Tumhari Sulu Review (SPOILERS): The Value of Emotional Labor

I put up the No Spoilers review for this back on Saturday, but I wasn’t in a huge hurry to get the spoiler review out.  It’s a slow build kind of film, I am guessing interest will be higher on Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday than it was on Saturday.  Plus, I had to spend 4 hours at church on Sunday and then make two cakes and a pie, so there wasn’t much time for writing.

Whole plot in two paragraphs:

Vidya is a housewife who had a love marriage to Manav Kaul.  They aren’t as successful as her sisters, everyone in her family kind of looks down on the two of them.  But they are happy together and love each other, and their son.  Manav works in middle management at a clothing factory, they make just enough to get by, but are hoping that Vidya can get a job to bring in some extra money, and because she is bored and wants to work, wants to feel good about herself, worthwhile.  She goes to a radio station to pick up a prize she won on a call in show, and talks her way into an audition for radio jockey, which the station manager Neha Dhupia lets her do mostly because she finds her funny.  Over the next few days, Vidya keeps pushing for a chance, and finally after a hard day in the middle of an argument with an ungrateful employee, Neha declares she can make that “sari-wearing auntie” into a radio star, and hires her.

Vidya is thrilled to have a job, and Manav is happy for her and glad of the extra money.  They are nervous about the hours, she has to go in for her show late at night, but Manav helps out and they manage.  What causes issues is when Manav starts to hear her give support and sympathy to callers at the same time he most needs support at home, as he knows he is about to lose his job.  They fight and fight, and then their son is caught with pornography at school, and is suspended, and there is a huge fight.  Vidya leaves for work, but can’t focus, and comes home to find that her son has run away.  He is found the next day, Vidya sadly goes in to work to quit, because she can’t manage it all, home and work.  Until on the way out she hears the receptionist arguing with the tiffin guy and gets an idea.  In the end, she takes her earnings from her RJ job, Manav quits his job, and they found a business delivering tiffins to offices.  And with Manav setting his own hours and working from home, Vidya is able to keep working in the evenings.

Image result for tumhari sulu poster


This whole movie is about the value of emotional labor.  “Emotional labor” means, well, the cakes I am making today!  My co-workers both have birthdays this weekend, so I found out what their favorite cakes are and am making two separate cakes, one for each of them.  It’s not just making the cakes, it’s being aware of how icky it feels to share a birthday, and having two separate cakes makes it a little more special for each of them.  So I did the labor of understanding all of that and coming up with a solution, and then the actual work of making the cakes.

That’s what women do all the time.  Especially homemakers.  They don’t just “make breakfast”, they remember who likes what for breakfast, and maybe sneak something special on the plate if their kid has a big test, or the husband has a presentation.  And say “good-morning” with a smiling face, and send you off for the day feeling like a million bucks. Breakfast is just a sample, it’s everything all the time, the little things that make you feel loved and safe and happy.  And it’s the stuff that no one ever really pays for.  You do it as a wife or mother or daughter or friend or girlfriend or granddaughter, and no one even consciously sees it, let alone puts a monetary value on it.

That’s what this movie is about.  What happens when that emotional labor leaves the home and goes out in the world.  How Manav and their son feel strangely unhappy and can’t clearly state what has gone wrong.  How Vidya knows what has gone wrong and resents it, because she also knows perfectly well that they didn’t appreciate what all she did when she was still doing it, and don’t realize how much she is still managing to do.  How she resists giving up one more thing for her family, and finally decides that she has to, even though it is unfair.

Because it’s also about how emotional labor is supposed to be reciprocal, at least a little bit.  Vidya Balan and Manav Kaul have a different kind of marriage from ones you usually see in movies, Indian or otherwise.  They joke with each other, they confess their insecurities and angers to each other, they talk about the real hurts of their lives.  Manav doesn’t always play the strong perfect man for his wife, and Vidya doesn’t play the noble suffering woman for him.  They are each other’s safe space, the thing that nurtures and keeps them going.  There is a recurring image of the outside of their building at night, as they talk in their bedroom.  There little place inside of this big world.

I wish the film kept more firmly focused on that part, the part that felt so different.  Instead it throws in stuff about working women, and sex, and all kinds of thing that don’t really belong.  Most egregiously, it inserted a conflict between Manav and Vidya that didn’t quite make sense.  And because it didn’t quite make sense, the resolution didn’t make sense either.  It was essentially the same thing she suggested in the first place, only know it was the end of the movie, so it actually works.

Manav’s unhappiness at work, that is done very well.  We can see that he never liked this job to begin with, but he has grown accustomed to it, and accustomed to the emotional labor he does at work, solving disputes between the workers, taking care of his elderly boss’ (giving the their pills on time, and so on).  And then the new young grandson comes in to take over, and disregards all of that emotional labor.  Not just him, Manav’s bosses, and the workers he supervised, none of them seem to put any value on all the work he has done for all those years.

