Friday, November 17, 2017

REVIEW 545: TUMHARI SULU


Release date:
November 17, 2017
Director:
Suresh Triveni
Cast:



Language:
Vidya Balan, Manav Kaul, Neha Dhupia, Malishka Mendonsa, Abhishek Sharrma, Vijay Maurya, Cameo: Ayushmann Khurrana
Hindi
                                                                                                                   

A middle-aged housewife named Sulochana Dubey lives happily ever after with her husband Ashok and son Pranav in a middle-class locality in Mumbai. She failed in Class 12 and ever since, like a butterfly flitting from bloom to bloom, she has flitted from interest to interest, forever coming up with ideas for hobbies and a career for herself. The only constant in her line of vision is her happy home. She is as fixated on her family as she is on ensuring that the lemon does not fall out of the spoon in the lemon-and-spoon race in a local housing society, and though she comes second in that race, she has aced her equation with Ashok and Pranav so far.

Then one day on a whim, Sulochana decides to become a radio jockey, and circumstances provide her with an opportunity. RJ Sulu with her “sari-waali aunty” persona – as the station head puts it – and seductive voice becomes popular with her late-night talk show. And of course life changes from then on.  

Tumhari Sulu busts the myth prevailing for about three decades in Bollywood, that all comedies must inevitably be mindless (and male-centric). The first half of director Suresh Triveni’s film is an absolute laughathon, yet it is at no point stupid. Sulu herself is often silly, but her story is not. And – you will not believe this Team Golmaal – not a single character speaks in rhyme.

In fact, there is such realness to Sulu’s extended family, including her over-bearing though well-meaning twin sisters, that they bring back memories of the homes occupied by the likes of Amol Palekar, Vidya Sinha, Bindiya Goswami, Tina Munim, Zarina Wahab, Pearl Padamsee and Utpal Dutt, back in the 1970s when the aam aadmi (common man) was a pre-occupation in a section of Bollywood. The spotlight in Tumhari Sulu is back on the common people, except this time it falls on an aam aurat (woman), a person this industry usually neglects.

After a four-year drought following Kahaani (2012), Vidya Balan finally gets a film that, though not flawless, gives her a character who remains substantial from start to finish. Tumhari Sulu also takes her into territory that she has not so far explored: the all-out comedy. It allows her to be funny while giving us food for thought, and Balan pulls off the role of Sulu with the skill of a tightrope walker. She and the film as a whole are so funny, that I choked in the first half and had to take a Vicks ki goli to soothe my throat. How come it has taken Bollywood so long to discover the comedian in this fine artiste?

Sulu could have easily been performed with condescension – after all being daft is second nature to her. But Triveni’s writing never lets us forget that behind the inane schemes and narrow worldview is a living, breathing human being with relatable emotions and, surprisingly, a head on her shoulders that usually goes unnoticed because of her in-your-face frivolity.

Balan matches the writing by giving us enough space to ridicule Sulu, but ensuring at all times that she is a person and not a parody. I laughed at the woman, but the truth is that I also occasionally felt guilty about my laughter.

The sensitivity in the characterisation of Sulu is paralleled by the writing of her response to the men who call in to her radio show: she makes no blanket assumptions about them, she cleverly and smoothly snubs the ones who try to take her for a ride, but is humane with those who do not.

Triveni also does not trivialise or stereotype those around Sulu: the young airhostesses living across the corridor do not visit her, not because they think they are too good for her, but because they are genuinely always exhausted; Radio Wow’s Maria Madam (Neha Dhupia) and RJ Albeli Anjali (Malishka Mendonsa) are justified in being amused by her, but they are never mean; and her siblings are conventional, but it is also clear that they love her to bits. That said, Maria’s patience towards Anjali when she screws up really badly one night defies believability. This is a weak point in the screenplay, and in that sense, the scenario at Ashok’s office is far more credible.

Comedies sometimes ruin themselves when they enter emotional terrain, but Tumhari Sulu stays the course. Even when Sulu, Ashok and Pranav draw tears from us in the second half, the film does not become so weepy as to get sidetracked.

The nicest thing about Triveni’s work here is that while he keeps his gaze firmly and unapologetically on Sulu, he does not marginalise Ashok or Pranav. The husband and son are well-fleshed out, well-acted parts. Manav Kaul is excellent as Ashok, delivering a performance that is touching and comical by turns. Thankfully, he shares great chemistry with Balan who has struggled for a while now to find a co-star with charisma to match her own. Kaul is a charmer, so is his character.

Abhishek Sharrma as young Pranav has screen presence and talent enough to ensure that he is not overshadowed by his seniors. He even pulls off a scene in which he has to read a slightly awkwardly written letter, a scene that is another passing weak patch in the screenplay.

