If Sharat Katariya’s previous movie was about the heavy lifting required to make a marriage work, his new film is about the warp and weft of a small-town man’s life. Both Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) and Sui Dhaaga: Made in India are set in dysfunctional middle-class families and explore the hopes and aspirations of Indians who live beyond the metropolises. Both films propose feel-good solutions to seemingly intractable problems. What eventually endures isn’t the inevitable heart-warming finale but the honesty of the writing and the performances and the subversions, minor and major.
In Sui Dhaaga, Katariya puts the screen persona of Hindi cinema’s most hard-working young star to good use. Varun Dhawan has an eagerness to please and a rare willingness to expand the boundaries of his still-evolving acting range, and these qualities hugely help his character Mauji become believable and likable. Mauji has descended from a family of handloom weavers, but circumstances have forced him into the employment of the odious Bansals. He swallows their insults because he needs the job and because his father (Raghuvir Yadav) has told him to be obedient at all times.
Mauji’s wife Mamta (Anushka Sharma) might seem to be the docile roti maker of the household, but she is made of sterner stuff. Aghast after she sees Mauji debase himself before the Bansals at a public function, Mamta persuades him to reclaim his self-worth. The only way to do so is to be one’s own boss, Mamta gently tells Mauji, but that is easier said than done. There are numerous obstacles to cross, some reflective of the challenges faced by lakhs of Indians who seek self-employment and some the result of a filmmaker’s need to ratchet up the tension.
Will Mauji gets his hands on a prized sewing machine to set him off on his difficult path? The sequence is milked for all its possibilities, but it produces some moving visuals of the desperate state of employment. As Mauji and Mamta fill out a form that will give them the sewing machine, the camera pulls back to reveals the hundreds of other applicants squatting in the open, waiting for their “Made in India” moment.
Katariya, who has also written the 122-minute film, spares no effort in his attempt to create a complex tapestry of struggle and success. Sui Dhaaga creates a very real sense of its small-town location and has been beautifully lensed by Anil Mehta and designed by Meenal Agarwal. Some themes in Katariya’s overly busy screenplay work better than others. The filmmaker nails the lack of dignity of labour accorded to people like Mauji and the manner in which this class of Indian society is taken for granted. Even though the relationship between the married couple assumes too much importance, Katariya makes it clear that Mauji could not have done it alone. Anushka Sharma turns out a surprisingly low-key and dignified performance, backing Varun Dhawan in his exertions all the way.
The movie is on less sure ground when it comes to unknotting Mauji’s problems. At times, Sui Dhaaga feels like a 101 on entrepreneurship, a How To Embrace Your Inner Sabyasachi Mukherjee tutorial. The film has a clear mandate to deliver a rousing climax that makes it seem that anything is possible. The fashion world, which often relies on the creativity and sweat of anonymous artisans to sell high-priced goods, becomes a reliable villain. Yet, it is the haute couture industry that puts the final stamp of approval on Mauji, suggesting that for the handloom tradition to survive, it cannot but embrace the same marketplace that sucks it dry.
Could this also be said about Sui Dhaaga? The narrative is caught between the compulsions of delivering a celebratory saga and the knowledge that achievement and lucre hardly come easy. Sui Dhaaga works best when it moves into unexpected directions and subverts its own insistent optimism. Absurdist humour and caustic observations on human foibles lighten the domestic scenes, and like in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Katariya creates a beautiful portrait of a typical Indian family with all its flaws and limitations.
Mauji’s defeatist father, wonderfully played by Raghuvir Yadav, gets his share of deserved whacks for participating in his son’s humiliation. Mauji’s mother (Yamini Dass) is supportive but also complicates matters by developing an ailment that sucks the family dry. The things we have to do to keep our mother happy, Mauji observes.
It’s the small moments and minor motifs that ultimately win the day in Sui Dhaaga. For those who are watching closely, it is irrelevant whether Mauji impresses the fashion pundits. What matters is Mauji’s resistance to the pessimism of the previous generation, his egalitarian approach to marriage and labour, and his rediscovery of a spine that has been bent out of shape. Varun Dhawan matches Mauji’s journey, leaping over obstacles with confidence and a can-do spirit that is hard to resist.