What Vidya Balan’s sexy purr in ‘Tumhari Sulu’ tells us about Hindi film heroines and their voices

Vidya Balan’s radio jockey in the November 24 release is the latest screen character to exercise her vocal chords in the service of the plot.

A few years ago, Vidya Balan stepped into her character in The Dirty Picture (2011) by gaining weight and swaying her body to unapologetically raunchy songs. In the teaser for the November 24 release Tumhari Sulu, she owns her sexuality through her voice instead, turning on a seductively soft purr. Clad in cotton sarees and sporting a mangalsutra and bindi, Balan’s titular character Sulu contradicts Hindi cinema’s cherished assumption that women with sexy voices must have appropriately hot bodies to match.

Portrayals of female bodies in Hindi cinema have long been offering insights into deeply entrenched sexism. But its maneuverings around women’s voices also indicate how gender relations play out in numerous social and cultural spheres.

Tumhari Sulu (2017).

In Aitraaz (2004), erstwhile model Sonia’s voice is stuck in a perennial purr. Sonia (Priyanka Chopra) runs into her ex-boyfriend Raj (Akshay Kumar) at a party, and sets out to seduce him although she is aware that he is married. An ambitious woman who chases power and money, Sonia is the archetypical Bollywood vamp: she does not want children, is in control of her own sexuality, and exerts control over the men around her.

Sonia’s authoritative and seductive voice indicates the sexually confident woman’s inherent villainy. It also demonstrates that the texture of women’s voices is inextricably linked with the appearance of their bodies.

Adhering to the dictum that women are meant to be seen and not heard, audiences are seldom interested in only hearing a listening to a woman’s voice without looking at her body. Consequently, women do not often play the role of narrator in Hindi movies.

Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) features the female protagonist narrating her own story. Although terminal cardiac patient Aman’s joie de vivre forms the backbone of the film, it is punctuated by Naina’s observations. Naina (Preity Zinta) is granted space and autonomy to introduce herself and her world as the narrator of the film. Although she does not have an authoritative sway over the film the way external male narrators often do, she tells her story with conviction, and is occasionally heard in scenes where she does not feature physically.

Kal Ho Na Ho (2003).

Disembodied feminine voices have always been a source of great curiosity for men in Hindi films. In Abhimaan (1973), popular playback singer Subir (Amitabh Bachchan) gets captivated by the distant sound of a woman singing and is driven to inspect the source of the voice. When he learns that it belongs to Uma (Jaya Bhaduri), his attraction for the voice and its owner conflate, and he marries her hastily.

Subir introduces Uma to playback singing, but is helplessly jealous when Uma turns out to be more successful than him. Uma doesn’t care for the fame and success that her voice has acquired for her, but pines for her husband’s company. Her singing voice is Uma’s identity, but it is snugly wound up in her husband and his voice. Even the songs she sings reflect the changing dynamic she shares with Subir.

The lines she croons, Piya aise roothe, ki hothon se mere sangeet rootha (My beloved is so angry that music has fled has fled my lips), turn out to be eerily prophetic when a heartbroken Uma returns to her village and miscarries her baby. She descends into a dreary silence that is broken only when her husband reclaims his lost identity by singing on a public platform.

Tere Mere Milan, Abhimaan (1973).

It is not uncommon for female characters to lose their voices along with losing the affection of the men they love. But in Imtiaz Ali’s Jab We Met (2007), both Aditya and Geet slide into silent depression when they have difficult break-ups, and wind up helping each other find their voices.

When Geet (Kareena Kapoor) first meets the serious and troubled Aditya (Shahid Kapoor), her effervescent personality consistently bubbles over into her speech. Her chatty monologue drives Aditya to insult her, reflecting the attitude that men are taught to have about women’s tendency for conversation. But Geet’s chirpiness eventually inspires Aditya to rediscover his own singing voice. When he encounters her months later, Aditya finds that a recent heartbreak has left her bereft. He helps Geet reclaim her voice and chutzpah and reunites her with her ex-boyfriend. Geet’s voice changes as her personality evolves, and also helps her understand which man she really desires.

Jab We Met (2007).

The voices of female characters in Hindi films are bound up either in the men in their lives or in their own bodies. When they find their voices, they often do it by reclaiming ownership over their bodies and standing up to the men who oppress them.

In Mirch Masala (1987), a lecherous tax collector loots a local village and regularly picks its women to satiate his sexual appetite. Sonbai (Smita Patil) is the only one to stand up against the Subedar. While other women flee his rampaging henchmen, she uses her voice to belittle him. Her powerful presence appeals to the Subedar, and he propositions her. An insulted Sonbai retaliates by slapping the Subedar, who orders his goons to chase the woman down for him.

With several men in hot pursuit, Sonbai winds up seeking refuge in a masala factory populated by women. Because she raises her voice, both literally and metaphorically, the other women at the factory eventually stand up for themselves as well.

While the climax features the other village women screaming as they retaliate against the Subhedar by flinging chilly powder into his eyes, Sonbai is eerily silent. Her voice resonates in the fervent screams of the other women who have finally found the courage to rebel.

Mirch Masala (1987).
We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Watch Ruchir's journey: A story that captures the impact of accessible technology

Accessible technology has the potential to change lives.

“Technology can be a great leveller”, affirms Ruchir Falodia, Social Media Manager, TATA CLiQ. Out of the many qualities that define Ruchir as a person, one that stands out is that he is an autodidact – a self-taught coder and lover of technology.

Ruchir’s story is one that humanises technology - it has always played the role of a supportive friend who would look beyond his visual impairment. A top ranker through school and college, Ruchir would scan course books and convert them to a format which could be read out to him (in the absence of e-books for school). He also developed a lot of his work ethos on the philosophy of Open Source software, having contributed to various open source projects. The access provided by Open Source, where users could take a source code, modify it and distribute their own versions of the program, attracted him because of the even footing it gave everyone.

That is why I like being in programming. Nobody cares if you are in a wheelchair. Whatever be your physical disability, you are equal with every other developer. If your code works, good. If it doesn’t, you’ll be told so.

— Ruchir.

Motivated by the objectivity that technology provided, Ruchir made it his career. Despite having earned degree in computer engineering and an MBA, friends and family feared his visual impairment would prove difficult to overcome in a work setting. But Ruchir, who doesn’t like quotas or the ‘special’ tag he is often labelled with, used technology to prove that differently abled persons can work on an equal footing.

As he delved deeper into the tech space, Ruchir realised that he sought to explore the human side of technology. A fan of Agatha Christie and other crime novels, he wanted to express himself through storytelling and steered his career towards branding and marketing – which he sees as another way to tell stories.

Ruchir, then, migrated to Mumbai for the next phase in his career. It was in the Maximum City that his belief in technology being the great leveller was reinforced. “The city’s infrastructure is a challenging one, Uber helped me navigate the city” says Ruchir. By using the VoiceOver features, Ruchir could call an Uber wherever he was and move around easily. He reached out to Uber to see if together they could spread the message of accessible technology. This partnership resulted in a video that captures the essence of Ruchir’s story: The World in Voices.


It was important for Ruchir to get rid of the sympathetic lens through which others saw him. His story serves as a message of reassurance to other differently abled persons and abolishes some of the fears, doubts and prejudices present in families, friends, employers or colleagues.

To know more about Ruchir’s journey, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Uber and not by the Scroll editorial team.