The only inexplicable casting decision in Tumhari Sulu involves Malishka Mendonsa who plays RJ Albeli Anjali. Mendonsa is a popular radio jockey in Mumbai. Why rope in a well-known personality if you plan to reduce her to an extra, especially considering that her character starts off with promise?

Tumhari Sulu has a light touch, but it is not a non-serious film. The comedic tone, in fact, allows it to make several important observations about how a household gets disrupted when a woman who has been – conveniently for the rest of the family – home-bound all these years, decides to have a career. As Ashok learns, it is much easier to be an understanding husband when you know you can take your wife for granted than when she comes into her own and establishes an identity independent of her relationship with you.

Having said that, Tumhari Sulu almost ruins the points it makes – it certainly vastly dilutes them – in a bid to serve up a needless plot twist in the end. The effort to surprise the audience in an extended pre-climactic scene at the radio station is both laboured and transparent. It was an irritating passage, and as I left the hall, at first I wondered if Triveni was trying to soften up his position on Sulu in that scene to cater to misogynists in the audience. But no, his goal appears to have been merely to draw gasps of astonishment and relief. Why, Mr Triveni, why? It is a measure of the effectiveness of everything that went before this, that Tumhari Sulu remains worthwhile.

In any case, it is hard to stay angry for long with a film in which a plump, sexy heroine and her horny husband jump around on their bed in their tiny bedroom in their congested lower-middle-class house as he sings, “Bann meri mehbooba / Main tenu Taj pava doonga…/ Shahjahaan main tera / Tenu Mumtaz bana doonga / Bann ja tu meri rani / Tenu mahal dava doonga.” And which has this to say about its pretty heroine played by Vidya Balan in the song Farrata: Chhoti si packing mein aayi / Guddi yeh dhamaka hai.” That’s the other thing about Tumhari Sulu: the songs and the way they are woven into the narrative are hilarious. (Bann ja rani is written and composed by Guru Randhawa, who has also sung it, and Rajat Nagpal is a co-composer. Farrata’s music is by Amartya Rahut and lyrics by Siddhanth Kaushal.)

This is a story about finding the extraordinary within the seemingly ordinary. Every human being is good at at least something, and if you are among those lucky few who find out what your special gift is, hold on to it for dear life. Until then, you can laugh your heart out at Sulu’s shenanigans and feel a tug at the heart as you watch her with her Ashok and Pranav.

Vidya Balan and Manav Kaul are wonderful in Tumhari Sulu. And despite its exasperating folly as it draws to a close, Tumhari Sulu is a throat-achingly, side-splittingly hysterical entertainer.

Rating (out of five stars): ***

CBFC Rating (India):
U
Running time:
140 minutes

This review was also published on Firstpost:




Sunday, November 12, 2017

REVIEW 544: THE HOUSE NEXT DOOR


Release date:
November 10, 2017
Director:
Milind Rau
Cast:


Language:
Siddharth, Andrea Jeremiah, Anisha Angelina Victor, Atul Kulkarni, Prakash Belawadi
Hindi (The House Next Door was made simultaneously as Aval in Tamil, which was released on November 3, and Gruham in Telugu.)
                                                                                                                   

Unless you have attained rationalist nirvana, chances are you are vulnerable before a good spookfest. The House Next Door plays on all the fears we bury under our intellectual protestations against the existence of paranormal activity: the fear of what lies beneath our beds, what lies beyond that bend in the corridor, behind that closed door, or buried in the history of the house we occupy. Many of these unknowns have been used in the past, but the manner in which writer-director Milind Rau taps them is refreshing.

The centerpiece of the action in his film though is our subconscious dread of what stands outside the window of our home in the dead of night, in the house across the street, and in the darkness beyond especially in isolated suburbs and the countryside.

Obviously the goal of any horror flick maker is to manipulate the audience, but Rau does not leave room for a viewer to become conscious of his effort. Part of the reason is that his terror tactics are neatly understated, unlike too many screechy Hindi films in the genre. The other is that he scares the bejeezus out of us to such an extent that there is little mindspace left to think.

For the record, although The House Next Door is in Hindi, it has not emerged from Bollywood. It is a Kollywood film made simultaneously in three languages: in Tamil as Aval (meaning: She), released last week to critical and audience acclaim; in Telugu as Gruham (Home); and in Hindi as The House Next Door. This triad has been produced by its leading man, Siddharth, who has also co-written the story with Rau.

The film begins with a fleeting prologue featuring a Chinese woman and her daughter, who appear happy together before the audio cuts to worrying sounds emanating from their house. This is pre-Independence India, circa 1934.

