Sunflower review: Strong roots, this Sunflower blossoms into a fine social satire

Sunil Grover regales in his innocent ‘Mr. Bean’-like avatar. Writer Chaitally Parmar, director Vikas Bahl’s crime, thriller dramedy subtly questions the inclusive, pluralistic values of the so-called progressive Indian society.

Rating: 4 / 5

Streaming on Zee5 from 11 June.

Cast: Sunil Grover, Ranvir Shorey, Girish Kulkarni, Mukul Chadda, Radha Bhatt, Saloni Khanna

By Mayur Lookhar

Walk down a dense locality in a city like Mumbai and you’d probably be gazing at floral creations. No, it isn’t the fragrance of flowers but most likely concrete structures bearing flowery names. Old or new, storey or scrapers, Mumbai’s co-operative housing societies are home to millions of people.  The city is often deemed liberal with migrants said to be finding freedom that perhaps eludes them in their native.

The concept of ‘co-operative’ society, Mumbai city’s inclusiveness is epitomised famously through Gokuldham – the all friendly, cultured cooperative housing society from the popular Indian television sitcom Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah . That narrative though is fiction as Mumbai’s co-operative housing societies largely speak a different tale.  Director, producer Vikas Bahl’s Sunflower Co-operative Housing Society though is no Gokuldham.  If not expose, Sunflower [2021] questions the inclusive, pluralistic culture of Mumbai city. More than a co-operative society, Sunflower is more apt to be called a housing ‘complex’. 

Unfortunately for Sunflower, this complexity only aggravates due to a tragedy.  A murder sends shockwaves in the society.  The one killed is a portly, wealthy man Raj Kapoor [Ashwin Kaushal].  With no sign of any forced entry into the apartment, nor CCTV footages catching any outsider slithering into Sunflower that fateful morning, the needle of suspicion falls on a few neighbours, chiefly lead protagonist Sonu Singh [Sunil Grover], an innocent, lonely bachelor.  Though a sincere hardworking sales manager, poor Sonu is deemed a schmuck by most at work and residence.

Shaken by the murder of Raj Kapoor, Mr. Dilip Iyer [Ashish Vidyarthi], an influential member from the managing committee, reckons that the society should set its house in order and restore its lost Indian culture.

There’s no real mystery attached to the murder here, but writer Chaitally Parmar’s Sunflower [2021] blooms through the inner beauty, innocence, fragrance of its protagonist, the idiosyncrasies of its many slice-of-life characters, and its situational comedy. The dramedy is an apt social satire reflecting life in a housing society in a cosmopolitan city like Mumbai.

Parma’s social satire story is turned into a highly engaging, entertaining screenplay by Bahl.  Veteran adman Rahul Sengupta makes his directorial debut with Sunflower. Together with Bahl, Sengupta succeeds in helping Parmar’s Sunflower blossom to its potential.

What makes this Sunflower beautiful though is its plethora of intriguing characters.  Sonu Singh the sweet, good-hearted soul who works as a sales manager at a cosmetic supplements firm.  Sonu’s innocence, mild-mannerism is childlike – ala Mr. Bean [Rowan Atkinson’s iconic character from the British sitcom Mr. Bean].  He’s not witty but funny.  He’s sincere, hardworking unlike the devious, insecure creatures around him.  Maybe he lacks the charisma, the chivalry, the sarcasms, but mama’s boy is happy to be just himself.  Better to be a natural than pretentious.  His humane qualities make him more apt to be named Raj Kapoor than Sonu. In contrast, the deceased neighbour who plays Raj Kapoor is anything but like his popular namesake. 

Beneath that 24×7 smile, generous, beautiful heart lies a lonely soul.  Sonu embodies the many not-so-cool, average looking but good-hearted souls who perhaps aren’t valued much now in this materialistic world.  He doesn’t show his feelings, nor does he cry in solitude, yet Sunil Grover brings a certain vulnerability to his character.

Having endured a tough break-up, Sonu’s now willing to break free from a set image.  He seeks acceptance from the cool folks around him.  He crushes on his office colleague Aanchal [Saloni Khanna], seeks friendship with pretty, cool women in Sunflower society. He no longer likes his mother calling him when he is surrounded by pretty women. He won’t say it, but you can see the uneasiness on his face. Grover’s natural jovial demeanour helps him play Sonu Singh with elan.

Sonu’s the good boy of Sunflower, but through the other members, Parmar and Bahl question the pluralistic culture of Sunflower.  Whilst the society chairman, Mr.Wadhwani [Vikash Khurana], is a liberal soul, but he is often out-panch-ed by the five remaining self-proclaimed guardians of morality in the managing committee.  Leading the ‘panch’ brigade is Dilip Iyer, who as mentioned earlier, wants to restore Indian culture in Sunflower.  (In no way is the reviewer passing a judgment on any panchayat culture in India’s small towns, villages).

