Finally, someone in a Bollywood film lives in Virar. This far-flung and much reviled Mumbai suburb and its people have been wholly ignored by India’s popular cinema, whose scope usually doesn’t extend beyond the tried-and-tested urban milieu.
Sulu (Vidya Balan) lives in Virar in a cramped and decrepit flat, wears cheap, synthetic sarees, but never stops dreaming of a better life. A portly, upbeat housewife, Sulu doesn’t let her middle-class existence, her lack of qualifications or her interfering elder sisters come in the way of her determination to make it big someday.
One day, she’ll spot a female taxi driver and decide she wants to own a taxi fleet; on another day, she’ll dream of becoming a caterer. Her good-natured husband, Ashok (Manav Kaul), and son Pranav go along with whatever catches her fancy, nodding sagely every time she proposes a new business idea with an earnest “Main kar sakti hai” (I can do it).
A chance encounter with the head of a radio station fuels the idea in her that she can be a radio jockey. The station head, Maria (Neha Dhupia), is at first dismissive. But when she realises that Sulu’s quirky personality and honesty could make for a good combination, she gives her a shot by letting her host a late night call-in show.
All kinds of people call in, from auto drivers wanting love advice to lonely men just wanting to talk to someone. In one particularly moving scene, Sulu talks to a widowed old man whose wife shares the same name with her. As she speaks to him, we see the man in a long shot throwing his head back and weeping, grateful for this connection across air waves.
It is this affection for characters that makes Suresh Triveni’s film such a winner. There is genuine warmth in the way he tells his story, capturing the little details that make up these people and their lives. From Sulu’s overbearing, meddling sisters to Ashok’s obnoxious boss, Triveni rises above the clichés that these peripheral characters often succumb to in Bollywood.
Aided by Saurabh Goswami’s luminous cinematography, we see scenes like Sulu emerging in slow motion from the mist, like age-old heroines did, except that it’s a haze of mosquito repellant being sprayed on the street.
This off-beat humour pervades the first half of the film. In the second half, it moves smoothly to a more serious tone as Sulu begins to find her feet in the outside world, realising that the one she built at home might be crumbling.
Triveni underscores how difficult most working women have it in India, especially those who find a career late in life. Manav Kaul is pitch-perfect as Ashok, the wounded husband who means well but whose middle-class conservatism cannot cope with the fact that his wife speaks to strange men about love on radio. Neha Dhupia as the station head and Vijay Maurya as Sulu’s cynical show producer are also wonderful in their roles.
But if this film has a beating heart, it is Vidya Balan. She is in every scene and lights it up with her sheer screen presence. This is an author-backed role, but she makes it so much more by adding layers of empathy and vulnerability to make Sulu a character that will stay with you long after you have left the theatre.