So I can see why he would start to feel unhappy, and needing to be appreciated a little more at home.  Not in a simple “you are so handsome and such a good provider” way, but for all the little things he does.  But the thing is, their relationship is built so well, we can’t believe that it would follow apart that easily!  Vidya may not be paying as much attention as she could, but she is saying the right things, she is asking him to open up.  He should be able to see that she is trying and appreciate it, and that she needs his support as well, for once.  Especially when she gives him the solution, supports his decision to quit his job and suggests that they take her money and start their own business, 50/50.  There is no real reason for him to turn this idea down, he doesn’t have a problem taking her money, he is getting support in quitting his job, it’s the right thing to do and the right thing to say.  The only reason they don’t sit down and talk out their feelings and come up with a plan right then is because the film needed an artificial drama to end it.

The artificial drama is the son who is caught with pornography and then runs away.  This film is too light and happy for anything really bad to happen to him, it’s stressful, but we know it will turn out okay in the end.  The not-artificial drama is the audience sitting there going “please don’t be another film about a working woman realizing she has to be a mother first!  Please please please please please!!!!”

It seems like it is backing off from that.  Right before the son runs away, Vidya gives a great speech about how Manav claimed to the principal that he would take responsibility for their son, but now he doesn’t even want to spend a few hours making him dinner while she is working.  She has done everything for years, is still doing so much, and he isn’t willing to do anything at all.  It’s a great flip of the script, the problem isn’t working mothers outside of the home, it’s fathers who aren’t willing to take up even a little bit of the slack.  But then the son runs away and it gets all dramatic and it looks like that step forward is gone.

Vidya goes in to quit.  And gives a long speech that is kind of confused and only works because it is Vidya.  And Neha is all sad listening to her.  That part kind of makes sense.  Neha knows that Vidya is giving it up because her family needs her more, sacrificing her own happiness for theirs, and that is heartbreaking.  Not noble and wonderful and admirable, just sad.

Thank goodness, it doesn’t end sad!  It ends with that exact same solution Vidya gave before, Manav quits his job and they take her money to start their own business.  Vidya keeps working, and the whole family is happy together running their business.  Vidya doesn’t need a strong perfect husband who can get the TV fixed (a running joke in the family), she needs a supportive husband who will love her and love their son and help take care of them.

Way at the beginning of the film, Vidya is taking part in a lemon and spoon race at her son’s school sports day.  She returns to that idea later when she is talking to Neha.  She moved so slowly and so carefully and she kept her eye on the lemon and didn’t let it drop.  That’s what she has done all her life, kept her eye on all the “lemons” she is taking care of, making sure nothing happens to them, even if it means she only moves forward slowly and takes second place, isn’t the winner.

That’s what this film is about, a woman who has taken care of everyone else before looking at her own ability to move forward, her older sisters and father and then her husband and then her son.  And now she has found a job doing that, she takes care of her callers, it’s not a sexy show, it’s a show about a warm loving woman who cares about you, that’s what her lonely callers want.  And taking care of them lets her move forward a little, lets her have new friends and a paycheck and an exciting life for herself.  Finally.

17 thoughts on “Tumhari Sulu Review (SPOILERS): The Value of Emotional Labor

  1. Pingback: Film Reviews | dontcallitbollywood

  2. It sounds like a movie with a realistic relation-oriented touch that would not please certain film critics who could not relate to JabHarryMetSejal…
    When it is out in the Net I certainly will watch it as that is my only possibility to get to know most of the current Indian movies.


    • Yes, very much. Not that much “happens” in the plot, it’s more about vidya slowly deciding she wants to leave the home and work, and Manav slowly realizing he has a problem with that, and then getting over it.

      On Tue, Nov 21, 2017 at 1:26 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



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  15. Just watched this on Friday. My daughter came and watched the second half with me, and I’m so glad she did, even though she was really mad at me because of the dramatic and sad subplot with the son.

    Watching it with her was a forceful reminder of how different books and movies are based on the age, gender and life circumstances of the person reading/watching. My daughter was much more attuned to the son’s storyline. She was really upset by what what going on with him at school, with how the fighting between Sulu and Manav, and her and her sisters and father, was affecting the son. While I was riveted by Sulu’s story and how it would turn out. So I was kind of shocked by the developments, especially the letter from the son to his parents (“Daddy, please take mommy’s side sometimes.”) and him running away, while my daughter saw it coming. We both ended up crying and hugging when the three of them are crying and hugging after the son comes back. My daughter’s still mad at me though. 🙂

    We both thought the ending resolution was rushed and weird, for the reasons you state in the review. But we’re invested enough in the characters to be happy for their happy ending.

    Vidya is so great in this, of course. Sulu is an unusual character–and it’s so nice to see a story about how much Manav and her son love her because of, not despite, her quirks. I liked how her relationship with the male writer/RJ at the station evolved. And it was nice to see the actress playing the radio station manager show up as one of Irrfan’s ex-girlfriends in Qarib Qarib Singlle.


    • Oh your poor daughter!!!! That son storyline is heartbreaking. But at least there is a happy ending.

      Neha Dhupia is the radio manager, she has a popular podcast in real life, and she just generally seems like a fun interesting outspoken person. I think she was the one who had the immortal quote “Only sex and Shahrukh khan sell”.

      On Sun, Oct 21, 2018 at 9:30 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



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