Cut to 2016 and an attractive, perennially horny couple in the neighbourhood, the neurosurgeon Dr Krish (played by Siddharth) and his stay-at-home wife Lakshmi (Andrea Jeremiah). Soon, a new family moves into – wait for it – the house next door: the businessman Paul D’Costa (Atul Kulkarni), his wife Lizzy who is a stay-at-home Mom, their adolescent daughter Jenny (Anisha Angelina Victor), a little one called Sarah, and Paul’s Dad.

At first, the only intrusion in Krish and Lakshmi’s peaceful life is Jenny’s open flirtatiousness towards the youthful and handsome doc. When a character seems to become possessed though, all hell breaks loose.

Psychotherapy, exorcism, Christian imagery, Buddhist chants, a solar eclipse and sex are thrown into the mix. And oh maaan, what a frightening mix it is! The last time I was this terrified was while watching the Hindi film Phobia starring Radhika Apte in 2016, and before that with 2012’s Tamil film Pizza, which snatched pizza delivery boys out of the porn world and placed them at the front and centre of supernatural thrillers. Like those two, this one too is terrific.

The cleverness of The House Next Door lies in the fact that it simultaneously draws on our irrational anxieties, our embarrassment at our lack of logic while watching a scary movie and our hope that there will be a logical reason for the goings on. (Not a spoiler, but you may wish to skip to the next paragraph) The exercise is exemplified by a smartly handled scene involving a family gathering to address a senior member which, to my mind, was written with the awareness of our concerns for our children and the dreadful knowledge we would rather wish away, that some fathers are child molesters. (Okay, read on)

The House Next Door is packed with surprises. Every department plays a significant role in mining the sense of alarm it instills in us early on. Lawrence Kishore’s editing is fantastic. In a notable moment, a nomadic exorcist stands in front of the D’Costa home, his figure vanishes in a flash and the scene immediately switches from day to night – the transition is done in such a way as to leave the viewer wondering whether the man has magical abilities and actually disappeared, or whether he was faded out merely to show the passage of time.

Cinematographer Shreyaas Krishna lends an intimidating air of doom and gloom both to his intimate frames in closed spaces bathed in warm colours and his lavish shots of gray, grim open areas and any place outside the two homes.

While dealing with spirits, Hindi cinema has assumed for over a decade now that all it takes to startle viewers are loud audio effects. In The House Next Door though, sound designers Vishnu Govind, Sree Shankar and Vijay Rathinam know the value of silences as much as decibels. Their work is complemented by some eerie art direction (watch out for the sinister lighting of that large cross) and well-used music. The result is an unrelentingly chilling two hours and 20 minutes.

None of this would have worked without the strength of Rau and Siddharth’s writing. The House Next Door is not merely aiming at a petrified audience. The messaging woven into the finale is wonderful and unexpected, at first preying on our prejudices about outsiders, then smoothly reminding us that we are no better than the worst we see in other races. It is also worth noting that while Bollywood just served us its Christian cliché in the form of Tabu’s character in Golmaal Again (a woman who says “god” instead of “bhagwaan” even while speaking Hindi), the D’Costas here are a reminder that southern Indian cinema has a better understanding of India’s religious communities. The writers even go into specifics – the D’Costas are Pentecostal Christians. What a pleasure to encounter a team who bother with detailing.

And of course, nothing will prepare you for the traumatic climax or the explanation for the weird occurrences in the film.

The cast is uniformly good, though Atul Kulkarni must get a special mention for keeping us guessing about his character’s motivations. Model-turned-actor Anisha Angelina Victor is impressively credible. And Siddharth’s chemistry with Andrea Jeremiah is palpable.

(Spoiler alert by over-cautious critic) That said, The House Next Door is not flawless. I doubt the professionalism of a doctor who allows an emotional parent to intrude on a hypnotherapy session. The lesson the film seeks to impart is nicely woven into the narrative, but then, as if the director was not sure of the audience’s intelligence, it is rubbed in our faces with text flashing on screen that repeats a point already articulated by two characters.

Jenny and Sarah are also inexplicably unoccupied. Is Jenny a college kid on vacation or looking for a job? Is Sarah too young for school? We are not told.

There is one question bothering me. I get why Jenny behaved the way she did through most of the film, but without revealing anything beyond what is in the trailer to those who have not yet watched The House Next Door, I have this cryptic query that will hopefully be understood by those who have seen it: if those two were trying to protect them, who caused her to jump into that well and why? Think about it. (Spoiler alert ends)

Even if this is a loophole the team did not notice, The House Next Door is excellent fare for masochists who enjoy being repeatedly jolted in their seats in an unlit movie hall. The text on screen at the start of the movie claims that it is based on a true story. Maybe it is time you checked the antecedents of your neighbouring buildings. Who knows what ancient secrets they hold? Be afraid, my friends, be very very afraid.

Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
A
Running time:
140 minutes

This review was also published on Firstpost: