‘Tumhara Ashok’: How ‘Tumhari Sulu’ Busts Male Stereotypes

Our cinema and advertisements have more often than not reinforced stereotypes of the emotionless Mard. And then Big B even ruined it further with the dialogue “Mard ko dard nahi hota,” which became like a cliche that was slapped on any man who attempted to bare his emotional side. ‘Men’ in Bollywood films have since then been people who made skirt chasing, stalking, revenge-rape look cool. That’s why Tumhari Sulu is an important film.

It is a defining moment in the Hindi film industry as manhood is celebrated in the right spirit. This is a film where one would understand and empathise with the man in the film. This is a film that is as firmly shouldered by Manav Kaul, who plays Ashok Sulochana’s (Vidya’s male partner in marriage) as much as it rests on the shoulders of Sulu.

(At this point, it is wise on my part to warn you of spoilers ahead. Though, I should also add that there is hardly anything unguessable about the story once you have seen the trailer. This film is how a film should be – know it all, yet watch it again – it is an experience, not a story that just unfurled before your eyes).

Director, Suresh Triveni brings Ashok’s character to life in such a way that he resonates with many working men. He essays it flawlessly and delves into the intricacies that make the male character in this female-oriented film more than just a prop that is used to further the storyline (something that many male-oriented films do with women).

He essays it flawlessly and delves into the intricacies that make the male character in this female-oriented film more than just a prop that is used to further the storyline (something that many male-oriented films do with women).

Ashok goes to work to a very disorganised family owned business, where he spends most of his time resolving conflicts between his elderly colleagues. Like they say, old age is second childhood, Ashok, who is in his mid-30s or early 40s, almost parents his bosses by even keeping a timer to ensure that they don’t ever miss their medicines.

He makes it a point to reach home on time and does not unleash his frustration at home. He is a great sport and plays perfect host to his partner’s family. When his partner hints that she has not had sex for sometime, his expressions get naughty and not haughty.

The scene where Sulu’s family provokes his male privilege to stop Sulu from taking a late night job makes for a case study for men who are forced to be engulfed in the unholy pyre of patriarchy. Even when his ego gets a little bruised, the pitch of his voice does not raise. But his character is flawed and human enough to be vulnerably influenced to make a feeble suggestion to Sulu to leave her highly successful job.

The scene where Sulu’s family provokes his male privilege to stop Sulu from continuing with a late night job, makes for a case study for men who are forced to be engulfed in the unholy pyre of patriarchy.

That’s why Suresh, the writer-director is the invisible hero of the film. Not only does he bring dignity to the character of the main lead, Sulu, but also adds nuances to every character to highlight them as role models in their own right.

Even the female Ola driver who works at night to usher Sulu to work is depicted as someone who sacrifices her heterosexual matrimony and breaks the shackles of patriarchy when she has to choose between her partner and her independence.

That said, the character that appealed to me the most is Ashok. It is sad that we need to celebrate the fact that he behaves decently, does not beat his wife or have forced sex with her or make unreasonable demands vehemently.

It is unfortunate that we need to appreciate people for adhering to basic tenets of human respect. But that’s the point Suresh makes with Ashok’s character - it is revolutionary for a man to be kind and considerate in a patriarchal world.

Tumhari Sulu is a also slice of life peep into a middle class Mumbai home. Despite being a story so commonplace, it finds its rightful place in the annuls of film history. Despite the film not being preachy, we unknowingly imbibe the true spirit of feminism that is gender inclusive. Though subversive, this story is simple and portrays truths that we witness in our neighbourhood.

The beauty of the film is in its subtlety. Throughout the film, Sulu is not shown as belonging to a specific caste, however it cleverly illustrates the profound fact that a woman’s identity is tethered to that of the male partner. A simple detail of the name plate of the house that reads, “Mr. and Mrs. Ashok” drives the point home.

In this epic of equality, Vidya Saraswathy Balan delivers an unparalleled performance propelling the film to a level, where we celebrate the ability of a gender that’s often disabled by patterns of oppression. Vidya as Sulochana in Tumhari Sulu joins the cannon of phenomenal female actors - Shanta Apte as revolutionary Nirmala in V Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane, Sridevi as Pooja in Lamhe, Kareena as Geet in Jab We Met, Kangana as Rani in Queen.

This film belongs to the female cast, including Neha Dhupia and Malishka. The beauty of Tumhari Sulu is that the story would still be relevant if we called it Tumhari Albeli (Malishka’s character), Tumhara Ashok, Tumhari Maria (Neha Dhupia as the boss ) or even Tumhari Taxi Driver. That’s how we celebrate equality, with a story so strong, with characters, so well etched and with social realities, so well observed.

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