They can’t evict existing members, or tenants, but Iyer has resolved to usher in a positive change in the near future.  This desired change though smacks of gender, social, racial and other bias.  “No bachelor, no divorcees, no filmy people, no gays, this society should only be for cultured and corporate families”, Iyer proclaims in his manifesto in the final episode of season 1.  Vidyarthi doesn’t quite have the Tamil accent, but he does a commendable job.

The intriguing aspect in Sunflower is the portrayal of its female characters.  Irrespective of their socio-economic status, Parmar, Bahl’s ladies exhibit certain traits of lust, greed, vanity.   

The one that amuses the most is Kamini [Annapurna Soni], the deceased Raj Kapoor’s maid. Married to a drunkard, Kamini busts myths about her ilk by having an extra-marital affair with the brawny Sunflower security guard [played by Navdeep Tomar].  When cornered by Inspector Tambe [Girish Kulkarni], Kamini unflinchingly says, “I fell in love with his [watchman’s] body.” Bodily desire is no slave to one’s economic status.  

Aanchal [Saloni Khanna], Sonu’s colleague perhaps justifies the diva billing. There’s Juhi [Pallavi Das], a simple working woman who finds herself in a limbo when her boss asks her to dump Sonu in favour of his suitable rich boy.  There’s Mrs Ahuja [Radha Bhatt] a demure lady by the day, but kinky at night. And there are the girlfriends of inspector Tambe who seek FWB (Friends with Benefits).  Add to it, the former Mrs. Kapoor [Shonali Nagrani], now living with her late husband’s younger brother.

Given that Bahl’s had his issues with the opposite sex, you fear is Sunflower tilting towards misogyny? Hell no. The story idea belongs to a woman.  Through these characters, Parmar and Bahl expose the hypocrisy of the sanskaris [cultured lot].

At the receiving end of this moral, cultural bashing is not just Sonu, but Justina [Dayena Erappa], the free-spirited new resident who has her character questioned by Iyer.  Ironically, Iyer is detested by his own daughter Paddy [Ria Nalavade], who sports a funky hairdo and crushes on Justina.  

The most likable of all the female characters is Gurleen [Simran Nerurakar] the Sikh housewife who fled from Chandigarh to purse her singing dream. Like Sonu, Gurleen is an innocent, pure soul too.

Each character is well etched out and gets more than its fair share of the Sunflower pie.  However, you do wonder is Sunflower overburdened with too many characters?  Sonu has limited presence in certain episodes as other characters and their life stories take centre stage.  It’s rare to have a web series that has multiple protagonists.

Could the show’s makers have trimmed season 1?  Maybe but in no way do the stories of the other characters gloss over the core plot.  Fair to say, this wouldn’t have been possible with a star in the lead.  Neither Sunil Grover nor Sonu Singh would mind the divided attention.

The cast list is endless, but it would be unfair to not talk about the two cops – Inspector S Digendra [Ranvir Shorey] and his deputy Tambe.  Shorey showed his mean, sinister side as inspector Kolte in Lootcase [2020], but inspector Digendra is a completely different kettle of fish. He is soft spoken, calm and meticulous. For a man of authority, he is not one to throw his weight around.  Digendra is respected, not feared by his colleagues. The man has an emotional side to him.  Despite a fractious relationship with his wife, he plays a doting father to a young boy.

In contrast, Tambe is freed from the shackles of marriage. He loves fine company, never shy to mix work with pleasure. Girish Kulkarni is loved in his quirky cop avatars right from the days of Ugly [2013]. The Maharashtrian revels in the colourful life of Tambe. Through Digendra and Tambe, we are privy to the tough lives of cops in a populous city like Mumbai. Shorey and Kulkarni play their parts with aplomb.

There’s seldom a dull moment in the eight episodes of season one.  Sunflower is a shining example of how a simple murder plot can be turned into a highly engaging narrative, if backed by the right talent, gripping screenplay, dialogues.  The show’s theme music is exemplary, and so, too, its background score. However, the rapturous tunes playing to Sonu’s moments of chivalry partly rekindle memories of Belle Stars’ Iko Iko track.  Remember how it inspired Rajesh Roshan to create the Suit Boot Mein Aaya Kanhaiya track from Kishen Kanhaiya [1990]?

Indian web content has grown in quantity but very few offer real quality.  There maybe more intense tales told in series format in India before, but not many season 1 captivates you like Vikas Bahl’s Sunflower.  This reviewer can’t wait for this Sunflower to bloom in full swing in season two.  This OTT network has endured tough few weeks for backing a big budget star release, one that was even panned by the superstar’s kin.  It cannot match the same hype, but we trust this Sunflower [2021] to usher in a genuine audience, acclaim for Zee5.

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