Director: Radha Mohan
Cast: Jyothika, Vidharth, Lakshmi Manchu
In Radha Mohan’s Kaatrin Mozhi (the language of the wind), Jyothika plays Vijayalakshmi (Viji), an endlessly enthusiastic housewife whose mantra is “Ennaala mudiyum.” (I can do it.) In the first scene, this can-do spirit is put to test in a lemon-and-spoon race. Her husband, Balakrishnan/Balu (Vidharth), eggs her on with Ajith’s lines from Vivegam: “Never. Ever. Give up.” It’s a comic scene, but with a dash of irony. This is a harmless sport, using harmless kitchen products (a lemon, a spoon). Would Balu be as encouraging if his wife set out to do something less… housewifely? The film — adapted from Suresh Triveni’s Tumhari Sulu — presents both ends of the working-woman spectrum: the woman who sells ready-made food to the residents of an apartment complex (a safe, “womanly” profession) versus the woman who drives a cab round the clock. Viji veers towards the latter category when she becomes the RJ of a late-night radio show. Where are the Ajith dialogues now?
In 1963, Satyajit Ray began the on-screen debate on gender roles with the exquisite Mahanagar. There, it was a compulsion. The hesitant wife took up a job because of the financial pressure the family was under, and, to everyone’s surprise, she began to bloom. (The husband, correspondingly, wilted.) Tumhari Sulu is a lighter take on this premise, but more than five decades on, how amazing that the middle-class male — here, too, his job situation is iffy — is still threatened by a woman’s independence. The modern-day twist is that Sulu/Viji works not because of the money but because the job makes her happy. She’s stepping out of the house to do something other than just, say, pay the electricity bill. A power imbalance is imminent.
Tumhari Sulu was delicately textured, beautifully directed. The music score enhanced the scenes discreetly, hinting at emotions slightly tangential to the ones on screen. The supporting cast was aces. Manav Kaul’s slow simmering chemistry with Vidya Balan came across as equal parts love and exasperation. And the glorious heroine, of course, made every scene sing. Kaatrin Mozhi, on the other hand, is a loud TV serial. (It even looks like one.) People seem to be delivering lines by rote rather than interacting with their co-stars. Vidharth looks uneasy opposite Jyothika, who oversells every emotion. (She does hit a few nice notes in the latter portions, though.) Lakshmi Manchu and Kumaravel (as Viji’s boss and colleague) are reduced to props, and Yogi Babu is used, once again, in jokes that play on his looks. MS Bhaskar shows everyone up in the one big scene he gets. It takes great skill to make shameless melodrama convincing, affecting and, above all, honest. As written, it’s a shrewdly manipulative scene, but he plays it like it’s a chapter from his own life.
The special guest star unwittingly addresses some of the very problems the film grapples with. In Sulu, it was Ayushmann Khurrana, who made his movie debut almost a decade after Vidya Balan. Here, it’s Simbu, who was paired opposite Jyothika in Manmadhan and Saravana. What does it say about “working women” when this actor, even with flecks of grey in his beard, continues to be a leading man, while his former co-star is now being lauded for her “homely” roles in her “second innings”? These extra-textual concerns apart, the lack of a directorial vision magnifies the problems in the original film — like Viji’s overnight transformation to RJ, the missing-son episode, or Viji’s eternally dismissive family. I craved for the warmth of Sulu’s lived-in, middle-class flat (this apartment looks too fancy, like Viji’s saris) and the subtlety of scenes like the one where Sulu helps to balance the stool her husband is standing on. She takes her foot off, and it wobbles. That’s their marriage, right there.
But flaws and all, Kaatrin Mozhi gets the job done. A big reason is the fantastic dialogue-writer, Pon. Parthiban. His lines are alternately evocative (the scene where Viji compares Himalayan snow to vanilla ice cream), snappy, emotional, and laugh-out-loud funny. (Manobala to a woman with a big pottu: “Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan-a nethiyila muttina maadhiri irukku!”) And the things I took for granted in Sulu feel revolutionary in the context of a middle-class Tamil family. Whether it’s Viji calling her husband Balu, or asking him to press her feet, or snapping at him when he gets whiny (a big plus is that emancipation is served without a side of martyrdom), it all feels quietly radical. Viji and Balu don’t get a sex scene (there was the aftermath of one in Sulu), but I was pleasantly surprised by the frankness of the undergarment seller who calls Viji on her show. It’s treated like a genuine problem, and not a perversion.
A few scenes improve on the original. The radio-station celebration (set to Jimikki kammal) is badly staged, but it comes with a tinge of sadness that wasn’t there in Sulu. And how wonderful, in this #MeToo era, that workplace harassment is addressed too. When Balu complains about a shady-sounding caller, Viji replies that working women face this all the time. It’s just that he’s hearing it live. Sulu’s foundation is so strong that the material speaks for itself. Even at its most light-hearted, it’s about what it means not just to be a working woman, but a working wife and a working mother who gets a disproportionate share of the blame when the son gets into trouble. (Stop right here if you don’t want a spoiler about the last scene.) When things get too much, Viji quits. But at the end, Balu talks to her boss and gets her job back. This isn’t how it happens in Sulu, and my initial reaction was that of annoyance. Why does he have to be the knight-in-white-banian saviour of her dreams? But as I said, perhaps the Tamil context is different. Maybe he’s not “allowing” her to work again. Maybe he’s just apologising.