Writer-director Suresh Triveni has given the housewife a positive, fresher interpretation with his film Tumhari Sulu. Irrespective of some criticism that the film’s second half and plot resolution have found, Vidya Balan’s credible, likeable and incredibly convincing performance does complete justice to Sulu, the Indian homemaker who wants more and works towards achieving this. Being a homemaker, if it were considered as a profession, is what keeps maximum women in India and across the globe employed. Yet, she remains sidelined or worse still, stereotyped on cinema.
Balan, whose performance as Sulu has won her critical acclaim, believes that a fair portrayal of a housewife is the reason for the character’s connect. “After a long time, Tumhari Sulu looks at the story of a homemaker. The last film that I remembered seeing a homemaker in is Lunchbox. This film is a departure because Sulu is spirited, enthusiastic and a go-getter,” she says. “She doesn’t mind handling her household chores. I love calling her an enthu cutlet. She adds value to her life by participating in various contests, which gives her a sense of acknowledgment and fulfillment… You’ve rarely seen a positive portrayal of a homemaker. That is why people are connecting with Sulu so much. Reactions to Sulu have been encouraging and touching.”
Clichés often emerge from reality. But in the case of the housewife, clichés also emerge from a flawed cinematic and popular art legacy- inherited from the late ’50s and early ’60s in Hollywood, also some European cinema.
‘Mother’s Little Helper‘, the cult track by the Rolling Stones in 1966 captured perfectly, the disillusionment of the average American housewife with her electronic appliances and picket fence bound life. Emphasising the role of Valium (diazepam) in easing the pressures of their day, the song remains cult because it reflects a spirit that many women relate to. Cinematically too, those Hollywood films that have focused on the housewife as a seductress, or a sexually adventurous woman, or simply misled by her boredom and lust, have become huge hits and attained cult classic status. Take a look at the most iconic housewife roles: Anne Bancroft as Mrs Robinson, the mother of a college-going daughter who considers seducing a young graduate a sport, in The Graduate (1967) ; Severine, played by Catherine Deneuve in Belle De Jour (1967) is a young, beautiful housewife who becomes a high-end escort to spice up her married life. Over time, the cliché got stronger. Kathleen Turner’s debut as Matty Tyler Walker in Body Heat (1981) shows a conniving housewife set on seducing her lover and killing her husband for his money. No wonder, Desperate Housewives — with its provocative title — is such a phenomenon. While the TV series explores complications of being a housewife in suburban America with humor, it drives storylines from four clichéd lead characters.
Around the ’80s, Hollywood’s tackling of the housewife became emphatic and focused on women standing up for each other. Interestingly, across the West, these films found acceptance. Be it Steel Magnolias (1989), the unforgettable Thelma and Louise (1991) or Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), the housewife underwent liberation and a change in intent. As women began to take up work from home, or becoming leaders in communities, cinema adapted such stories. Interestingly, scanning the BBC fiction series across decades reflects literature-based engaging portrayals of the home maker consistently; perhaps this is related to the ground reality in the UK and western Europe where women have always had a voice in decision making at home. With the female workforce being equal participants in wartime roles during WW II, British women have always been more liberated since — and the homemaker has never been an ignored role.
While Indian cinema still awaits an Erin Brockovich, the limited Hindi and regional mainstream films that have focused on the housewife in an interesting manner, are both varied and well defined. Gulzar’s Sudha in Ijaazat walks out of an unhappy marriage; Mani Ratnam has mastered giving the wife a significant voice in his films like Roja, Kannathil Muttamittal, Guru and Bombay. The woman does something important in his stories, her status as a housewife being no exception. Mahesh Manjrekar delivered the powerful Astitva, where a woman argues for the right to choose her sexual freedom. Then there is the charming English Vinglish. Yet, the housewife is a rare appearance on mainstream cinema as protagonist and films where she interacts with fellow homemakers or women are almost non-existent. Balan explains this as, “While there are all sorts of women out there, homemakers with different personalities, there is a certain mundane and humdrum existence that you associate with the life of a homemaker. Therefore, the portrayal is not very fun.”
But as her portrayal of Sulu establishes, the everyday battles and victories of the homemaker can make for entertaining, engaging cinema. In present day India, the homemaker has juggled her endless list of tasks (and gone on to add multiple home-based professions. Home bakers, tarot card readers, healers, soothsayers, interior designers, fashion designers, hair dressers have proliferated, adding to the typical dance teacher, music teacher, art and craft tutor and general tutor. An alternate sub economy runs smoothly and efficiently around the homemaker and this one won’t be hit by recession easily. Which is why, it’s only fair that the house wife and her varied, typically Indian story should find more frequent space on cinema today.