Sunday, November 19, 2017


Release date:
November 17, 2017
Ranjith Sankar

Jayasurya, Vijayaraghavan, Dharmajan Bolgatty, Sreejith Ravi, Aju Varghese, Sunil Sukhada, Nyla Usha, Vishnu Govindan, Guinness Pakru

If this film had been made in any language other than Malayalam, chances are it would have been mired in controversy, political and religious hotheads would have asked for it to be banned or chopped, and it might even have been denied a release. Punyalan Private Limited has faced no such protests, as it comes to theatres just weeks after the Tamil industry and public slammed the Tamil Nadu BJP for demanding cuts in the Vijay-starrer Mersal because, among other things, it derided the implementation of the Central Government’s current pet project, the Goods and Services Tax (GST). 
The party’s silence over Punyalan Private Limited, although it references multiple contentious issues including demonetisation, should serve as a moment of pride for the people of Kerala in particular and south India at large. It suggests that Malayalis and the denizens of the entire region have built a no-nonsense reputation for themselves as a result of which a nationally powerful political organisation that has just burnt its fingers in Tamil Nadu would rather avoid being made to look foolish once again, as is most likely to happen if it messes with the cine artists of India’s most literate state.
This is not to say that Punyalan Private Limited (PPL) is a great film – far from it. Writer-director Ranjith Sankar’s sequel to 2013’s Punyalan Agarbathis has a weak screenplay that superficially skims over multiple social and political concerns. The protagonist’s actions are unconvincing and the events that turn him into an overnight media sensation feel contrived. Redemption comes in the form of its funny bone and its leading man Jayasurya who has such a likeable screen presence and such incredible comedic abilities, that sometimes all he needs to do is look at the camera to trigger off a laughing fit in a viewer.
If you weigh PPL’s pluses and minuses then, it is an average film. When even the average fare produced by your relatively small industry (Mollywood) has the guts to take on a system while one of India’s largest film industries (Bollywood) has for decades bowed and scraped before the high and mighty, you truly have reason to be proud.
Sadly, valour alone doth not good cinema make.
PPL brings back to the big screen the hero of Punyalan Agarbathis, a young Thrissur-based entrepreneur called Joy Thakkolkkaran played by Jayasurya. When we meet Joy this time, he is recovering from a failed business. He then comes up with the idea of producing mineral water derived from elephant urine and to be sold in tetrapacks. This, for various reasons, causes him to clash with the bureaucracy, politicians and even the judiciary.
(Spoiler ahead) Through a series of events, Joy ends up spending a day with the Kerala chief minister (Vijayaraghavan). This is not quite what the hero was offered in the Tamil film Mudhalvan and its Hindi remake Nayak: they got to play CM for a day. Here, Joy gets a chance to shadow and observe the man. The neta’s goal in providing such an opportunity to this troublemaker is to convince him of the travails of wearing the crown. (Spoiler alert ends)
How this comes about is of little consequence in a screenplay that is short on detailing. We are expected to buy into the hero’s every move and the consequences of those moves. There is not enough substance in the arguments he throws at the chief minister, but the public applauds him and Shankar seems to expect us to follow suit.

PPL skates along on thin ice and on the strength of Jayasurya’s comic timing. The star is further bolstered by his chemistry with the gifted actors who play his supportive friends and work associates – Dharmajan Bolgatty who is an absolute hoot here, Sreejith Ravi, Aju Varghese and Guinness Pakru. The result is that the film is peppered with laugh-out-loud moments.
While PPL’s sense of humour is laudable, what is not are the racist jokes about Bengalis. Before you say, “how else do you portray racist characters?” the answer is that the objection here is not to the portrayal of a racist reality but to the normalisation of that reality by a film in which no countering voice is offered.

(Possible spoilers ahead)

Since the saffron brigade usually claims victimhood, know this: the film’s anger is not confined to the central government’s policies and no party is mentioned by name. That PPL is taking on the political class at large is evident from the fact that Joy crosses swords with the two major parties in the state, and obviously, since this is Kerala, neither of them is BJP. Disdain is specifically directed at the state’s politicians. When a local man is taken hostage in another country, a Kerala neta is shown not wanting to help free the fellow, because if he succeeds then the credit would automatically go to the Union Minister for External Affairs who, we are pointedly told, is a woman. Hmm, now who might that be?

Further, while being dismissive of religious people who claim hurt sentiments at the drop of a hat in our country, the example used is of a couple of Christian conservatives who object to the use of the word “punyalan” (saint) in the name of a branded commercial product here, since that is a title used for canonised saints of the Catholic Church. Earlier this year, an RSS-affiliated TV channel had decried the dominance of Christian imagery in the highly acclaimed Angamaly Diaries. There has been no outcry on the church that is the centrepiece of PPL’s visuals, either because majoritarians see no reason to criticise a film that criticises a minority community’s nutcases or – and this second possible explanation should again make Kerala proud – because the social media knocked sense into them while lampooning them for that last review and reminded them that such visuals are most natural in a state with such a large Christian population especially in a film in which the protagonist belongs to that faith.

(Spoiler alert ends)
PPL is an equal opportunity offender, aiming its wrath across ideological divides, across communities and institutions, at demonetisation, the compulsory playing of the national anthem in movie halls, politics over women’s safety, poor roads, financial corruption and more. It is also often funny as hell. Now if only Ranjith Sankar had invested his courage, his liberalism and sense of humour in a script with some depth...

Rating (out of five stars): **

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
129 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Friday, November 17, 2017


Release date:
November 17, 2017
Suresh Triveni

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

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):
Running time:
140 minutes

This review was also published on Firstpost: