Monday, 3 October, 2022
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Netflix’s Meenakshi Sundareshwar is all about the ‘South Indian aesthetic’. It lacks basics

The 2.5-hour-long film is about Tamil culture made by non-South Indians, who are extremely focused on convincing you otherwise.

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If you’re reading this review to find out what Netflix’s Meenakshi Sundareshwar is about, then welcome to the club.

The film itself is based on a simple premise. Girl meets boy in an arranged setting, likes him, and marries him — it helps that their names combine to form Madurai’s famous temple, Meenakshi Sundareshwar. In fact, that seems to be the main reason why they marry. Then the boy leaves for Bangalore, and for some baffling reason has to pretend he’s a bachelor at his new job. That’s about it.

It feels like the film tries to do several things at once, and fails at all. This is a world with arbitrary rules and no real central conflict — and so the plot ends up trying to sell us problems that aren’t really problems.

The story has sweet details that would be endearing if it didn’t feel so hodge-podge. The titular characters are Meenakshi, played by an effervescent Sanya Malhotra, and Sundareshwar, played subtly by Abhimanyu Dassani, credited in the film as Abhimanyu.

Some of the characters are detailed and well-sketched out. Unfortunately, the protagonist herself is not one of those. She is fun and packs a lot of personality, but we have no insight into her life or her story. She’s defined almost entirely in response to her newlywed husband, who is so bland that it makes us wonder why they’re even married. There are some surprisingly heartwarming moments when Meenakshi stands up for herself and calls out sexist behaviour, but none of these moments actually contribute to any of the characters’ growth arcs.

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Creating a ‘South Indian aesthetic’

Meenakshi Sundareshwar is basically a 2.5-hour-long onslaught of stereotypes about South India. It’s a film about Tamil culture made by non-South Indians, who are extremely focused on convincing you otherwise. They attempt to do so by converting Tamil culture — and essentialising South Indian culture — into an ‘aesthetic’.

And so, South Indians only wear mundus and heavy Kanjeevaram sarees. They’re all equally knowledgeable about the quintessential South Indian food — bananas. Tamil Brahmin women sit on tiled floors doing household chores decked out in silk and gold. One old thatha actually blows a conch to get everyone’s attention.

Don’t get me wrong, the film is definitely an improvement on Bollywood’s previous attempts to represent South India. It’s visually stunning. Meenakshi always looks like she’s walking out of a jewellery ad, and the shots of fried food and filter coffee are beautiful. The scenes are framed exquisitely, and the actors look comfortable on screen.

It’s a well-researched film, just not well executed. The cultural references, from deliberately using the Tamil word for “chaddi” to the way certain meals are eaten, are relatable but feel inauthentic. The South Indian plot point only serves as an aesthetic tool: Madurai itself is hidden behind its two most famous symbols (the temple and the drink jigarthanda) and random shots of scenery.

Meenakshi and Sundareshwar’s families are clearly well off, and live in big mansions and wear beautiful clothes. They regularly do fancy pujas and always offer prayers to the temple, even if they’re just driving by. The fact that we know where they’re situated caste-wise but not class-wise betrays a superficial understanding of South Indian social dynamics. There was so much room for some commentary.

If we’re to believe that Rajinikanth is as important to the plot as the filmmakers believe, then the least they can do is pronounce Thalaivar correctly.

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No real resolution

As the movie — and the protagonists’ marriage — drags on, you’re left wondering what the film is trying to say. Is it about long-distance relationships? Is it about urban-vs-rural life? Is it about the gendered expectation of managing family commitments with professional commitments?

There’s even a strange, deranged boss who hates marriage, has a daily word limit, and unironically welcomes Sundar and his colleagues to the rat race. Is the film trying to make a statement about capitalism?

Honestly, I don’t know.

My real question is: Who is this film for? Is it meant to signal a pan-Indian film, rising above cultures to be relatable for all? I can only assume that the dialogue, which jarringly switches between mispronounced Tamil and Hindi, is meant to flow. Instead, it clashes; a reminder of the language politics between the two.

Netflix and OTT platforms have changed our consumption of regional and international cinema and television just by making it available to us. So why this cringy collaboration? If Bollywood wanted to say that South Indian languages are as important to the industry as Hindi, I’m not sure casting non-South Indian actors to awkwardly speak Tamil-Hindi puts the point across. It only proves how socialised audiences are to Hindi or English as default languages, and how hard South Indian actors work to deliver Hindi films authentically.

The film introduces several subplots, none of which seem to reach a satisfying conclusion. Meenakshi has one friend, who unceremoniously appears and disappears from the storyline. Sundar’s sister has a clandestine relationship that has no bearing on the plot. There’s a northeastern character who doesn’t meet the stereotype of being musical but stereotypically has a girlfriend. There’s also an app being developed.

The other bone I have to pick is the way Madurai is depicted as rural, juxtaposed against modern Bengaluru. Meenakshi is a modern girl in a traditional town, and Sundar is a traditional boy in a modern town. But despite her confidence and personality, Meenakshi is not allowed to live a modern life. She might be a business consultant, but she still wears only stiff silk saris and eats in messes. Sundar, on the other hand, looks uncomfortable and out of place in his corporate office but seems to have accepted it as his way of life. Whenever the film moves from Sundareshwar in Bengaluru to Meenakshi in Madurai, the audience is propelled into what feels like the past, depicted in sepia tones.

Maybe this is the new Bollywood: Still pure entertainment, but with a lot more commitment to cultural context.

Views are personal.

(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)

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