest, and will be on air with their resident RJ, Sulu’s loneliness is more apparent. Her face lights up simply at the thought of having another voice for company. She is uncontrollably excited to step out of her house in the afternoon to collect her prize. It is here that Sulu’s lonely existence ceases.

But Sulu is different from Nimrat Kaur’s Ila. Unlike Sulu, Ila’s loneliness in Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox is much more acute. It’s what prompts her unlikely friendship with Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan), a man who she has never met, but to whom she pours her heart out to. Ila’s loneliness is slightly recent and isn’t completely hardwired into her existence the way it is for Sulu, Sridevi’s Shashi in English Vinglish, or our mothers. Perhaps that’s why Ila is so quick to identify its actuality, as opposed to Sulu and Shashi who are yet to put a finger on the problem that they think has no name. Unlike one of Betty Friedan’s subjects whom she quoted in The Feminine Mystique, they haven’t yet reached the stage where they can ask themselves this question: “I’m a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bed-maker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?”

Tumhari Sulu refreshingly gives us a glimpse into Sulu’s afternoons, where she is in the kitchen prepping for dinner while listening to her favourite radio channel or unknowingly ending up taking a harmless nap.

In Sulu and Shashi’s case, the mere thought of this question is an act of rebellion unlike Sandhya’s life (Bhumi Pednekar) in Dum Laga Ke Haisha. Sandhya has the option of not drowning herself in household duties, and doesn’t have to earn her financial independence. Sulu and Shashi are older, they have grown up amid a mindset that shied away from a reality where married women could be equals with their husbands, go out to work, and earn the same salary as them. For Shashi, an oft-trivialised act of learning to speak English is ambitious enough. Similarly, for my 50-something-mother, who has lived the last two decades of her life attending to every detail in my sister’s, father’s, and my lives, the freedom to join a singing class is enough.

Shashi and my mother’s belief that they are only meant to seek fulfillment from their domesticated lives lulled them into a social reality where being a homemaker defined their identity. Prioritising doing things for themselves doesn’t come as naturally to them as it does to their offsprings. They weren’t content with their lives, but they were also not aware that it wasn’t okay to live that way. Which is why even Sulu’s ambitions start small. First it’s wanting to be a cab driver and owning a car business, which then transforms into her desire of being a gym instructor, finally culminating into her calling of becoming a radio jockey.

Tumhari Sulu

Times have changed, but has the language of loneliness changed for the homemaker?

T-Series/Ellipsis Entertainment

In a heart-rending essay titled, “The Captivity Of Marriage” published in The Atlantic in 1961, novelist Noah Johnson, a happily married, mother of two, termed this existentially isolated, restless feeling as the “housewife syndrome”, defining it as “the vicious circle, the feeling of emptiness in the gap between what she thought marriage was going to be like and what it is really like”. Her essay further articulated how “wives are lonelier now than they ever used to be”.

It’s been more than 50 years since her essay. Times have changed, but has the language of loneliness changed for the homemaker? Has the search for their independence lessened their isolation, or are they lonelier now than they ever used to be?

Maybe the answer will keep changing from generation to generation until there (hopefully) comes a generation that isn’t left grappling with the “housewife syndrome” anymore. Until then, we have the small victories of Bollywood’s “aam aurat” characters like Sulu and Shashi to give us hope, and make every homemaker believe in the Sulu-ism: “Main bhi kar sakti hai.”

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